Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Les Portes de la nuit (1946)

As far as I know this was Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevost's last collaboration, although both continued to work in film for some years, and it is of interest for a number of reasons. It originated as a short ballet which Prevert wrote in 1945 for the choreographer Roland Petit, which was both a critical and popular success, and the film adaptation was eagerly anticipated. The stars of choice were, believe it or not, Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin (they did indeed appear in another film together) but both begged off the project. Their replacements were the somewhat younger and inexperienced Nathalie Nattier and Yves Montand -- the latter best known as a singer rather than an actor at the time.

The story is in the Carne-Prevost tradition of doomed lovers -- strangers who meet in the night to fall in love and then lose each other -- and the setting is a very drab post-war Parisian neighbourhood populated by very ordinary characters. In fact Carne was quoted as saying that if he could not have his choice of film stars, he would make the environment the star of the film. Unfortunately this did not fit in with what the public of the time wanted after the grey war years and the film does not allow for any escapism from the harsh realities of post-Liberation Paris. Looking at it now, we can appreciate its place in the filmmakers' canon, with its poetic veneer and moody photography; it even has a quasi-supernatural character in a foreseeing tramp called Destiny. I liked the film a lot, although again it was probably just a tad too long for the sad tale.

What threw me most however was the theme music which we in the English-speaking world recognise as Johnny Mercer's "Autumn Leaves" but which was originally a French tune played in counterpoint to the action here. Montand, who seemed huge and whom I barely recognized since I associate him with his much later roles, doesn't actually sing the song, but it is reprised at various stages throughout and the worldweary lyrics include the film's title: The Gates of Night. The other thing that briefly confused me was the appearance of Pierre Brasseur as Nattier's estranged husband, whom I was convinced I saw in a film a few days back -- some sixty years on; turns out that was his son Claude Brasseur, now 70ish, but immediately visible in his much younger father here. There is also an early role for Serge Reggiani as a nasty collaborator who meets his comeuppance as Destiny foretold.
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