On Film Noir, Poetic Realism and “The Myth of Gabin”


If you are a fan of film noir, and who isn’t, I suggest checking out the French film movement from the 1930s known as Poetic Realism. Noir fanatics are attracted to the genre’s dark romanticism with its haunting fatalism, melancholy mood and doomed characters—conventions shared with Poetic Realism. Until the end of February, FilmStruck is streaming seven films under the theme French Poetic Realism, including three featuring Jean Gabin. Gabin has been compared to Humphrey Bogart, not because they resemble each other, or employ similar acting styles, but because both became icons of the silver screen. In France, Gabin in his working-class cloth cap is an icon representing Poetic Realism, while Bogart in his fedora and trench coat is the face of film noir.

Ginette Vincendeau in her La Vie Est la Nous: French Cinema and the Popular Front, 1935-38, claimed that Jean Gabin was the only French star of the period, referring to the enormity of his popularity. Gabin’s image as the melancholy, ill-fated, working-class anti-hero began with La Bandera (1934), though his stardom came after the international success of Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937) and Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937). Fans lined up to see him play the outsider or fugitive from justice at odds with a world mired in corruption. His ill-fated characters longed to escape their circumstances or their malevolent destiny, usually through the love of a woman, but any hopes for redemption were dashed and any dreams unattainable. Gabin embodied his star image so perfectly that scholar André Bazin dubbed him “the tragic hero of contemporary cinema,” while critics and reviewers referred repeatedly to his star image as “the myth of Gabin.”


The three Gabin films available through FilmStruck are Pépé le Moko, La Bête Humaine (1938) and Remorques (1941). Pépé le Moko is based on a real-life French criminal who eluded the police by living in a native district known as the Casbah in the city of Algiers. A real ladies man, he supposedly bragged that if the police killed him, “300 widows would attend my funeral.” Gabin’s masculine presence was perfect for the role, which would cement his star image. Pépé falls for a young girl named Gaby, played by Mireille Balin, who represents his chance for redemption.

Balin and Gabin have a nice chemistry, and they reteamed for Jean Gremillon’s Gueule d’Amour (1937). If her name is not familiar, the reason was her tragic life. A love affair with a German officer during the Occupation proved her downfall. After the Normandy Invasion, Balin and her lover tried to flee France for Italy, but they were captured near the border by Resistance fighters. The Resistance was not merciful on collaborators, and members of the group beat and raped her. Her companion was likely killed, though she was never informed of his fate. Upon her return to Paris, she was forbidden to work as an actress for a year. She appeared in one more film, La Dernière Chevauchée (1947), before ill health forced her into seclusion. Over the next few years, she suffered from typhus, meningitis, a stroke and a disfiguring skin disease. She died in 1968, penniless and forgotten.

Most know that Pépé le Moko was remade in Hollywood as Algiers (1938), starring Charles Boyer. But, Pépé will forever be immortalized by the Warner Bros. cartoon character Pepe LePew, patterned after Boyer’s portrayal. And, it was Pepe LePew who uttered the infamous line, “You do not have to come with me to the Casbah”—not Boyer or Gabin.


Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine riled many on the political left because of Gabin’s character, a rail worker who is prone to seizures that make him violent. Gabin’s portrait of a disturbed railman was considered a negative depiction of the working class, who had suffered enough during the worldwide Depression. Gabin plays Jacques Lantier, a train engineer who works with a conductor married to a much younger woman. When the conductor discovers his wife’s affair with her wealthy godfather, he kills him during a train journey in a fit of jealousy. The wife witnesses the murder, making her an accomplice. Attracted to the wife, Lantier covers for both of them during the investigation. The wife urges Lantier to kill her husband so they can be free, but she is unaware of his uncontrollable fits of rage. Though the plot is lurid, La Bête Humaine is notable for capturing the enormously tense atmosphere of pre-war France. It is also a narrative that would be right at home in the world of film noir.


In Remorques (1941), directed by Jean Grémillon, Gabin stars as a married tugboat captain. The job of his boat and crew is to rescue ships and men stranded at sea off the coast of Brittany, usually in “stormy waters,” which is the rough translation of the title. When his understanding wife discovers she has a heart condition, she keeps it to herself to prevent further stress and worry. André’s love for his sainted wife is tested after he rescues the alluring Catherine on stormy waters, now a metaphor for André’s marriage.


Remorques proved to be Gabin’s last association with Poetic Realism. In September 1939, the production shut down because of the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Production resumed in the spring but stopped again when France surrendered to Germany in June 1940. Grémillon finally finished Remorques the following summer. By that time, Gabin, who refused to work under the Nazis, had fled to Hollywood.

Gabin made two films in Hollywood, Moontide (1942), directed in part by Fritz Lang, and Strange Confession (1944), in which the actor was re-teamed with Julien Duvivier, also in exile. The studios made use of Gabin’s pre-existing star image for both roles, with Moontide generally classified as an early film noir. The link between Poetic Realism and film noir becomes direct at that point. However, the French movement and the Hollywood genre are not the same. In film noir, characters are at the mercy of their temptations, desires and greedy ambitions; they contribute to the corruption of the world they inhabit. In the French films, the characters succumb to a malaise, melancholy or pessimism that is beyond their doing. Noir’s quintessential protagonist is a detective figure who investigates a crime that reveals our cold, cruel world; the protagonist in Poetic Realism is a passive victim of a cold, cruel romance.


Gabin did not get along in Hollywood, the proverbial fish out of water. He also embarked on a tempestuous love affair with Marlene Dietrich, sending him into a freefall not unlike his movie characters. Jealous of her many former lovers, and unaccustomed to the Hollywood celebrity machine, the French actor was dragged through the hot spots of Tinseltown while he fretted over the fate of his country. Finally, he pulled a few diplomatic strings to join Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces out of London. Gabin survived the war but not Dietrich. Their relationship disintegrated in 1946.

During the mid-1950s, his fading career was revived by Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954), which recast his star image to establish him as the patriarch of French crime movies. He enjoyed a long and fruitful career, appearing in almost 100 movies and working well into the 1970s. He rivals only Jean-Paul Belmondo and Gérard Depardieu as France’s most internationally famous film star.

Susan Doll

9 Responses On Film Noir, Poetic Realism and “The Myth of Gabin”
Posted By LD : January 23, 2017 6:57 am

A couple of years ago TCM showed a few European films that influenced film noir with Renoir’s LA BETTE HUMAINE representing French Poetic Realism and Lang’s “M” representing German Expressionism. I saw both films for the first time then. I remember LA BETTE had a documentary style opening with the train and Gabin as conductor. I wanted to see it not just for its influence on film noir, but because I had seen so little of Gabin’s work and for Simone Simon. I wanted to see her in something besides CAT PEOPLE, which is not a slam against CAT PEOPLE because I love the movie.

MOONTIDE I found to be a bit offbeat and at times seemed to feel like a play, although atmospheric. An impressive cast, Gabin, Lupino, Mitchell, Rains, and Cowan. I felt, at times, some of the actors may have been miscast but perhaps wanted to work with Gabin because of his stature as an actor in Europe. Regardless, this is a film I would like to revisit.

What a sad and terrible story about Mireille Balin.

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : January 23, 2017 8:06 am

“Moonstruck” is one of those movies I thought could have been better, had it not been for the Production Code. Yet, though they couldn’t make Ida Lupino a prostitute (she was a waitress) the relationship between the Thomas Mitchell character (Tiny) and Gabin (Bobo — who wrote this script, Barnum & Bailey?) SCREAMED closeted gay subtext.

Interesting for being a movie where I didn’t recognize Claude Rains until he spoke.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 23, 2017 10:35 am

Marjorie: Am interested in seeing Moontide after reading about your comments.

Posted By Emgee : January 23, 2017 3:00 pm

La Bête Humaine was remade in 1954 as Human Desire by (who else?) Fritz Lang.

Other prime examples of Poetic Realism starring Jean Gabin are Le quai des brumes(Port of Shadows) and Le jour se lève (Daybreak). The last movie was remade as The Long Night, starring Henry Fonda.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 23, 2017 4:02 pm

Love that my readers are founts of information.

Posted By kingrat : January 23, 2017 5:20 pm

The problem with MOONTIDE is that is was directed by Archie Mayo, not usually an imaginative director, and it does indeed feel like a filmed play. If only Lang had directed it, or Anatole Litvak, or Negulesco, or John Brahm, or probably a bunch of other people. I agree with Marjorie about the Thomas Mitchell character. A great cast, and the film is worth seeing. MY DVR copy was lacking the last third of the movie, so be careful if you get one.

Posted By George : January 26, 2017 3:53 pm

I haven’t been able to watch a Gabin movie since reading Stephen Bach’s biography of Marlene Dietrich, which details how Gabin abused Dietrich during their disastrous affair. (The movie they made together was also a disaster.) A man who beats up a woman deserves no respect.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 26, 2017 5:28 pm

George: I have not read that bio, but I did read Dietrich’s daughter’s bio. I don’t recall her mentioning that unless I missed it. Inexcusable. Did you find Bach a credible biographer? I wonder if I have read anything else by him.

Posted By George : January 26, 2017 11:32 pm

Susan: Bach also wrote an excellent biography of Leni Riefenstahl. He strikes me as credible.

He’s probably best known for his book “Final Cut,” about his experiences as a United Artists executive during the making of HEAVEN’S GATE. The debacle took down UA and Bach’s job as well. He died in 2009.

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