Love, death, betrayal and sacrifice in occupied Paris!
US / 85 minutes / bw / TCF Dir: Léonide Moguy Pr: André Daven Scr: Harold Buchman Story: Georges Kessel Cine: Lucien Andriot Cast: George Sanders, Philip Dorn, Brenda Marshall, Madeleine LeBeau, Marcel Dalio, Robert Lewis, Henry Rowland, Gene Gary, Curt Bois, Michael Visaroff, Ann Codee, Jean Del Val, Raymond Roe, John Wengraf.
Paris is under Nazi occupation. Renowned surgeon Dr. André Marbel (Sanders) and his principal nurse, Yvonne Blanchard (Marshall), née Benoit, are secretly the leaders of an underground movement dedicated to disseminating anti-Nazi propaganda in the form of posters and tracts, especially targeting the workers in the nearby Beaumont car factory, repurposed by the Nazis to build tanks and armored cars. The effort is not without its dangers, as we discover in the movie’s opening moments, when young Victor Durand (Gary) is gunned down summarily by a German soldier for the crime of flyposting.
Yvonne (Brenda Marshall).
We assume at first that André and Yvonne must be lovers, but not so: they’re fond friends, no more. Yvonne lives at home with her mother (Codee), her father Lucien (Del Val) and her kid brother Georges (Roe), who works in the Beaumont factory. Yvonne’s husband Jean (Dorn) was a pillar of the Resistance until his capture and imprisonment three years ago. Now he’s among a hundred sick and broken men being released from the labor camp, to be replaced—although this is not yet public knowledge—by five hundred healthy men from the Beaumont plant.
Jean (Philip Dorn), just one of many sick and broken camp prisoners on the train home to Paris.
The Benoits are delighted by Jean’s return, Yvonne especially, but soon she and her family discover that Jean has changed drastically, thanks to torture and abuse. He now believes that Nazi triumph is inevitable and that the best way forward is to collaborate with the fascist scheisskopfs and just hope to be left in peace to live as well as one can. When he comes across a few of the movement’s tracts in one of Yvonne’s bedroom drawers (she claims to be just looking after them for a nursing friend), he angrily berates her and throws them on the fire:
Yvonne: “You’re afraid. They’ve beaten fear into you.”
Jean: “Yes. The only ones who don’t know fear haven’t fallen into [the Nazis’] hands yet. Otherwise they would have fear too, and curse themselves for not making peace when they could.”
Yvonne realizes she dare not tell him about her activities for the underground. But she’s not the only one keeping a secret. Jean has been for a medical checkup with André and discovered that, thanks to the years of Nazi abuse, he hasn’t long to live. The couple each sense that the other’s not being fully honest, and in Jean’s case this uncertainty hardens into a suspicion—encouraged by the local barber, Luigi (Dalio)—that Yvonne has been betraying him with André. Worse still, after he follows her one night when she has claimed to be needed at the hospital for an emergency and discovers that instead she heads straight for André’s house, he becomes convinced the affair continues still.
Jean (Philip Dorn) eyes Yvonne with suspicion.
André (George Sanders) tries to bolster the confidence of Yvonne (Brenda Marshall).
In fact, the emergency to which Yvonne referred is an urgent meeting of the movement’s local principals—herself, André and others, including the underground printers Max (Bois) and Paul (Visaroff)—to discuss how they can respond to the Nazi plan to conscript those five hundred Beaumont workers.
Yvonne’s brother Georges decides he’s not going to take it any more. He and three of his pals cook up a plan to slip out of Paris and make it to the border to join Charles de Gaulle and his France Libre forces. Georges talks of this to Jean, who foolishly blabs about it to Luigi, the gossipy barber. But Luigi’s more than a gossip: he’s a spy in the pay of the occupying forces, and he promptly snitches on the boys to the chief of the local Nazis, Colonel Pirosch (Lewis).
The treacherous barber Luigi (Marcel Dalio).
Jean catches Georges early the next morning as the lad is sneaking out of the Benoit apartment:
Jean: “Where are you going?”
Georges: “None of your business.”
Jean: “You’re not going.”
Georges: “Keep your hands off me, you coward. . . . Hanging crepe all over the house ever since you got back. The boys in the plant noticed it too. There are plenty of us don’t feel like you do. All right, so you got the skin torn off you, but no worse than a couple of million Russians or Greeks. So what are they supposed to do—get down on their hands and knees? If you’re so sure the Germans are going to win, why don’t you join up with them? The war’s still on as far as we’re concerned.”
Georges (Raymond Roe) tells Jean what he thinks of him.
Thanks to Luigi’s treachery the boys are caught and brought back. As Georges delivers an impassioned appeal to patriotism to the assembled Beaumont workers, Pirosch pulls out a gun and shoots the boy dead. Another shot rings out and Pirosch drops like a stone . . .
Colonel Pirosch (Robert Lewis).
There are quite a few further complications and moments of high tension before Jean rediscovers himself and realizes that, terminally ill as he is, the best thing he can do for his country is to turn himself over to the Nazis, falsely claiming to be the sniper who shot down Pirosch, and thereby saving the lives of fifty innocent workers who’ve been singled out for a mass execution by way of reprisal.
George Sanders and Brenda Marshall give thoroughly committed, nuanced performances, Sanders breaking through his customary suaveness when it matters. Philip Dorn is very fine too, even though it’s hard to reconcile his native Dutch accent with the fact that he’s supposed to be a Frenchman! Raymond Roe is hopelessly miscast as Yvonne’s kid brother, his persona (and American accent) seeming to be one long culture clash with the movie’s setting. And yet, when the chips are down, in his castigation of the surrender that Jean stands for and particularly in his final exhortation of the massed Beaumont workers not to give in to the Nazis but to fight for France’s freedom, he delivers quite powerfully.
Ann Codee as Madame Benoit.
Another cast member whom I haven’t mentioned is Madeleine LeBeau, who plays Collette, the lover of the gunned-down Victor and the owner of the café where the members of the movement often covertly congregate; it’s in the cellar of her café that the printers Max and Paul prepare their propaganda material. Collette even performs a song for the party to celebrate Jean’s return, a song that’s full of the ambivalence that lies between rejoicing and sorrow. (I know, I know: the French can achieve these ambiguities with seeming ease where most of us have difficulty achieving them at all.) LeBeau, who died at the age of 92 in May of 2016, was the last surviving (credited) cast member of CASABLANCA (1942). She and her husband, Marcel Dalio—who in Paris After Dark plays Luigi—fled France and the Nazis in 1939, planning to make a new life in Chile. They got as far as Mexico before it was discovered their visas were forgeries. Luckily they were able to obtain temporary Canadian passports and, using these, to enter the US and make their way to Hollywood. LeBeau appeared in three Hollywood movies—Casablanca, Paris after Dark and the comedy Music for Millions (1944)—before returning to Europe after hostilities had ceased, there making plenty more movies—including Fellini’s Otto e Mezzo (1963; vt 8½). Husband Marcel also appeared in Casablanca, as the croupier Emil; he initiated divorce proceedings while the movie was still in production.
Collette (Madeleine LeBeau) is overjoyed that Jean (Philip Dorn) has recovered himself.
I’ve covered a number of World War II movie on this site that seem to me to have a definite noirish flavor—Schachnovelle (1960), Orders to Kill (1958), Nightmare (1942) and Seven Thunders (1957) spring to mind. I’d say Paris After Dark certainly has the most noirish title of any of these, but it lacks the moral-quicksand elements of Orders to Kill or the twisted psychological theme of Schachnovelle. On the other hand, it does have the themes of betrayal, both witting and unwitting, of crossed love, of paranoia in the face of an oppressive, seemingly invulnerable official bureaucracy . . .
What also impresses about Paris After Dark is how accurate so many aspects are of its portrayal of life in occupied Paris. Innumerable historical accounts are available to us now, but in 1943 the details must have been far harder to establish. One point of accuracy is that the little cell of the Resistance to which our central characters belong is dedicated not just to liberation but to socialism, or at the very least some form of social democracy. (Many of those who fought and died in the French Resistance against the Nazis were communists, a fact sometimes obscured in American history books thanks to the USA’s very own McCarthyite flirtation with fascism some years after the war.) When Jean, rediscovering his principles, asks Max the printer if André, as an aristocrat, can really be trusted as part of the group, Max has to make it clear that far more people have become allied to the socialists since Jean’s departure to the camps:
Max: “You know, Jean, resistance to fascism isn’t only the workers’ privilege. It belongs to everybody, to the whole country.”
This is one of those movies whose obscurity seems undeserved—in fact, right now, with its insistence that we should all be prepared to resist to our final breath the pathogenic virus that is fascism, it seems to be a movie that’s especially relevant . . . and nowhere more so than in the country of its making and, if the news this spring proves to be as vile as many forecast, the country of its setting.
Each month Rich Westlake at his Past Offences blog selects a year for special treatment, and February’s year is 1943. This is a contribution toward that venture.