Posted by Greg Ferrara on November 25, 2016
We all have performers or movies that grant us entry into genres, eras, or styles. Spencer Tracy was one of the actors who got me hooked into classic cinema. Boris Karloff hooked me into horror. And Yves Montand was the first international star I ever really knew. Like many stars appealing to a new generation, it was his later work that I saw first and precisely what interested me in seeing his earlier work. I didn’t take too much notice of him at first but as he began appearing in more and more of the movies I was watching on Saturday afternoons in my childhood, I began to wonder where this fine actor got his start. For Montand, it started with singing and live performing until he was discovered by Edith Piaf. For me, it started with Z (1969).
Z was the first movie I saw with Montand and it was a revelation. The movie that is, not Montand. The movie seemed disruptive and its overt political nature, combined with its documentary style filmmaking fascinated me. Since Montand was the top name in it, he stuck in my mind. When I saw Grand Prix (1966) on TV just a few months later, I saw him again and decided to look into the matter further.
“Looking into the matter” was no easy thing back then. No internet, no online movie catalogs, no video stores, no cable. I started with the encyclopedia and ended up at the library. The encyclopedia wasn’t much help (it wasn’t like Wikipedia, you see, and if you weren’t famous for at least twenty plus years, you weren’t in it, and since my family encyclopedia was from the mid-sixties, Montand wasn’t in it) but the library was. There were books on all sorts of cinema and I spent most of my youth perusing every one I could find. Reading up on French cinema, I discovered Montand had worked with Henri-Georges Clouzot in a film called The Wages of Fear (1953). Having seen Les Diaboliques (1955), and loving it, I was excited to see this work and, as luck would have (quite frankly, incredible luck), there was a film festival at the local college and one of the films they were showing was The Wages of Fear. My mom and I went to see it and it was an amazing film experience. Amazing for several reasons, of course. One was the thrilling sense of life and death that encompasses the second half of the movie as the characters transport nitro-glycerin in trucks across rugged landscape. Another was the way the story weaves together these desperate characters into a team of men looking out for themselves and each other as they do everything they can to survive and profit. And then there was Montand, looking like a pop idol (he was) navigating the apocalypse. He’s lusted after by Linda (Vera Clouzot), envied by the men in his village and elevated to a hero by the oil company whose fortunes he saves. He wears a kerchief around his neck, a sleeveless tee around his lean torso, and damned if his hair isn’t perfect even when he’s beating a guy down on a dusty road. It was like watching a combination of Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant: small and sinewy, and streetwise, but sophisticated and urbane.
That Montand was so talented in so many areas, especially as a crooner in his early days, but known primarily to the world as an international movie star is, for me, a testament to his charisma and charm as an actor. He could be famous for so many things and so many singers who become actors remain most famous for their singing but Montand became known as an actor more than anything else. He aged gracefully precisely because, unlike many other stars of then and now, he seemed unconcerned with the types of characters he played as he aged. That is, accepting that his star was dimming he took the great character parts that came his way. One of those characters became the entry way to discovery for many other movie fans in the eighties, César Soubeyran (Le Papet), in Jean de Florette (1986) and Manon of the Spring (1986).
Montand’s performance as the patriarch willing to go to deceptive extremes to keep his family line going is the best of his career. It’s the decades of experience that make his Papet both real and heartbreaking. It’s the kind of performance one needs a lifetime to get to. Laurence Olivier once said that a young actor could play King Lear if he learned the lines and had the talent, but he couldn’t understand the character unless he had lived a full and long life first. That’s how Montand’s performance feels in both films, essentially part one and two of a continuing story. It feels like a man who has lived and lost and it all comes through to the viewer. In fact, Montand lost his wife, the internationally famous Simone Signoret, while filming and surely that made its way into the work as well.
Yves Montand had such a long and varied career it seems hopelessly inadequate to devote a few paragraphs to him in the hopes of painting an accurate picture of the man. Which is precisely why I’m not trying to do that. Montand is still a mystery to me in many ways. Being an international star, he was constantly pulled in different directions by completely different audiences, playing certain strengths to the first and other strengths to the second. He was so big he even co-starred with Marilyn Monroe in what would be her last completed film, Let’s Make Love (1960). But for me, he remained an enigma. The man I first saw in Z is completely different from the cavalier man’s man of The Wages of Fear and even more different from the older, finally broken man of Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring. He commanded my attention and kept me coming back. I’ll never know who the real Montand was but no matter; I have his movies, and a lifetime of performances.
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