1. La Nuit du carrefour
(Night at the Crossroads) Jean Renoir, 1932
The first film to feature Georges Simenon’s policeman hero Jules Maigret, La Nuit du carrefour harnesses Renoir’s casual early brilliance to Simenon’s trademark atmosphere. The action of this low-budget film – most of it filmed on location and with far from perfect direct sound – takes place at a forlorn crossroads 30km north of Paris, mostly at night. Shots of dark, foggy or rain-soaked exteriors, barely pierced by feeble car lights, match the opacity of the plot.
The almost too elegant Pierre Renoir (the director’s brother) introduces viewers to Maigret’s famous ‘sponge’ detection method, silently soaking up the eerie atmosphere. In his sights are the beautiful Else (Danish actress Winna Winfried) and her ‘brother’ Carl (Georges Koudria). The pair’s literal and metaphorical foreignness contrasts with the Frenchness of the neighbours at the local garage – some played by friends of the director, whose innovative shooting method beautifully serves the emerging noir cinema. As he remarked, “The actors, both amateur and professional, were so influenced by that sinister crossroads that they became part of the background. They enacted mystery in a way they could never have done in the comfort of a studio.” While it disconcerted spectators at the time, La Nuit du carrefour has cemented its place as a cornerstone of French film noir.
2. Pépé le Moko
Julien Duvivier, 1937
At first sight, Pépé le Moko, which takes place in sun-drenched Algiers, belongs to French colonial cinema and is an unlikely candidate for film noir. But this tale of gangster-on-the-run Pépé (Jean Gabin), whose downfall is set in train when he falls for beautiful Parisienne Gaby (Mireille Balin) while hiding out in the Casbah, bears the imprint of many noir narratives. Also noir-tinted is the hold the past has over Pépé and those surrounding him, all steeped in nostalgia and fatalism, including chanteuse Fréhel in her moving song.
More spectacularly, Duvivier’s mise en scène sums up noir aesthetics in his use of chiaroscuro. Cinematographers Jules Kruger and Marc Fossard, influenced by their German expressionist peers, imaginatively exploit the Casbah decor to create striking lighting patterns – including over Gabin’s face. The spotlights that throw ribbons of light on his hair and eyes signal him as poetically ‘other’ and elevate him from rough hoodlum to tragic hero. Described as “one of the most exciting and moving films I can remember seeing” by Graham Greene at the time, Pépé le Moko anticipates American film noir, as seen in the 1938 Hollywood remake Algiers by John Cromwell.
3. La Bête humaine
Jean Renoir, 1938
Renoir’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1890 novel about train driver Jacques Lantier, who has inherited a mental illness from his alcoholic forebears that torments him with murderous impulses, owes its existence to Jean Gabin’s interest in the project (and desire to play the engine driver). The opening sequence, showing him at the controls of the train speeding through Normandy and arriving at Le Havre, has become a cult among rail enthusiasts. La Bête humaine successfully welds a realistic portrayal of camaraderie among railway workers with dark, claustrophobic scenes of Lantier’s fatal attraction to the beautiful Séverine (Simone Simon), leading to murder and suicide.
At the time, many criticised La Bête humaine’s pessimism, seeing it as evidence of Renoir’s estrangement from the left at the end of the Popular Front. Today, it is Renoir and German émigré cinematographer Curt Courant’s visual experimentation that catches our attention – the signature noir motif of contrasting bands of darkness and light, the way light reflects off metallic surfaces and mirrors, bathing the film in a menacing, though poetic, atmosphere. Despite its pessimism, this ‘three-star film’ – Zola, Renoir, Gabin – was a huge success, later remade in Hollywood as Human Desire, directed by Fritz Lang in 1954.
4. Le Jour se lève
(Daybreak) Marcel Carné, 1939
Released in June 1939, Le Jour se lève marks a high point for director Marcel Carné, dialogue writer Jacques Prévert, set designer Alexandre Trauner and star Jean Gabin. With its dark, atmospheric visuals by cinematographer Curt Courant and pervasive sense of fatalism, balanced by the realistic rendering of mundane details, it also represents the culmination of poetic realism, the best-known shade of pre-war French noir.
Through striking use of flashbacks, the film tells the story of François (Gabin), a factory worker romantically involved with young florist Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent) as well as with Clara (Arletty), assistant to louche entertainer and seducer Valentin (Jules Berry). François kills Valentin out of jealousy over Françoise and despite support from those around him, kills himself when the police close in.
Locked in his room for the duration of the film, Gabin brilliantly inhabits his tragic working-class hero, his minimalist acting style chiming perfectly against the superlative Arletty and flamboyant Berry. Despite its ironically hopeful title, Le Jour se lève summed up the anxieties of a country on the brink of war. It also seems to us today, as André Bazin put it, to embody “the ideal qualities of a cinematic paradise lost”.
5. Le Dernier Tournant
(The Last Turn) Pierre Chenal, 1939
Shot three years before Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, and seven years before the Tay Garnett Hollywood version, this surprisingly little-known film was the first screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s seminal noir novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (published in the US in 1934 and translated into French in 1936).
Transposing the Californian setting to the south of France, the film reprises the story of hapless Frank (Fernand Gravey), lured by sexy, sullen Cora (Michel Luchaire), to kill her older husband Nick, a road-side garage owner (Corinne Simon). The film contains the key noir narrative elements of doomed love and inability to escape the past, and classic noir visual style: Chenal and Christian Matras’s virtuoso camerawork and low-key lighting were apparently admired by Orson Welles. While Le Dernier Tournant testifies to Chenal’s taste for American crime literature, his version marks its Frenchness in two ways: a greater moral ambiguity and a different gender pattern. Where the 1946 American version emphasises the erotic charge of the femme fatale and Visconti’s the attraction of the young male hero, Chenal gives most weight and sympathy to the husband, played by Michel Simon, significantly the greater star of the trio.
6. Le Corbeau
(The Raven) Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943
With Le Corbeau, French film noir turned political. Produced by the Nazi-owned firm Continental during the German occupation of France, Clouzot’s film tells the story of a typical small French town (‘here or elsewhere’) inundated with anonymous poison-pen letters signed ‘le corbeau’. Initially, the main target of the letters is Dr Germain (Pierre Fresnay), accused of performing abortions as well as of adulterous liaisons. Indeed, several women in the town are attracted to him, from prim Laura (Micheline Francey) to racy Denise (Ginette Leclerc).
Nicolas Hayer’s black-and-white cinematography makes superb use of contrasts and shadows, underlining the film’s atmosphere, pervaded by fear, suspicion and paranoia. The search for ‘le corbeau’ unveils every sin in the book, from jealousy and lust to aggression, betrayal, murder and lynching. The film’s extraordinary darkness and the twin themes of the letters and abortion were fundamentally opposed to the values of the Vichy regime, as well as to those of the German occupier. This did not stop Clouzot from being punished at the Liberation for working for Continental. Since then, though, Le Corbeau has become the emblematic film of the French war years and a turning point in darkness on screen.
7. Quai des orfèvres
Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947
Following his ban after the Liberation for making Le Corbeau, Quai des orfèvres (loosely based on a novel by Belgian crime writer Stanislas-André Steeman) marked Clouzot’s triumphant return to filmmaking. This French version of a police procedural follows Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) as he investigates the murder of a rich, corrupt businessman in which are implicated ambitious music-hall singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), her piano-player husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) and their glamorous neighbour Dora (Simone Renant), a photographer.
Clouzot’s policier twist on post-war noir delivers a scathing portrayal of Jenny and Maurice’s petit-bourgeois lives as well as corruption in the upper echelons of society. Both the shady world of the music hall and the harsh conditions of post-war Paris are wonderfully rendered in Armand Thirard’s sumptuous cinematography. However, Clouzot’s usual misanthropic vision is here tempered, allowing characters a degree of humanity: Jouvet’s Antoine is kind-hearted, in spite of the cynical one-liners he delivers in his inimitable voice; Blier’s timid husband is touching; and Delair’s vivacious performance and talent as a singer transcend the misogynist innuendo of her part, even when she delivers her saucy ‘Avec son tralala’ number. Even more unusually, in Dora, Clouzot offers a sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian.
8. Une si jolie petite plage
(Such a Pretty Little Beach) Yves Allégret, 1949
The great matinée idol Gérard Philipe plays Pierre, an orphan who revisits a seedy hotel from his youth located on a rain-swept beach in northern France (the ironic ‘pretty’ beach of the title). To some extent he reprises the young Gabin’s pre-war roles, although his sickly, desperate character illustrates the excessively morbid aspect of post-war French ‘realist’ noir. Pierre’s despair is not relieved by romantic love or the friendship of co-workers. Around him the charming secondary characters have become ugly caricatures. Like Gabin’s characters, the sad Pierre is haunted by the past, but he is powerless rather than tragic; his solitary suicide lacks the epic or social dimension of Gabin’s in La Bête humaine and Le Jour se lève.
For director Yves Allégret and scriptwriter Jacques Sigurd, Une si jolie petitie plage echoed the difficult climate following the Liberation, marked by political disillusionment and social unrest. The film’s dim treatment of female characters also testifies to the backlash against women after their wartime social progress. Nevertheless, the film’s eerie universe, which resembles “an indelible image of hell on earth,” according to critic David Thomson, is aesthetically redeemed by Henri Alekan’s dark, sophisticated lighting, Philipe’s glamour and the talent of the cast around him.
9. Touchez pas au grisbi
Jacques Becker, 1954
By toning down the violence and racism (and downright unpleasantness) of Albert Simonin’s eponymous Série noire novel, Jacques Becker gave French film noir a hugely successful new twist, creating the French gangster film in the process. Many others followed, but Grisbi encapsulates the genre. Gabin is superlative as Max, a Pigalle underworld godfather to whom even his enemies defer. Max is aiming to use the proceeds of his last heist to retire in style, but finds his plan disrupted by rival Angelo (Lino Ventura in his film debut) and the ineptitude of his friend Riton (René Dary).
In his double-breasted suits, Max embodies both the old French patriarchal order, and the new Americanised modernity, with his well-appointed apartments, large cars and glamorous mistress. Grisbi playfully engages with generic motifs: hoodlums, nightclubs, gangsters’ girls (one played by Jeanne Moreau in pre-New Wave mode) and the odd gunfight. But Becker, true heir to Jean Renoir, is just as interested in everyday rituals and Max’s loyalty to Riton, expressed in the cult wine and pâté scene. Set off by Jean Wiener’s memorable harmonica tune, this story of “deluxe fat cats”, as François Truffaut put it, is also a tale about ageing and friendship.
Jules Dassin, 1955
Described by the critic Philip French as “one of the greatest crime movies ever made”, Rififi was American director Jules Dassin’s return to work after five years of enforced inactivity as a result of being blacklisted in Hollywood during the anti-communist witchhunts. Based on Auguste Le Breton’s Série noire novel, the film enabled Dassin to bring to a French topic and setting his considerable experience as the maker of seminal US noirs such as Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Thieves’ Highway (1949).
Dassin embedded his story in familiar Parisian locations and kept Le Breton’s picaresque French characters – even featuring the slang typical of the Série noire in the iconic song, ‘Le Rififi’ (meaning ‘a fight’), sung by Magali Noël’s nightclub singer Viviane. Very French too is the world-weary hero Tony (Jean Servais), a characteristic noir figure haunted by the past. From the US Dassin brought a faster rhythm and streamlined action, as well as a more moralistic approach to crime. The two national influences seamlessly merge in the elegant noir photography by Philippe Agostini. Thanks also to its famous 20-minute heist sequence at the jeweller Mappin & Webb, executed in almost total silence, Dassin’s perfect Franco-American hybrid met with huge popular and critical success.
11. Voici le temps des assassins
(Deadlier than the Male) Julien Duvivier, 1956
This collaboration between Julien Duvivier and Jean Gabin – their seventh since Maria Chapdelaine in 1934 – belongs to the darkest seam of French cinema, fusing Zola-style naturalism with crime and misogyny. Gabin plays Chatelin, a successful restaurateur in Les Halles, who falls for Catherine (Danièle Delorme), the scheming daughter of his former wife. The evil mother-daughter duo will stop at nothing to get his money, and in the process Catherine kills Chatelin’s protégé Gérard (Gérard Blain). Her punishment comes with violence so horrendous it is left off screen.
Voici le temps des assassins contrasts Chatelin’s integrity, generosity and professionalism with the moral depravity of Catherine and her mother (and in the case of the latter, also the physical degeneracy of drug addiction). Other men are naive or fools while women run the gamut from gold-diggers to cruel martinets, such as Chatelin’s chilling mother. It takes Duvivier and Gabin’s combined talent to turn this sordid tale into a consummate piece of classical French cinema. Against the baroque cruelty of the denouement, the film includes among its pleasures some wonderful character actors – such as Gabrielle Fontan as Madame Jules – and the evocative restaurant scenes against the backdrop of the now vanished food market of Les Halles.
12. Le Doulos
Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962
Melville considered Le Doulos (slang meaning both a ‘hat’ and a ‘police informer’) his first real policier. The film is based on the 1957 book by Pierre Lesou, a Série noire author noted for his first-hand knowledge of the French underworld, taste for stories of male friendship, and self-confessed ‘feminophobia’. Melville accentuated the novel’s sombre side through generic abstraction and virtuoso yet sober mise en scène. He also made good use of his charismatic stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani, helping the film to become a huge success despite its notoriously complex plot, built on an intricate web of deceptions.
Le Doulos’s credit sequence stands as one of the most evocative openings of any noir thriller: a man in hat and trench coat – Reggiani’s Maurice Faugel – walks through a grim underpass, silhouetted by Nicolas Hayer’s black-and-white photography and accompanied by Paul Misraki’s dramatic jazz score. The next sequence, in which Faugel kills a fence and buries the loot, distils urban alienation and the abstract melancholy universe in which the rest of the story unfolds. Le Doulos takes place in a recognisable Paris, yet simultaneously in a hybrid noir space that merges French idioms and American icons, not least in the classic gangster outfit that opens and closes the film.