It’s one thing to watch sturdy, dexterously charming Jean Gabin as a working-class joe who doesn’t mind dangerous manual labor, figuring that’s his lot in life. But to see him as a man undone by his love for a noncommittal woman? That’s nearly unbearable, and it’s the linchpin of Marcel Carné’s extraordinary, long-unseen 1939 crime drama Le Jour Se Lève (Daybreak), playing at Film Forum in a glistening restoration that includes footage removed by Vichy censors 75 years ago.
Gabin plays François, who works all day with hardcore sandblasting equipment. Sand particles drift into his lungs, causing a wretched cough, but he doesn’t complain: He’s too much in love with Françoise (the comely Jacqueline Laurent), who lifts his spirits with little more than her shy comma of a smile — though he also feels a kinship with no-nonsense stage performer Clara (the haughtily vibrant Arletty).
We learn of all that only after the movie’s startling opening sequence, in which a flashily dressed man, already dead, tumbles down the stairs of a working-class tenement. François’s culpability in that death unfolds in flashback before us, like a slow-moving sunset.
Le Jour Se Lève, the fourth collaboration between Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, is gorgeously melancholy, and not just because of its tragic love-triangle plot: Released less than three months before France and Britain declared war on Germany, it vibrates with unspoken foreboding and despair — but it’s mostly in Gabin’s face, solemn and watchful, that we see the signs of the gathering storm.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 12, 2014