I shall never forget the first time I saw this film, also known as "Pig Across Paris" or "Four Bags Full" as it was titled at the repertory cinema called The Juliet just off campus from my rather select girls' college. However it wasn't this remarkable (and now classic) movie that stayed in my memory, but the second feature (those were the days) shown with it -- Sacha Guitry's "Pearls of the Crown" (1937). That weird confection haunted me for years and you can read about it in my archives: http://prettypinkpattyspictures.blogspot.co.uk/2006/01/pearls-of-crown-1937.html
While I have managed to watch "Pearls" several many times over the years and at long last have my own copy complete with subtitles courtesy of the Criterion Guitry box set, a visit to the BFI last week provided only my third viewing of the above film and I must confess I had forgotten how grand a flick it is. It draws in its black and white cinematography, especially effective in portraying Paris by Night, a warts-and-all portrait of life in the city during the German occupation of World War II. On its release it was reviled by many Frenchmen since it neglected to show a population made up of heroic and patriotic resistance fighters, but rather a subdued people trying to make the best of rationing and the bleak conditions of life. The tale concerns an out-of-work taxi driver, cunningly played by the French comic actor Bourvil. (Parenthetically here, I have always been fascinated by the vast number of French cinema actors and actresses who forged a career using a single name; originally a music hall entertainer, Bourvil chose his stage name from the region of Normandy where he was raised). Struggling to make ends meet and to look after his jealously-guarded wife, his character, Martin, contracts with a black market grocer to transport four suitcases containing a freshly-slaughtered pig to a restaurateur across the city. With his usual accomplice nicked by the gendarmes, he hones in on a scruffy chap in the local bistro to take his place. This chap Grandgil, played by the magnificent Jean Gabin, describes himself as a painter -- and Martin assumes him to be a down-and-out house-painter. Grandgil agrees to the expedition and proceeds to bully the miserly pig-provider -- a small but telling role for another classic French comic actor Louis de Funes -- into paying over the odds as he casually begins to destroy his hoarded stock of groceries.
And so their six-mile trek begins as they are harassed by nosy policeman, a growing number of sniffing mongrels, and the German patrols, a journey initially told jocularly but eventually becoming more serious as their actual liberty becomes threatened. Towards the end of the evening they call by Grandgil's rather luxurious flat, where Martin discovers that his companion is actually a very successful artist -- although I personally thought that most of the paintings cluttering his studio resembled a selection of forgeries, done in a variety of recognizable styles. It becomes clear that while the weasly Martin is smuggling the pig meat for much-needed money, Grandgil is doing it for kicks and has no qualms at savagely attacking wherever he senses hypocrisy. This role is something of a revelation for Gabin, who throughout his career played larger than life characters and who always brings a daunting presence; however he could never be described as a comic actor. His treatment of the finally fraught situation here, after the pair are picked up by the Germans, makes one feel sorry for the half-cringing, half-cocky Martin, and less sympathetic to Gabin's unsympathetic toughness. Before its final coda, the film appears to end with Martin's being rounded up for a concentration camp together with other locals after an officer is murdered, while Grandgil's fame saves him from the same fate courtesy of a fawning German commandant. A final scene is tacked on to show that Martin luckily did survive the war, but the class distinction between him and Grandgil is more obvious than ever.
Nicely directed by the prolific Claude Autant-Lara from an original novel by Marcel Ayme, I have only recently discovered that the director and his screenwriters drastically changed the tale's ending. In the original, Martin apparently kills Grandgil in his studio, fed up with Gabin's arrogance and swagger, and is subsequently arrested for his murder. I do prefer the version on display here, with its not-so-faint air of vinegar, anger, and desperation.