Le Jour Se Lève typically gets shoehorned, along with a handful of other collaborations between director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, into a filmic historical movement known by the oxymoronic catchall “poetic realism.” But, in many ways, it’s more productive to view this relentlessly dour and disillusioned masterwork as a feel-bad forerunner of film noir. Not long after its release in June 1939, the film was banned under the Vichy government for being “too demoralizing,” a perversely draconian political decree that nevertheless gives you some sense of the film’s power to dismay. Then again, Prévert was an active associate of the surrealist movement, as were many of the postwar critics instrumental in delineating the contours of film noir as an aesthetic, so the similarities in tone and technique between Le Jour Se Lève and what critics prized most in classical noir might best be put down to an elective affinity of sensibilities.
Like many a good noir, Le Jour Se Lève opens with a murder. Behind closed doors, heated words are exchanged and a shot rings out. The door opens, a man stumbles out, and falls down the stairs. A police cordon descends upon the apartment, and the cops proceed to blast away at the culprit (Jean Gabin) through window and door, riddling the room with a ferocious fusillade that easily could have been lifted from Howard Hawks’s Scarface. From this strained standoff, the film moves in proper noir fashion into flashback, setting the stage for tragedy with an ironic meet-cute between foundry worker François (Gabin) and flower girl Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), who instantly bond over their shared name day and upbringing as orphans. As you might expect, however, the course of true love never does run smooth, the chief impediment being variety-show dog trainer Valentin (Jules Berry), a jaded older man who holds some inexplicable sway over Françoise. Complicating the erotic geometry of this romantic quadrangle is Clara (Arletty), Valentin’s former assistant, with whom François soon shacks up, all the while still wooing Françoise.
Le Jour Se Lève is quite frank for the time, and not just about the sexual element at play among this gnarled foursome, with François shamelessly ping-ponging between Clara and Françoise, and Valentin driving him to violence by making insidious insinuations about his relationship with the latter. The film is equally candid when it comes to sketching in the societal backdrop, whether it’s the health hazards involved in François’s sandblasting vocation, or the incipient media circus surrounding the murder. Indeed, these aspects of Carné’s film align more comfortably with the class consciousness often associated with that “poetic realism” tag. So, too, does Gabin’s show-stopping denunciation of the gathering crowd’s bloodlust from his apartment window, a moment that rivals Kirk Douglas’s cliff-top tirade in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.
Like Carné’s earlier Port of Shadows, Le Jour Se Lève establishes a versatile visual palette that exerted a significant influence over classical noir. Head cinematographer Philippe Agostini employs expressive low-key lighting at key moments and, in one notable instance, swathes Gabin’s face in darkness save for a bright band across his eyes. Such stark, high-contrast lighting schemes provide the perfect objective correlative for the film’s blunt existential musings. François’s matter-of-fact assessment of his will to murder (“You just do it and that’s it”) presages Meursault’s zero-degree affect in Camus’s The Stranger. The way Le Jour Se Lève plays with the moral duality of light and shadow is practically Manichean. And the film’s despairing, devastating finale seems to want to prove the ineluctable truth behind the old adage that it’s always darkest just before the dawn.