Together with the remarkable Les Enfants du Paradis, Le Jour Se Lève (now re-released in a splendid new print) remains one of the great achievements of pre-war French cinema. And Jean Gabin’s performance in the central role has ensured the film’s popularity over more than 70 years.
It was also a landmark collaboration between director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, a partnership which accomplished both films. It was called the highest expression of poetic realism but, beyond that, it exhibits the kind of fatalism that seemed, in 1939, to presage war and now draws unsettling parallels with today.
Carné was as much a producer as director and his work here was complemented by Alexandre Trauner’s great production design, by Maurice Jaubert’s music and by a cast, augmented by the great Arletty, who knew exactly what was required of them.
Gabin plays an ordinary working man who murders through jealousy and barricades himself into his room as the police surround the building.
After the struggle, a cloud of tear gas finally creeps over the scene as the sun rises outside and an alarm clock breaks the silence.
Although now applauded as a classic, Le Jour Se Lève (Daybreak) twice faced banning — first by the Vichy government, on the grounds it was demoralising, and then by Hollywood, which tried to destroy as many prints as possible to succour the making of Anatole Litvak’s limp RKO adaptation called The Long Night, with Henry Fonda in the Gabin role.
Even though very much the product of its time and populist in its sentimental view of a betrayed proletarian outsider, it has a melancholy and power that is still affecting.