New York's Museum of Modern Art continues its Julien Duvivier retrospective all through May, bringing to light dozens of dazzling films from this neglected master. La Bandera (1935) is a relatively modest example, a tale of the Spanish foreign legion starring Jean Gabin as a fugitive murderer who discovers the value of duty and heroism, in a role that directly anticipates his later Hollywood work with Duvivier, The Imposter.
The film sidles up to its flag-waving finale, drenching us in cynicism and "depravity" (the sight of Gabin with a drag queen on each arm, as a topless dancer gyrates her willowy form in the background, is an unexpected one for this period, even in France), and there's more than a hint of the poetic realist fatalism, even during the rousing climax. Gabin's best buddy crawls across the desert, under fire from the Arab enemy, in order to obtain the water he's desperate for. Reaching the well, he sups from a bucket, then takes a sniper's bullet to the gut. "Bastards!" he yells, then: "I'm not thirsty now anyway." He dies.
Elsewhere, another comrade has his face tattooed with a deaths-head, so he won't be tempted to return home and give himself up to the authorities.
And Annabella, not yet married to Tyrone Power, plays an unlikely Arab, snagging top billing despite limited screen time which compresses her relationship with Gabin into an improbably brief span. But there's no denying the appeal of this kind of fake movie exoticism. She's also refreshingly set apart from the good girl/bad girl dichotomy that holds sway in a number of Duvivier's films: she's introduced to us as a prostitute and a poisoner, but she's also the movie's heroine.
La Bandera doesn't quite have the electrifying charge of Pepe le Moko, Duvivier's best-known film, but it ought to be better known. In common with all its author's work, it's visually striking, artistically ambitious, surprising in its attitude to characterisation, thrilling in its approach to narrative (we never learn the circumstances that led Gabin to becoming an outlaw).
"Thirty days for threatening to kill your officer. And another thirty for not doing it when you had the chance."
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.