Was Julien Duvivier an auteur (like his countryman Jean Renoir), a skilled craftsman (like Michael Curtiz) or a pure hack (like, say, Ray Enright)? Over a long career, he made 72 movies, but only one really Famous Film, Pépé le Moko (1937), which has been released on a Criterion DVD. It’s hard to get a read on Duvivier based on Pépé and his tentative but often exquisite version of Anna Karenina (1948) with Vivien Leigh; these are the two films of his most readily available. Long missing in action on American screens, Un Carnet de bal (1937), Poil de Carotte (1932) and other works at the twenty-two film Duvivier retrospective at MoMA might tip the scales either way for a reassessment of his worth. In that spirit, I recently spotted an ancient DVD of Duvivier’s La Bandera (1936) at the library and decided to give it a whirl.
La Bandera opens with a superbly composed shot of a woman cleaning a house juxtaposed with a young couple walking down the street. Duvivier cuts to a closer shot of the couple so that we see that they’re merrily drunk, and the girl careens into Jean Gabin, who looks like he’s being hunted. After he staggers off, she realizes that there’s blood on her dress, as Duvivier moves in for a big fat close-up. So far, so good, and it gets better as Gabin enters a sleazy club where a topless woman dances and transvestite prostitutes clamor for his attention. Duvivier’s camera is constantly moving, and he cheerfully makes no bones about using rear projection; based on La Bandera and Pépé, Duvivier seems like he’s a pure fantasist, a maker of movie-movies that don’t pretend to any kind of reality outside of their conventions and the star playing of actors like Gabin, Harry Baur or Gérard Philipe.
The writer Charles Spaak surely contributed a lot to La Bandera (as well as to two of Duvivier’s better known movies, La Fin du Jour  and Panique ), but he also wrote Grand Illusion (1937) for Renoir and Jean Grémillon’s magnificent Gueule d’ Amour (1937), and that can’t help but point up the inferiority of La Bandera, which falters after Gabin enters the Foreign Legion and ends with a cheap dash of “Gallic irony.” At his best, Duvivier achieves the level of a Curtiz, and Pépé le Moko is his Casablanca (1943). That’s nothing to sneeze at, and Duvivier’s technical skills and visual inventiveness are self-evident; whether he was anything more than an adroit technician remains to be seen at MoMA.
La Bandera screens on the afternoons of May 8th and 10th.