Le jour se lève was Marcel Carné’s fourth collaboration with screenwriter and poet Jacques Prévert and their third entry in the poetic realism cinema movement, following their vanguard Drôle de drame and Port of Shadows. Both of those films were widely admired, but Le jour se lève turned into something bigger, one of the most influential French films of the prewar period and to this day an unvarnished classic. Poetic realism’s bleak outlook reflected the waning of Popular Front idealism as fascism began to spread throughout Europe. Carné’s vision was not explicitly political, however. Foreshadowing film noir’s more oblique pessimism and flashback-laden regret, Le jour se lève starred Jean Gabin as working-class everyman François, who murders in the name of love. Still, it was too much for French authorities, who saw the emotional subtext as potentially subversive. The film was banned in December 1939, as war approached, and again under Nazi occupation.
Vital to the realization of Carné’s realist-romantic vision was Alexandre Trauner, the self-proclaimed “artisan” production designer, who had an enormous influence on French cinema in the thirties and who would work with Carné on the classic Children of Paradise (1945). Constructing sets true to working-class milieus while also helping to impart character psychology through careful attention to atmospheric details, Trauner was able to manifest Carné’s twin impulses. It was Trauner who insisted on constructing François’ apartment without movable walls—making filming extremely difficult—and shooting real bullets through them for the film’s finale. And his demands paid off: the claustrophobic, vividly threatening environment perfectly evokes François’ mental state.
By 1939, Gabin was already the most popular French actor of his generation. Rugged, handsome, and convincing playing the kinds of common people who flocked to his movies, he is undoubtedly the soul of Carné’s film, which hinges on the sympathy it is able to draw for a perpetrator of a passionate crime. Gabin uses his talents to magnificent effect here, winning us over without ever forcing innocence or luckless ignorance. Many have attempted to imitate his artless brand of masculine sensitivity, but none has ever succeeded quite so grandly.