Friday, December 26, 2014

Movie – Daybreak (1939)

Daybreak (aka Le jour se leve) is the second French film I am reviewing as part of my A Great Year for Movies – 1939 category.  The other was the more famous The Rules of the Game.  Both of them were controversial and both ended up being banned by the French Vichy government during WWII for being either immoral or demoralizing.  Being banned has probably led to both being better remembered today.  Why was Daybreak considered demoralizing and immoral?  Well, it starts right out with one man murdering another…and the murderer is the lead character in the film.

Francois (Jean Gabin) shoots Valentin (Jules Berry) and then barricades himself in the guest room he is staying in.  Police try to break through his barricades, but cannot initially get to him.  Now that the film has started, quite literally, with a bang, we proceed to learn how Francois and Valentin arrived at that situation.  In between exchanges with police Francois flashes back.

We learn that he was involved with two different women: the “good girl” Francoise – with an “e” – played by Jacqueline Laurent; and the “bad girl” Clara – played by Arletty.  Clara had been an assistant to Valentin in a performing dog act until she started seeing Francois – without an “e”.  This gives Valentin a reason right there to dislike Francois.  Complicating matters is that Valentin is also involved with both Francoise and Clara, so he is jealous of Francois.  Finally, there are also potential blood relationships thrown into the mix.

Things come to a head and Valentin tries to attack Francois, who shoots Valentin.  This was the opening of the movie.  We now return to the present as a crowd, alerted to what is going on, has gathered in the street below Francois’ barricaded room.  In addition, Francoise has also heard what has happened and she is being attended to by Clara.

By this point the viewer is obviously supposed to at least understand why Francois did what he did, and maybe even find him sympathetic – yet he is still responsible for another man’s death.  He’s pretty much in a no win situation, so don’t expect him to end up strolling arm in arm with both Francoise and Clara as “Fin” comes up on the screen.

Jean Gabin does his usual fine job in the main role.  He and director Marcel Carne had teamed the year before for Port of Shadows (1938), another good film.  And screen writer Jacques Prevert worked on both movies as well.  More importantly, six years later Carne, Prevert, and Arletty would re-team for one of the greatest French films ever made – Children of Paradise (1945).

After the success of Children of Paradise, the earlier film Daybreak enjoyed success post WWII.  Surprisingly, it was an American studio that almost ended up destroying the film for good.  RKO’s 1947 film The Long Night was a remake of this.  It starred Henry Fonda of all people, in the Gabin role.  RKO bought the rights to Daybreak and proceeded to try to destroy every copy of it so that their movie would be the “original”.  For a while people did think that Daybreak had been lost, but copies were found in the 1950s and it ended up on the original 1952 Sight and Sound poll as being among the greatest films ever made.

While Daybreak is not that well known today, it is well worth seeing.  The combination of Carne, Prevert, and Gabin delivered a compelling story.  If it sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


  1. The attraction here is definitely style. The format feels new at the time and makes it a a proto-noir: A crime, flashback, an antihero headed for inevitable doom and women playing a fatal role. The story itself and the character I care less for. It/they are just a little too odd and over dramatic.

    1. Speaking of proto-noir, check out Gabin the year before in La Bete Humaine.