Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: World’s Coolest Movie Star, by Charles Zigman

World’s Coolest Movie Star: The Complete 95 Films (and Legend) of Jean Gabin, Volumes 1 and 2, by Charles Zigman. Los Angeles: Allenwood Press, 2008. Hardcover $20.00 each. 1,112pp combined. ISBN: 0979972205 (vol. 1); 0979972213 (vol. 2).

Zealotry has a way of producing impressive biographies, and Charles Zigman has certainly tapped into the obsessive’s muse with this gargantuan two-volume effort. His premise, at least, is taut: Jean Gabin is lionized as one of the most viscerally appealing movie stars throughout the non-English speaking world, so what, exactly, is the matter with British and American cinephiles?

Zigman delivers a meticulous film-by-film account of Gabin’s career, tracing the Parisian idol from his earliest days as a Maurice Chevalier knockoff in stodgy musicals, to his zenith with a handful of Jean Renoir collaborations, and then down the backside of the mountain with various American ventures seemingly undertaken so Gabin could partner on the screen with his off-stage raison d’être, Marlene Dietrich, flame of flames.

Zigman writes in conversational tones, a man happy to be telling the story of French cinema’s version of Robert Mitchum, James Dean, and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning-era Albert Finney, knotted together in one burly form. Lovers of quantity are advised to bask in Gabin’s filmography, and, indeed, Zigman picks his way through each of the ninety-five works, so that the dreck gets coverage alongside the canonical works. Of the latter, there were exactly five: the Julien Duvivier-directed Pépé le Moko, the three Renoir pictures Grand Illusion, La Bête humaine, and French Cancan, and Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir. Gabin was tantamount to cinema’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, prodigiously gifted but with a propensity for churning out pressurized hack work, with masterpieces slow to accumulate.

Zigman suggests the burden of subtitles for the lack of Anglo-interest in Gabin’s output, before summarizing the actor’s core appeal for those who looked his way for escapism: “In each picture, Gabin’s characters have, almost invariably, committed a murder, or have been accused of committing a murder before the film has begun and, right after the opening credits have completed themselves, he is already on the run in other parts of France.” In said parts, women are romanced, dark alley adventures ensue, and the shadows of noir began to creep into French nickelodeon. This is the Gabin that directors like Truffaut, Godard, and Melville fell in love with, the skylarker who was also a throat-slitter, no mean dichotomy.

You get loads of biographical gossip in this study; anecdotes about how difficult Gabin could be on set, his Dietrich bent, his feuds with American production companies like RKO. There’s plenty of plot description — involved plot description — which can just about cripple the casual reader. Not surprisingly, the more absorbing accounts are those that break down the better films, with the Renoir-Gabin partnership emerging as one of the most overlooked in the critical literature. Hard to believe that the forces behind the devilish poetry of La Bête humaine could produce the pure effervescence of French Cancan, but Gabin was one enigmatic x-factor. And while Renoir was gutted that World War II broke out regardless of Grand Illusion’s plea for peace, you can hardly watch the film without wondering if Gabin was solely responsible for turning a would-be harangue/cautionary tale into a subtle fable, the kind that is short on directive and long on emotional grandeur.