Monday, August 22, 2011

A Librarian's Double Life

Last Thursday, the Turner Classic Movies cable channel devoted all of its programming to the films of Jean Gabin, perhaps France's greatest film actor. Jean Gabin starred in nearly one hundred films, including The Grand Illusion, La Bete Humaine, and Pepe Le Moko, the film that made him an international star. Some have called him the American Spencer Tracy, but that doesn't do Jean Gabin justice, for he was a much better actor than Spencer Tracy. Not to mention the fact that he had more sex appeal in his little finger than Spencer Tracy did in his whole body! Jean Gabin is also beloved in France as a war hero; he was a member of the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle, and received the Croix de Guerre. Jean Gabin played a variety of characters during his long career, but perhaps his greatest portrayals were of world-weary outsiders with a streak of fatalism. What does Jean Gabin have to do with librarianship, you ask?

One of the films that TCM showed last Thursday was Leur Derniere Nuit (Their Last Night), a film made in 1953 that starred Jean Gabin with the somewhat wooden Madeleine Robinson as his love interest. It was certainly not a great film, but it was interesting because Jean Gabin played a librarian who is secretly the ruthless head of a ring of criminals. In the early part of the film, we see Jean Gabin going quietly about his business, living in a boarding house, working at his local library where he seems to know the contents of every single book in the collection, being promoted to head librarian, and generally living an exemplary life. The scenes in the library were fascinating as there wasn't a female librarian anywhere in sight; all the library personnel were men. As the film continues, however, we learn that all is not as it seems with the mild-mannered librarian. It turns out that Jean Gabin needs a lot of money in order to buy property for his aged parents back in his hometown of Angouleme, and we must assume that his librarian's salary doesn't make this possible. So he has turned to a life of crime. There are interesting scenes of a gritty postwar Paris and some good action scenes throughout. The film suffers from an unfortunate lack of chemistry between Jean Gabin and Madeleine Robinson, the teacher who puts herself in jeopardy trying to help him. In addition, we never really understand her motivation. Backstories for the two leads are provided late in the film and don't really help to flesh out the charcters much. Nonetheless, the film never failed to hold my interest. As my husband summed up, "What a library director has to do to make ends meet!"

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