8 October 1896, Lille
29 October 1967, Paris

“If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of Julien Duvivier at the entrance” (Jean Renoir, 1967)

Julien Duvivier was once considered one of the world’s great filmmakers.  He was idolised by Orson Welles and Michael Powell, while Ingmar Bergman once admitted that of all the careers that he would have liked to have had, it would be Duvivier’s. The classicism of his mise en scène, his core thematic concerns – deception, misanthropy, the fragility of the (male) group, the dangerous woman – and his ability to coax fevered or fragile performances by both established stars and new actors place Duvivier at the apex of French Classical Cinema. Such traits coalesced to a quite remarkable degree in Un Carnet de bal (Dance Program, 1937), one of Duvivier’s most popular films. Marie Bell, tracking down all the men on her dance card with whom she danced two decades previously, visits Pierre Blanchar’s back-street abortionist in Marseilles.  He is blind in one eye and the affliction is reflected in the mise en scène: camera placement is skewed, Blanchar’s acting is nervy and sweaty, the sound design amplifies the creeping sense of dementia, and the entire set appears constructed on a 30° incline.  Graham Greene’s review of this scene focussed on Duvivier’s obsession with favoured themes of nostalgia, sentiment, and regret, and how “the padded and opulent emotions wither before the evil detail”.1  That eye for ‘evil detail’ would remain laser-sharp and unforgiving.

Julien Duvivier

Duvivier on set, watchful, alert, detached


Duvivier’s breadth, ‘invisibility’, and sureness of touch led to a five-decade, seventy-film career that zigzagged between multiple genres. He turned his hand to literary adaptations (from works by Zola, Tolstoy, Simenon and Némirovsky), biblical epic (1935’s Golgotha), ‘sketch’ films (Dance Program, 1942’ Tales of Manhattan), comedy (the Don Camillo series, from 1952 and 1953), Hollywood biopics (1938’s The Great Waltz), film noir (1956’s Voici le temps des assassins/Deadlier Than the Male), poetic realism (1937’s Pépé le Moko) and the propaganda film (Untel Père et fils/ The Heart of a Nation, shot in 1941 but not released until 1945).  Duvivier was a truly international director, working within the studio systems of Hollywood, Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain, and Czechoslovakia, while his films dovetailed with the series of profound technological, social, and cultural leaps that were taking place in France: the conversion from silent to sound film in 1929/30; the development of the Poetic Realist aesthetic in the mid-to late-1930s; the industry exodus to Hollywood in the 1940s; the return to France and a much-changed film landscape in the 1950s and 1960s; and the emergence of the New Wave.  He exemplified professionalism: from 1919 to 1967, Duvivier returned to same group of actors and technicians again and again. He worked with some of French cinema’s most acclaimed screenwriters, including Maurice Bessy, Henri Jeanson and Charles Spaak, and deployed stars as diverse (and as often ‘difficult’) as Brigitte Bardot, Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, via Jean Gabin, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Alain Delon.  For a period in the 1930s, he was French cinema’s most globally respected and exportable director, and prizes quickly followed: La Fin du jour (The End of the Day, 1939), that savagely bitter-sweet tale of ageing actors in a retirement home, won the Best Screenplay Award at the Venice Bienniale, Best Foreign Film at the National Board of Review Awards, and came second in the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

Julien Duvivier

The End of the Day: Francen, Jouvet and Simon in close-up


His experiences as assistant director on André Antoine’s Le Coupable (1917) and Les Travailleurs de la mer (1918) profoundly influenced his later work, most notably in the working through of Antoine’s influential theories on cinematic naturalism and performance authenticity.  Like Antoine, Duvivier was also an exemplary ‘on location’ director, never more comfortable than when bringing a foreigner’s eye to a foreign locale, whether in and around Péribonka and Lake Mistassini in northern Quebec for Maria Chapdelaine (1934), or capturing the allure of Morocco in Les cinq gentlemen maudits (The Five Accursed Gentlemen, 1931), the pre-dawn hustle and bustle of Paris’ immense Les Halles market in Deadlier Than the Male, or the colour and carnival atmosphere of Seville in La Femme et le pantin (The Woman and the Puppet, 1959).2  Places and spaces were vital. Time and again, Duvivier plays on contrasting locations – often early in each film – to showcase his technical dexterity and adeptness at cross-cutting, but also to paraphrase what will later become the film’s central core concerns. The Algerian casbah in Pépé le Moko, the Salvation Army soup kitchen (La Charrette fantôme/The Phantom Carriage, 1939), a retirement home (The End of the Day), a girls’ boarding school (Au royaume des cieux, 1949), and a mansion deep in the Black Forest (La Chambre ardente/The Burning Court, 1962) are each imprisoning spaces that offer glimpses of escape but ultimately lead to madness and death. Often, Duvivier intercuts documentary footage of a real space with its studio-built equivalent; the resulting strangeness adds to the dreamlike nature of the film. Sam Rohdie has written that Duvivier’s films brim with “communal dances, funfairs, merry-go-rounds, the cancan, opera, concerts, parades, festivities, audiences, scenes of crowds turning round and round”.3 The circular nature of these trajectories suggests both freedom and escape and enclosure from which there is no way out. The scene in which Monsieur Hire is buffeted to and fro in his dodgem car in Panique (1946) is a beautiful metaphor for that film’s cruelty, but also bolsters this ongoing fraught relationship between the liberating and incarcerating nature of space.


Julien Duvivier

Claustrophobia and suspicion in Marie-Octobre

Duvivier and French Cinema: style and conflict

Like his Hollywood contemporaries Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz and William Wyler, Duvivier could turn his hand to any genre, and imbue each assignment with a set of arresting visuals or deft narrative turns while still serving the film’s source material as efficiently as possible. Here is a director of range, adaptability and know-how, yet attempting to define the ‘Duvivier style’ can be a frustrating exercise.   He made nearly seventy films, but resolutely refused to be labelled an auteur. Duvivier’s world is frequently cruel and pessimistic, harrowing and misanthropic. He reflected in 1946, while filming of Panique, perhaps his darkest film, that he was perpetually drawn to the murkier side of human nature: “I know it is much easier to make films that are poetic, sweet, charming, and beautifully photographed, but my nature pushes me towards harsh, dark and bitter material”.4 Again and again, he returned to the same core themes – pessimism, misanthropy, the cruelty of the crowd, fatalism, defective memory, masquerading, exile and the impossibility of escape.  Duvivier was fastidious, and never left anything to chance – lighting, editing, framing, and camera movement were all impeccably planned, and so too was the creation of a scrupulous moral universe.  If all of this points to Duvivier’s status as an auteur, then that is because he is one.  Or perhaps an auteur malgré lui.  He always maintained that a film’s style was dictated by its subject, and not its director: “Genius is just a word; filmmaking is a craft, a tough craft that must be learned.  Personally, the more I work, the more I realise how little I know in proportion to the infinite possibilities of cinematic expressions”.5  But despite such protestations, Duvivier’s authorial vision remained, from film to film, unmistakeable.

Whether it was the Foreign Legion of La Bandera/Escape From Yesterday (1935), the Resistance forces of The Impostor (1944) or the ultimate ‘battle of the sexes’ in Deadlier Than the Male, conflict, clash and combat were rarely far from the surface of his films.  With Duvivier, happiness, solidarity, and friendship are all illusions – hope rarely makes it to the top.  In his most famous film, Pépé le Moko, Jean Gabin becomes a sacrificial lamb, and must be punished for believing in freedom and love.  It is for these reason that Duvivier has often been classed as the master of ‘cruel realism’.6  Duvivier’s work channels hostility and violence (both verbal and physical) to forge a set of films that straddles various genres and marks him out as a ‘modern’ director.  Conflict for Duvivier is a way not just of working, but of seeing the world. A key feature of his work is the paroxystic moment or a sudden explosion of verbal or physical violence. This bringing of a scene to a forceful conclusion from a tense build-up could be traced back to Duvivier’s theatrical apprenticeship under Antoine and to an understanding that a slow accretion of details before an outburst of violence is infinitely more dramatically satisfying. Such eruptive tonal changes happen quickly, and often without warning. In Chair de poule (Highway Pickup, 1963), Daniel (Robert Hossein) throws a pan of boiling oil into an attacker’s face; in Deadlier Than the Male, Catherine (Danièle Delorme) is ripped apart by a dog; and, in an extraordinary scene in Pépé le Moko, the treacherous Régis (Charpin) is executed to the accompanying hectic sounds of an accidentally triggered pianola. It was at that very moment, wrote the English novelist and film critic Graham Greene, that Duvivier “admirably rais(ed) the thriller to a poetic level”.7

When Cahiers Attacks

This conflict was not one-way.  The critical response to many of Duvivier’s post-1950s films from the Cahiers du cinéma crowd, and from François Truffaut in particular, was savage; the other key French film journal Positif did not review a single Duvivier film between 1952 and 1967.  These were critics constantly at war with Duvivier, and the sterile cinéma de papa he supposedly represented. For a filmmaker who did so much to establish the technical beauty, narrative fluidity and poise of French Classical Cinema, Duvivier and most of his films were all but erased from film history.  Jean-Luc Godard included Duvivier in a long list of directors he accused of desecrating French cinema with their “false technique”: “Your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is”.8 Even today, Duvivier remains trapped in an echo chamber that often glibly dismisses a director who in fact has always displayed a singular style, a visual brio and formally daring approach to narrative. Internet sites and film festival retrospectives still use words like ‘Jack of all trades’, ‘journeyman’, ‘workaholic’ or ‘hack’ to describe him. For Dudley Andrew, “so many of his fifty-odd films are embarrassing to watch”9; David Thomson describes Duvivier’s style as “spruce but seldom original or interesting”.10 Slowly, but very surely, an enduring discourse took root.

But Duvivier’s career was by no means finished by these uncharitable critical voices.  Unlike his fellow travellers Marcel Carné and René Clair, who struggled in a post-war nouvelle vague climate to retain relevance, and rarely again reached the heights of their 1930s masterpieces like Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and A nous la liberté (Freedom for Us, 1931), Duvivier continued to experiment and innovate. Ironically, in 1952, a full two years before Truffaut’s damning article condemning a “certain tendency of French cinema” (of which Duvivier was a notable part), Duvivier made his wonderfully Pirandellian film La Fête à Henriette / Holiday for Henrietta, in which two writers develop a screenplay that varies according to the mood they are in, although the story they are telling is the same.  The two writers are diametrically opposed: one is traditional and optimistic; the other cynical and sadistic.  Beneath this witty satire of the creative process (Hollywood loved it, and remade it as Paris When it Sizzles in 1964 with William Holden and Audrey Hepburn), Duvivier highlights a key dilemma that was besetting the French film industry at the start of the 1950s – should it go on making conservative crowd-pleasing narratives or shift towards more self-reflexive challenging work?  Thus the limitations and the conflicts inherent within the creative process are held up by Duvivier for ridicule: by trying to appease the censor, the producer, and the audience simultaneously, films will always regress to old-fashioned formulas and unimaginative retellings of traditional storylines.  This is precisely the line of argument held by Truffaut and Cahiers at the time.  In his later years, Duvivier’s alternative, conflicting attitude towards filmmaking sketched out in Holiday for Henrietta would be mirrored in his own choices.  He alternated between traditional ‘films of quality’ (the Zola adaptation Pot-Bouille (Lovers of Paris, 1957), and the sketch film Le Diable et le dix commandements (The Devil and the Ten Commandments, 1962) with more pessimistic works like Deadlier Than the Male and The Burning Court.  Duvivier was able to bridge the seemingly yawning chasm between auteur and tradition of quality cinema, between deeply personal, thematically consistent films and commercially motivated, audience-pleasing output.

A central plank of the Cahiers argument was that Duvivier was undiscerning. Because he was so prolific, no obvious style, thematic consistency, or personal commitment could emerge from his work. In short, he would never be Jean Renoir or Robert Bresson. Yet, in the space of eighteen months in 1956–7, Duvivier directed Jean Gabin in a noir, Fernandel in a comedy-thriller, and Danielle Darrieux in a Zola adaptation. Nowadays, such narrative swerves – whether in the work of Richard Linklater, Takashi Miike, or François Ozon – are hailed as hallmarks of a director’s boldness and versatility. One can easily imagine the response in Cahiers had Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder – exact contemporaries of Duvivier – glided between such divergent stories. Perhaps this incessant give and flex in Duvivier’s mid-1950s period, and the fluid flitting from genre to genre, have made him a victim of his own eclecticism.

Silence Then Sound

Duvivier was undoubtedly the most prolific of the new generation of French directors who emerged in the early 1920s, making far more silent films than Jacques Feyder, René Clair, or Jean Renoir. Genres were chosen insouciantly, from religious film to broad comedy, from proto-noir to bourgeois melodrama. By cutting across genres so efficiently, Duvivier was able to introduce early on not just recurring narrative and thematic patterns but also a raft of techniques like montage, rapid cuts, superimpositions, camera tricks, deep focus and close-ups. His modernity is there right from the start.

Duvivier’s silent films were rich storehouses that augured future projects. Cœurs farouches (1924) looks ahead to the ‘whodunnit’ narrative suspense in Marie-Octobre (1959) and The Burning Court. Le Reflet de Claude Mercœur (The Reflection of Claude Mercœur, 1923) plays out a narrative of doubling, identity crisis, and Oedipal plotting that would be replayed both dramatically (The Impostor , with Jean Gabin playing a man who assumes the identity of another) and comically (Holiday for Henrietta, with two scriptwriters playing split versions of the same personality).  He made a trio of films that dealt with a religious subject matter: Credo ou la tragédie de Lourdes, L’Agonie de Jérusalem and La Vie miraculeuse de Thérèse Martin (The Miraculous Life of Thérèse Martin, 1929).  In the latter, the titular young girl prepares to enter the Carmelite order and take the veil in a scene that lasts nearly fifteen minutes.  The camera lingers on religious art and artefacts, and lights an audience with Pope Leo XIII like a medieval missal illumination.  The final cutting of Thérèse’s hair is shot via an unbroken, close-up that is preceded and followed by extreme close-ups of her father’s weeping face. Au Bonheur des dames (1929), Duvivier’s last silent film, is a film of movement, of propulsion, of people ricocheting around Paris. In its justly celebrated opening sequence, a train pulls into Saint-Lazare station and disgorges Dita Parlo into the seething crowds of the metropolis. What follows is a pure Eisensteinian montage of dizzyingly swift cuts, swooping pans, documentary inserts, sound effects, and cross- cutting. Duvivier captures the wide-eyed wonder of Parlo’s extraordinary face in a series of still close-ups that alternate with the rapid sense impressions of the city unspooling before her and us. As Denise walks the streets, Duvivier uses a series of hidden cameras to capture the teeming city and its non-stop wave of passers-by. This virtuoso three-and-a-half-minute scene represents the culmination of Duvivier’s silent work, pushing camera movement and montage to the point of abstraction and placing Au Bonheur des dames alongside those documentary films that staged similarly frenetic depictions of the urban space, such as Rien que les heures (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1926), Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (Walter Ruttman, 1927), Etudes sur Paris (André Sauvage, 1928), and Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929).


Julien Duvivier

Dita Parlo arrives in Paris, overwhelmed by movement and pace

The coming of sound to French cinema brought rapid industrial and cultural change, and Duvivier adapted well. This renewed energy stemmed from the comparatively flexible working conditions that emerged in the early 1930s, where a ‘can-do’ climate was the norm. Smaller scale film companies flourished and directors with strong artistic visions (like Duvivier, Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné) were encouraged to experiment with film’s new sonic possibilities. This period also saw an explosion of populist literature which chronicled the social transformations affecting French urban society.  Novelists like Ashelbé, Pierre Mac Orlan and the socially inflected crime fiction of Georges Simenon were preoccupied with criminal figures and the underworld milieu, and Duvivier adapted novels by all three in the 1930s. As he had done in the silent era, Duvivier worked on repeat assignments with the same technical and artistic teams.  This time, his team included writers (Henri Jeanson, Charles Spaak), designers (Jacques Krauss), cinematographers (Armand Thirard), composers (Maurice Jaubert), and actors (Harry Baur, Jean Gabin).  Duvivier did much to establish the formal and aesthetic norms of French poetic realism. Escape From Yesterday and Pépé le Moko both blended elements of populism and melodrama and wrapped them in a highly expressionistic mise en scène. The central concerns of these films – alienation, helplessness, assertive masculinity, romanticism – converged around the star aura of actor Jean Gabin, whose ‘mythic’ image Duvivier did much to craft. Other conflicts are played out in Duvivier’s La Belle équipe (They Were Five, 1936).  Here, five poor Parisian friends win the lottery and decide to pool their money and renovate a riverside tavern on the outskirts of the city.  The quintet, again featuring Gabin, does not have an easy time attempting to build an egalitarian workers’ paradise in the Popular Front mode.  Duvivier shot two different endings of the film – an overtly pessimistic one in which Gabin’s character kills co-owner Charles out of jealousy over the latter’s ex-wife; and a more optimistic one in which the two friends resists the ex-wife’s ploy to separate them. The film was originally released in France with the first ending, the one that Duvivier unequivocally preferred.  Shortly after the film’s release in Paris to a mediocre critical reception and lukewarm box office figures, producers asked Duvivier to reinstate the second, happier ending.  He never forgave them for overriding his artistic vision and replacing the feeling of despondency and pessimism with one of hope and male redemption, in the service financial considerations. The fact that Duvivier pushed for the darker finale, against the wishes of worried producers who preferred the restorative, trouble-free conclusion, is a useful yardstick to measure his ethical stance.

It is worth reflecting too on the way that Duvivier throughout his career often delighted in thwarting audience expectations.  In his 1932 La Tête d’un homme / A Man’s Neck, an adaptation of a Simenon novel starring Harry Baur as Maigret, Duvivier shows no interest in maintaining suspense, or carefully moving the spectator towards a conclusion in which everything is explained.  On the contrary, the whole mystery is revealed early on in the film (who the killer is, and what their motivations are).  Instead, Duvivier looks more closely at the psychological intrigue between killer and detective; it becomes instead a progressive cat-and-mouse game that, at the time, was innovative but also highly perplexing to audiences.  Simenon was none too impressed either – Duvivier dispensed with his screenplay and requested a complete rewrite from two other writers, and Simenon, taking umbrage at the way he had been sidelined, resolved never to surrender the film rights of any of his novels (a pledge that lasted only until 1940).  Yet, A Man’s Neck was ahead of its time in its use of the subjective camera to achieve an intense psychological realism and heighten the conflict between Maigret and Radek, the killer.  Here, conflict is writ large in cinematographic style, with the use of dark oppressive corners, back projection, and trick shots to create the fraught psychological spaces of Montparnasse. Likewise, in Golgotha, his film about the death of Christ, Duvivier is not interested in the spiritual, the religious, or the uplifting nature of the film; rather he takes a kind of sado-masochistic pleasure in Christ’s road to Calvary.  The scene where Pilate offers Christ up to the crowd can be read as a metaphor for Duvivier’s entire cinema: the individual swallowed up by an increasingly hysterical, cruel community.  Duvivier’s version is intimate and introspective, focusing on characters who speak quietly in closed rooms.

Duvivier’s cinema became increasingly transnational at this point. Allô Berlin? Ici Paris (Here’s Berlin, 1932) shuttles between Paris and Berlin, between Weimar taverns and Montmartre cabarets.  It nestles alongside René Clair’s contemporary comedies like Le Million (1931) and Quatorze juillet (Bastille Day, 1932) but also look ahead to the likes of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940).  Le Golem (The Golem, 1936) was a visual feast, full of castles, synagogues, inns, alchemy laboratories, and caged lions.  The film’s baroque aesthetic straddles both horror and fantasy; the registers would overlap again in works as diverse as The Phantom Carriage, Flesh and Fantasy (1943), and The Burning Court. Duvivier’s approach to gender politics emerges more fully in the 1930s.  There was the highly negative depiction of Mme. Lepic in Poil de carotte, the figure of the bitch (Viviane Romance in They Were Five) and the grasping mother and daughter duo in David Golder which sat alongside Edith (Micheline Francey), the ‘good woman’ in The Phantom Carriage and the alternately brittle and egotistical Christine (Marie Bell) in Dance Program.

Hollywood Then Home

Duvivier worked in America twice, firstly and briefly in 1938, and then again from 1940 to 1945.  Whilst there, he revitalised his own approach to filmmaking by imbricating ‘Frenchness’ into a very different industrial system.  The money-no-object freedoms and studio gloss afforded Duvivier while he made The Great Waltz (1938) for MGM encouraged him to be ever more audacious in his filming techniques. Duvivier studded the biopic of Austrian composer Johann Strauss II with a series of waltzes and operatic interludes, and used highly mobile crane shots, a rotating turntable and spinning rear projection to capture the emotional fizz between Strauss and his mistress. Duvivier returned to Hollywood in 1940 as part of the great wave of intercontinental emigration following the start of the war, alongside Jean Renoir and René Clair. He made the melodrama Lydia (1941), two portmanteaux films Tales of Manhattan and Flesh and Fantasy (1943), and The Impostor. If there remained some residual disappointment on Duvivier’s part that the financial largesse of a studio system did not always allow for greater flexibility or creativity on the part of the director, then that is partly to do with his implicit criticism of a system which systematically reduced the role of the director to a cog in the machine.  In 1946, he observed that “to direct a film in America is simply a matter of ‘staging’ it, much like the theatre director who is handed a play and a cast, and whose sole task now is to simply construct the atmosphere of that play.”11 Yet for a director whose work perpetually prized open the boundaries of rigidly defined national cinema styles and incorporated various styles, registers, and tones, Duvivier’s willingness to interface with multiple genres (fantasy, musical, war film) quickly and inexpensively made him ideally suited to the industrial imperatives of Hollywood. Duvivier’s trip to Hollywood is comparable to the one taken by Max Ophüls, in that the experiences there allowed him to make more complex and challenging films when he eventually returned to France.  Like Duvivier, Ophüls worked in Hollywood, making five films in three and a half years (most notably, Letter from an Unknown Woman in 1948 and Caught in 1949) before returning to France to a period of revitalisation and energy with Madame de… in 1953 and Lola Montès in 1955).  What Ophüls learned in Hollywood, he was able to incorporate back into his French films – the restless camera, the dollies, and the crane shots.

On his return to France, Duvivier told waiting journalists that he was ready to work on a film that had more in common with everyday reality.  That film was Panique (1946), which married a strain of pre-war pessimism with a new bitterness that showcased Duvivier’s own response to France’s post-Liberation climate of suspicion and retribution.  The film, like compared to Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943) and Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936), depicts seemingly rational individuals who are whipped up into a mob frenzy.  Looked at today, Panique is a deeply coruscating work, exploring the scapegoating of a man (the great Michel Simon) ironically innocent of the crime of which he is accused by Alice (Viviane Romance), a scheming woman encouraged by her lover.

Julien Duvivier

The quintessential Duvivier powerplay: a woman and lover plot to destroy an innocent man


The role of the crowd in one man’s demise continued a thread already established in Golgotha, Tales of Manhattan, Le Tourbillon de Paris (The Maelstrom of Paris, 1928) and L’Homme du jour (The Man of the Hour, 1937): social groupings for Duvivier are riven with cynicism and cruelty. While Duvivier had difficulty readjusting to a new filmmaking climate that now feted new directors (Bresson, Clouzot, Becker, Autant-Lara) and emphasised authentic, location-filmed reality, Panique cleverly incorporates the pessimism of Duvivier’s 1930s films, while grafting on a new set of political and social contexts. It remains one of the high points of Duviver’s career. As such, Panique stands as the key transitional film in Duvivier’s career, marking not just his reintegration back into the French industry after a period of almost six years in isolation in Hollywood, but also the incorporation into his work of a tone and a visual style that would grow ever bleaker and more misanthropic.  Moreover, Alice’s representation in barely concealed misogynist terms is part of a wider post-war canvas that focused on the victimisation of men by manipulative women. This emphasis can be seen as a paranoid interpretation by men of their own predicament at the Liberation which led to a scapegoating of women for wartime collaboration.  The casting of Romance as Alice a decade after her destructive role as Gina in They Were Five is telling, for Duvivier reinforces pre- to post-war continuities via the representation of this sale garce (‘evil bitch’).  And it would not end here. Alice’s diabolical persona would continue to mutate, firstly into the evil headmistress in Au royaume des cieux and then, most memorably, as Christine, in Deadlier Than the Male.

From 1946 to 1956, Duvivier’s films were often formal or visual experimentations that highlighted their own construction (Sous le ciel de Paris/Under the Paris Sky, 1951), Holiday for Henrietta), reflected the destabilisation of gender relations in French society (Panique, Au royaume des cieux) or interfaced with the commercial and the art-house (between 1952 and 1954, Duvivier shot the two comedies Le Petit monde de Don Camillo/The Little World of Don Camillo and its sequel Le Retour de Don Camillo/The Return of Don Camillo and then the gloomy L’Affaire Maurizius in 1954). Under the Paris Sky in particular oscillated between light and darkness. What starts as a gentle love letter to Paris transforms into something far more unsettling: a murderous sculptor, whose artworks are deformed, bloated depictions of the female form, stalks the streets.  Other works continued to trade in the eerie and the uncanny. Marianne de ma jeunesse (Marianne of My Youth, 1956) was a romantic fable tinged with the spirit of Charles Perrault and Poe), while Black Jack (1951), starring an overweight George Sanders as a world-weary ex-pat stranded in north Africa, updated the narrative thrust of Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) in a murky tale of contraband and racketeering.  The immense commercial success of the two ‘Don Camillo’ films highlighted a willingness to pivot between popular cinema and auteur cinema and back again.12 Yet even these broad comedies served as vehicles to critique weightier questions of exile, the clash between politics and religion, and the utopian idea that individual ideology will always be trumped by shared interest and the common good. His work at this time epitomises a ‘cinema of quality’; films that are the end products of a dynamic, perpetually evolving style that could straddle original screenplays and European literature, star actors and unknowns, Arcadian forests and nocturnal cities.


Julien Duvivier

Two ideologies face off in The Little World of Don Camillo – clericalism and Communism

Any suspicion that Duvivier was coasting at this point was soon countered with the release of Deadlier Than the Male.  This harrowing drama offered definitive proof that Duvivier’s brand of ‘quality’ cinema was alive and well in the 1950s. It is a dense network of favoured Duvivier themes and techniques: bitterness, cynicism, the bleakness of human nature, the crushing of anything bright or optimistic. This is a Paris where the sun does not shine. After Panique, women in Duvivier’s films had been a mix of the haughty, the unattainable, the dreamlike and the naïve.  If post-1945 French cinema, with its frequent demonisation of women, marked the reassertion of male dominance and patriarchal authority, then this altered scenario of Deadlier Than the Male offered a counterpunch. It presents Gabin as André, the impotent ‘father’, unable to tame the excesses of the ‘daughter’ and instead positions the ageing ‘mother’ as the agent of retribution against the bad daughter.  Eventually, it is a dog who restores order, not André, who struggles to open the hotel room door, and arrives at the scene too late. This film marked Duvivier’s final collaboration with Gabin, who plays a Les Halles restaurant owner gradually duped by Danièle Delorme’s pale-faced angel of death.  It was critically acclaimed; ironically, one of the film’s warmest endorsements came from a certain François Truffaut: “one can sense the control over every aspect (script, mise en scène, acting, image, music, etc.) – control by a filmmaker who has arrived at total confidence in himself and his vocation”.13


Julien Duvivier

Duvivier directs Danièle Delorme in Deadlier Than the Male

Towards the end of the day

The films Duvivier made post-Deadlier Than the Male have generally been dismissed as anonymous hack works.  Yet a closer look reveals that these later works remained richly melodramatic and stoically melancholic.  Duvivier continued to adapt source texts (Lovers of Paris, Highway Pickup) and made wistful films with New Wave inflections (La Grande vie/The High Life, 1960), Boulevard (1960), chamber pieces (Marie-Octobre , Diaboliquement vôtre (Diabolically Yours, 1967) and Gothic noir (The Burning Court).  Perhaps the most noteworthy was Highway Pickup one of Duvivier’s most underrated films, and one of the best French noirs of the early 1960s.  Part of what makes the film so pleasurable is Duvivier’s systematic deployment of a range of familiar noir techniques: the femme fatale, the heat and the dust, the diagonal shafts of shadow, as well as the numerous allusions to American films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947).  There’s even a nod to Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, Jules Dassin, 1955), with a silent safe-cracking scene.  Such recycling of American tropes, alongside the engagement with French youth culture in Boulevard and The Woman and the Puppet, plus the continued exploration of gender politics in The Burning Court and Lovers of Paris, showed a director comfortable with returning to favoured themes, but updating them for new, increasingly fragmented audiences. Repressed historical events resurge from the past in Marie-Octobre and Diabolically Yours (despite Duvivier’s political agnosticism, both films say a great deal about the Occupation and the Algerian war at a time when French cinema scrupulously ignored dealing with the traumatic aftermath of these conflicts).

Julien Duvivier

Radical mise en scène in Diabolically Yours


His is a paranoiac cinema – fear of crowds, fear of women, fear of the group, fear of the unknown. He returned again and again to the notion of the crowd dynamic, and how individuals were often threatened, humiliated or overrun by the group. This is most evident in his 1930s work, but it is a central aspect of films as diverse as Panique, Marie-Octobre and Diabolically Yours.   Also fundamental to Duvivier’s body of work is the idea that the male individual or the bonded male group could often be undone by a scheming or meddling woman.  In the early part of Duvivier’s career, such women were caricatured as grasping and unloving (both versions of Poil de carotte, David Golder and The Five Accursed Gentlemen) but they became progressively more destructive (Romance in They Were Five and Panique, and Delorme in Deadlier Than the Male).  Duvivier complicated his gender politics even further in Au royaume des cieux and The Burning Court by having supposedly nurturing and maternal figures (school director, nurse) play cruel, heartless antagonists. This is why Duvivier’s cinema is pessimistic, bleak, dark, and misanthropic – the individual is not only prone to attack from faceless external forces (La Divine croisière/The Divine Voyage (1929), Escape From Yesterday The Impostor), but more often than not is susceptible to ruthless assaults from people closest to them.  Ultimately, Duvivier’s genre eclecticism and lack of a coherent corpus should not be conceptualised as a negative; instead, Duvivier’s historical and genre range vitally responds to and engages with important development in French and international film praxis.  His status as ‘not quite auteur’ and his marginalised position in the annals of French film history need not detract from the beauty, horror, and often exquisite tenderness of his work.  History often forgets to acknowledge those directors who were ‘survivors’; individuals who just kept on working despite the travails of war, displacement, changing tastes or critical mauling.  These are the artists driven by a ferocious work ethic, with a need to keep on scratching creative itches, or fund a comfortable lifestyle, or pivot between the ‘one for them, one for me’ tactic of negotiating the studio system and the financiers.  That was Duvivier.  And cinema will rarely see his like again.

Julien Duvivier

Old meets new: Duvivier and Léaud run lines on the set of Boulevard



Haceldama ou le prix du sang (1919)
Les Roquevillard (1922)
L’Ouragan sur la montagne
Le Reflet de Claude Mercœur (1923)
La Machine à refaire la vie (1924)
Credo ou la tragédie de Lourdes (1924)
L’Œuvre immortelle (1924)
Cœurs farouches (1924)
Poil de carotte
L’Abbé Constantin
L’Homme à l’Hispano (1926)
Le Mystère de la tour Eiffel
Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans (1927)
L’Agonie de Jérusalem (1927)
Le Tourbillon de Paris (1928)
La Vie miraculeuse de Thérèse Martin (1929)
Maman Colibri (1929)
La Divine croisière (1929)
Au Bonheur des dames (1929)
David Golder (1930)
Les Cinq gentlemen maudits
Allo Berlin? Ici Paris!
Poil de carotte
La Tête d’un homme
Le Petit roi
La Machine à refaire la vie (1933)
Le Paquebot Tenacity (1934)
Maria Chapdelaine
La Bandera (1935)
Le Golem (1936)
La Belle équipe
L’Homme du jour (1937)
Pépé le Moko (1937)
Un Carnet de bal (1937)
The Great Waltz (1938)
La Fin du jour (1939)
La Charrette fantôme
Lydia (1941)
Tales of Manhattan
Flesh and Fantasy
The Impostor
Untel père et fils (1945)
Anna Karenina
Au royaume des cieux
Black Jack
Sous le ciel de Paris
Le Petit monde de Don Camillo
La Fête à Henriette
Le Retour de Don Camillo
L’Affaire Maurizius
Marianne de ma jeunesse (1955)
Voici le temps des assassins (1956)
L’Homme à l’imperméable
La Femme et le pantin
Marie-Octobre (1959)
La Grande vie
La Chambre ardente
Le Diable et les dix commandements
Chair de poule
Diaboliquement vôtre



Eric Bonnefille, Julien Duvivier: le mal aimant du cinéma français, 2 volumes (volume 1: 1896-1940 ; volume 2: 1940-1967) (Paris: Harmattan, 2002).

Lenny Borger, “Genius Is Just a Word”, Sight and Sound, September 1998, pp. 28-31.

Raymond Chirat, Julien Duvivier (Lyon: Premier Plan, 1968).

Yves Desrichard, Julien Duvivier: Cinquante ans de noirs destins (Paris: BiFi/Durante, 2001).

Pierre Leprohon, Julien Duvivier (Paris: Avant-scène/Collection Anthologie du cinéma, 1968).

Ben McCann, Julien Duvivier (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2017).

Hubert Niogret, Julien Duvivier: 50 ans de cinéma (Paris: Bazaar and Co., 2010).

Sam Rohdie, “Love Unto Death”, Screening The Past 39 (2015), http://www.screeningthepast.com/issue-39.

Ginette Vincendeau, Pépé le Moko (London: BFI, 1998).



  1. Graham Greene, The PleasureDome: The Collected Film Criticism, 1935-40, John Russell Taylor, ed. (London: Secker and Warburg, 1972) p. 184.
  2. Duvivier’s early silent films La Tragédie de Lourdes (1924) and L’Agonie de Jérusalem (1927) were the first French films to be shot in these locations.
  3. Sam Rohdie, “Love Unto Death”, Screening The Past 39 (2015), http://www.screeningthepast.com/issue-39.
  4. Julien Duvivier, “Julien Duvivier fête ses 30 ans de cinéma: Interview with Marcel Idzkowski”, Cinémonde 639 (29 October 1946): p. 10.
  5. Quoted in Lenny Borger, “Genius Is Just a Word”, Sight and Sound (September 1998): p. 31.
  6. Duvivier’s whole career might best be characterised as an on-going conflict – with his actors, his writers, his technical staff, and his producers.  Actors frequently recalled Duvivier’s tyrannical, dictatorial on-set demeanour and his seeming willingness to pick a fight at the slightest provocation.
  7. Graham Greene, The PleasureDome: The Collected Film Criticism, 1935-40, John Russell Taylor, ed. (London: Secker and Warburg, 1972) p. 145.
  8. Jean-Luc Godard, “Le jeune cinéma a gagné”, Arts 719 (22-28 April 1959), p. 5.
  9. Dudley Andrew, “Julien Duvivier”, in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 2, 3rd edn, Laurie Collier Hillstrom, ed. (Detroit: St. James Press, 1997), p. 283.
  10. David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (London, Secker & Warburg, 1975), p. 156.
  11. Pierre Leprohon, Présences Contemporaines (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Debresse, 1957), p. 56.
  12. Its final audience total stands at 12.8 million. Even today, The Little World remains the seventeenth highest-grossing film of all time in France (and the sixth highest French film). Duvivier became an incredibly wealthy man after he opted for a percentage of the first film’s profits rather than an upfront fee.
  13. François Truffaut, “Débat sur Duvivier”, Arts 564 (18 April 1956): p. 5.

About The Author

Ben McCann is Associate Professor of French Studies at the University of Adelaide.  He is the co-editor of Michael Haneke: Europe Utopia (Wallflower, 2011), and the author of Ripping Open the Set (Peter Lang, 2013), Le Jour se lève (I.B. Tauris, 2013), Julien Duvivier (Manchester University Press, 2017), and L’Auberge Espagnole: European Youth on Film (Routledge, 2018).

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