“How old are you?” Henri Ferré, Jean Gabin’s character in Henri Decoin’s Razzia sur la chnouf (1955), regularly asks women. 

One replies, “What does it matter? We age quickly in this life.” 

Each woman faced with this question of age is, predictably, taken aback. Their faces reading, “Where are his manners?” Still, they answer… each in their own way. 

However, it’s quickly apparent it is not so much the age of the women which matters to him, but his own age in relation to his inner image of himself. 

Aside from Ferré’s relationship with the 22-year-old Lisette (Magali Noël), who answered the question of her age honestly, the film does not deal specifically with age as a theme, and yet it’s everywhere almost solely as a result of Gabin’s presence on screen. The characters rarely address what may seem obvious in their appearances, so it is instead through the casting of Gabin where age is foregrounded. 

Nearly two decades prior to the production of this film, Gabin, at the age of 33, was the leading man in Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937) and Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937). Akin to the notion of a French John Wayne, Gabin’s larger than life screen presence still manages to deliver sensuality through the details, especially in his work in the ’30s. His chin and the way he holds his mouth; his hair, perfectly coiffed; his eyes, soft but all-knowing. 

At 51 during production on Razzia, the softness in Gabin’s face has been replaced with a heavy sternness, but the glimmer in his eyes remains intact with his charm. The way he carries himself is fitting of a character who has seen and been through much, and yet he also has the capacity to be a variety of things. 

Beyond the initial setup, Ferré, who is known in the criminal underworld as “Henri from Nantes,” is more than just a drug peddler. Assigned to manage a bar as a front for the operations of the drug dealer Paul Liski (Marcel Dalio), Ferré proves to be a reliable manager, an efficient taskmaster, a forgiving father figure, and a capable lover. 

What he cannot be is the younger man he once was. 

At the end of the hall leading to Liski’s office is a white cast of the statue Apollo of Piombino, which depicts the Greek god Apollo standing upright with his arms beginning to rise. The sculpture presents Apollo as a kouros, with his figure trim and youthful. 

Standing at odds with Gabin’s stocky silhouette — which is only accentuated by the cut of his suits throughout the film, padded shoulders and all — Apollo of Piombino is an ideal of masculine beauty no longer achievable for the wizened protagonist. Regardless, Ferré is still wanted and desired, inspiring both romantic devotion from Lisette and jealousy from a member of his own sex. 

When stopping at a bar with the drug-addled Léa (Lila Kedrova), Ferré is introduced to a drug pusher, Jo (François Patrice). Seated at a table with another man, Jo grabs the man’s hand before getting up to meet Ferré — an action easily missed, as it’s presented in a long shot. 

Sporting a pinky ring on his hand and a chunky bracelet on his wrist, Jo is coded as gay. 

Like the audience, Ferré picks up on this aspect of Jo, and grabs him by the ear to bring him close, saying, “Just obey. Don’t ask why.” 

Covered in shadow by Ferre’s dominant frame, Jo acquiesces, simply replying, “Right.” 

Checking in on Liski’s mode of delivering opium and other drugs, Ferré hopes to see Jo’s process for moving product and getting it into the hands of customers. They share a drink together, and Jo’s gaze remains fixed upon Ferré. 

“Brute, you hurt me,” Jo remarks about the tug on his ear. 

Cooly, Ferré replies, “They called me ‘Sweet Henri’ when I was younger.” 

From there, they proceed into a phone booth together. 

If there was any doubt, Jo’s homosexuality is confirmed as Léa approaches Jo’s partner and consoles him over this interaction he has witnessed from across the room. 

“Don’t worry,” Léa says to Jo’s partner. “There’s no danger — don’t be jealous.” 

Panic across his face, Jo’s partner responds, “See how he looked at him?” 

Unlike in England, where homosexual acts were illegal until 1967 — as dramatized in Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) — homosexuality was legalized in France in 1791 during the French Revolution, but it’s still presented here in Razzia as another facet of France’s underbelly… a taboo. 

Within the phone booth, Jo is demonstrating the methods of his trade. Tilting down toward their waists, the camera follows Jo’s hands as he pulls out a phonebook from a shelf beneath the phone. A small knife is used to open the back of a phonebook cover which is used to conceal drugs in plain sight. 

Once the drugs for the night’s delivery are collected, Jo delicately reseals the back of the phonebook cover, his fingers running along the seam. Upon finishing, he looks up to Ferré, asking, “Coming?” 

Throughout this interaction, Gabin imbues Ferré with an unpredictable stoicism. As a character, Ferré is a man who will say what must be said to bring about his desired results, but he mean business. “Sweet Henri,” Ferré’s inner-kouros, is put on display as a tool. 

A life of crime seems to promise youth, or at least its trappings, and the Apollo of Piombino guards the point of entry to this possibility for Ferré and others swept up in Liski’s drug trade. 

Ultimately, the wicked die young, or at least face judgement. 

Razzia sur la chnouf (1955 France 105 min) 

Prod Co: Jad Films, Société Nouvelle des Établissements Gaumont (SNEG), Wager-Film Prod: Paul Wagner Dir: Henri Decoin Scr: Henri Decoin and Maurice Griffe based on the novel by Auguste Le Breton Phot: Pierre Montazel Ed: Denise Reiss Prod Des: Raymond Gabutti Mus: Marc Lanjean 

Cast: Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Lino Ventura, Albert Rémy, Lila Kedrova

About The Author

Grant Douglas Bromley is a graduate of Columbia University's Film Studies MA program, and is an independent filmmaker and essayist on the cinema based out of Knoxville, TN.

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