"Le Jour Se Leve," ("Daybreak") (1939), a bleak black and white crime drama, romance/thriller, is considered one of the great classics of the French cinema. It was directed by the legendary Marcel Carne Children of Paradise ( Les Enfants du paradis ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.0 Import - Australia ]]] ); the original story was by the respected Jacques Viot; the script, by Jacques Prevert, with whom the greatest of French directors often worked.
It stars the incomparable Jean Gabin (Grand Illusion - Criterion Collection) as foundry worker Francois, who kills the sleazy, sadistic, womanizing dog act performer Valentin (Jules Berry) to help the young florist he loves, Francoise, escape from Valentin's clutches. Francois then retreats to his furnished room, reflecting on the events that drove him to murder, including his unromantic sexual affair with Valentin's former stage assistant, Clara, played by the ever-beauteous Arletty(Children of Paradise - Criterion Collection), as he waits for the police to renew their assault on him at daybreak.
Well, in outline, it does sound bleak, doesn't it, and the material is. Yet, such is the magic of Carne's vision, and Gabin's muscular acting, that it is not tedious, though you might expect it would be. Much of the tale is told in flashback, as Carne delivers a film of great lyrical beauty, widely considered a monument to the French between-the-wars film school of "poetic realism," though a lot of it looks more like German Expressionism to me. It gives us a very accurate portrait of working class life as it was lived at the time: Gabin as Francois humorously delivers several lines on the unhealthiness of the various factory environments in which he has worked: he knows very well that they kill their employees. And Gabin was certainly one of the cinema world's greatest working class anti-heroes. He had just played one for Carne in the previous year on Port of Shadows - Criterion Collection, another bleak film, though not quite as bleak as this one that is even more famous than this one, then and now. Who was Gabin, if you don't know? Of real Parisian working class origins, French cinema's precursor to Humphrey Bogart (although Bogart was of more patrician family), Gabin played the quintessential soft-hearted tough guy in many movies, perhaps his best-known today being the series of films made of Simenon's Inspector Maigret books. A stunning film, 93 minutes long, and not a second wasted.