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Two men, a painter and a poor guy, have to cross over Paris by night during World War II and to deliver black market meat. As they walk along dark Parisian streets, they encounter various characters and adventures until they are arrested by German police. Written by
The bringing together of two great comic actors of the calibre of Jean Gabin and Bourvil could not fail to be a great success, but this film surpasses the audience's expectations by several hundred kilometres. For both actors, this is a real tour de force. Bourvil is the hapless stooge to Gabin's outrageously forceful character, and the double act is unbelievably funny. One can't help but have pity for the poor unemployed Parisian as his night-time trudge across Paris is turned into his worst nightmare.
Whilst much of the humour is in the performance of its two stars (joined by Louis de Funes in that amazing cellar scene near the start of the film), the script is well-written and genuinely funny in places. The menace of the Nazi threat is there all the same, and this is heightened by the darkened sets representing a deserted Paris, resounding with the distant tread of the German patrols. The last twenty minutes of the film is a distinct contrast to what preceded it, and the humour appears to fade very quickly into drama. Luckily, our heroes emerge unscathed (possibly), but the threat of what might have been substantially changes one's view of the film.
Needless to say, when this film was released in 1956, scarcely 10 years after the end of the Second World War, it was widely reviled. It presented a view of the occupation that, whilst honest and accurate in retrospect, had never before been seen in French cinema and which was simply too much for many to stomach. Gabin's character was a particular target for scorn, representing a cynical free-thinking attitude that could only be regarded as dangerous and anti-Republican. The film's director, Claude Autant-Lara, should be credited with immense courage in presenting to the French people his perception of the war, unadulterated by the constraints of convention. That he should achieve this through one of the funniest of French films is a remarkable achievement.
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