best film:  The Grand Illusion from Jean Renoir though Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir gives it a close chase. Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece features a staggering narrative, three (3) strong performances (Pierre Fresnay. Erich von Stroheim, and nobody better than Jean Gabin), and that trademark gliding camera to catch and frame it all. It is a story set during The Great War – divide, not so much between countries, but between class with “ a wall between us”. This is a companion to Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) with the camera pacing around suiting the ensemble sort of nature of the cast and the storytelling. Gabin gets the heartfelt scene walking into the widow’s bedroom and embracing her as Renoir uses the open doors to create a frame within the camera frame.


Gabin gets the big, solo scene losing his mind in solitary prison – the sort of Steve McQueen The Great Escape scene/role with even more drama.


best performance:    La Bete Humaine but this is highly debatable. This category is particularly tough for Gabin because in his two best films, The Grand Illusion and Le Plasir – he shares the screen and narrative focus with others. Ophüls’ film, in particular, is an anthology film. And in The Grand Illusion, Gabin is just one story and there are long sequences carried by Fresnay and von Stroheim. In just about all of the other films listed below, Gabin is in just about every scene (and he is superb in each of them). In La Bete Humaine, Gabin portrays the epitome of working class, rugged masculinity. It is an architype rarely if ever done so well before and copied countless times since.


La Bete Humaine (1938) is Renoir’s film sandwiched between two masterpieces – clearly an artist at the height of his powers (and Gabin was at the height of his as well). Renoir opens it with a seven (7) minute sort of short film with no dialouge, just the sights and sounds of the pending train coming (and pending doom) – all crispy edited. This film often gets discussed as an influence or precursor to film noir.


stylistic innovations/traits:  Jean Gabin was born at the turn of the 20th century in 1904 and is the best actor from the Jean Renoir 1930s French era even if he does not have a role in Renoir’s single best film (The Rules of the Game – 1939). There are only nine (9) archiveable films for Gabin – but there are no weak links. His two lesser films in the archives are both from Jean Renoir (most a definitely a sign of high quality).  Gabin missed some opportunities with the war years during World War II. Gabin had a superior back half of the 1930s (he is just the best actor on the planet from 1937-1939), and a fine start to the 1950s, but missed an entire decade’s worth of archiveable films (the 1940s) in his prime at least partially due to the war. He only made six (6) films in the 1940s when he should have made many more (he made over 30 in the 1930s). Sadly, Gabin also has himself to blame on at least one big film – he turned down Jean-Pierre Melville for the lead in Bob le Flambeur (subsequently going to Roger Duchesne). Still, Gabin is a born leader (he would have killed it as Bob) – it is difficult to picture him as a wing man or subordinate in part of a larger crew. He is masculine, strong and has an incredibly screen presence. He is blue collar and very street. He is in two masterpieces, and as mentioned, there is really no also-ran entry in his archiveable filmography. Performances one through six (Le Jour Se Leve) on his list are nearly interchangeable and he made four (4) films with the Jean Renoir – a genius.


from Pepe le Moko (1937) – Gabin with the slick hair, tie and black undershirt. He strolls through crowded streets tasting food from the markets like he is Don Corleone. He is in fully command here – owning the camera.


directors worked with: Jean Renoir (4), Marcel Carné (2), Max Ophüls (1)


top five performances:

  1. La Bete Humaine
  2. The Grand Illusion
  3. Port of Shadows
  4. Pepe le Moko
  5. Touchez Pas au Grisbi


archiveable films

1936- The Lower Depths
1937- The Grand Illusion
1937- Pepe le Moko
1938- La Bete Humaine
1938- Port of Shadows
1939- Le Jour Se Leve
1952- Le Plaisir
1954- Touchez Pas au Grisbi
1955- French Cancan