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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
"La traversee de Paris" is a brilliant and often profound blend of comedy and drama. The story is rather uncommon and told in a most anti-rhetoric way. During World War II, in Paris occupied by the Nazis, two men have to deliver four cases filled with pork meat, for the black market. They cross the city overnight, trying to avoid French cops and German soldiers, as well.
The fun is mainly based on the duets between the two "heroes", Grandgil (Jean Gabin), and Martin (Bourvil), supported by a first-rate witty script. These two characters are drawn with psychological depth. Grandgil is somehow a mysterious man. Sometimes he seems to be a sort of thug. He despises and bullies innocent by-standers. He wants to cheat and steal the pork meat, following a sort of selfish anarchism. But many clues make the viewer feel that all this should be a Grandgil's joke. On the contrary, Martin is proud to be a decent person, and to keep honest and correct even working for the black market. The unavoidable quarrels arising between the two men build a non-standard but deep friendship. Extraordinary is the actors' job. Jean Gabin is deservedly a cinema legend, and never disappoints the audience. Here the always excellent Bourvil is on a par with his great partner.
On the background we have the masterly rendered atmosphere of those bleak years. French people is oppressed by deprivations and lack of food. Patriotism and heroic resistance are far from being appreciated. People are widely depressed by French defeat on the battle-field, and just wait for the end of the war and of German invasion. The first scene sets the tone of the movie. A blind beggar plays the Marseillese with his fiddle. Martin is displeased. What's the point of vainly provoking the Nazis? However he gives a coin to the beggar. And even a German officer gives money to the blind man. As a matter of fact, German soldiers do not appear as cruel barbarians. The officer who questions Grandgil and Martin is even nice. But when something wrong happens (namely, an attack against a German colonel), then the inhuman ferocity of Nazism shows his face. And the French hostages blame the partisans for that! Meanwhile, the swashbuckler Grandgil, always ready to despise other people's cowardice, realizes that in tragic circumstances one must care only for himself and his own life. There is a lot of depth in these scenes, believe me.
It is not surprising that this excellent movie was reviled by French audiences and critics when released. This anti-heroic, even petty representation of French people at war-time, was surely hard to swallow.
A magnificent nocturnal photography and artistic camera work, together with a first-rate direction by Autant-Lara, add further value to this superb movie.
The final scene may appear somehow stuck to the movie. But it contains an important message. Life has won, life continues. Common, simple, decent people survived. Barbarians have lost, doomed to destruction by their own infernal wickedness.
"La traversee de Paris" is a gem of French cinema. Highly recommended.
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