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I recently viewed a classic French film I had never seen before--Marcel Carne's Le Jour se Leve (Daybreak) (1939). The screenwriter was Carne's frequent collaborator, surrealist Jacques Prevert, and Le Jour se leve came early in a titanic run of films that typified the "Golden Age" of French cinema, reaching its climax with Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) (1945). I was more familiar with this period in cinema history as the time that generally offered the types of films that the Cahiers du Cinema critics of the 1950s, who would soon become the French New Wave writers and directors of the early 60s, would reject as antithetical to their notions of serious art. Nevertheless, Iapproached the Carne film with an open mind. The film stars Jean Gabin, one of the most effortlessly charismatic actors in the history of the medium, as Francois, who kills a man almost immediately and then barricades himself in his top floor flat to thwart the police. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the events that lead up to the fatal confrontation, we see Francois's relationships with two women, and we see the actions of Valentin (Jules Berry) that prompt Francois to kill him. The film is often thought to be the finest example of a particular cinematic style known as "Poetic Realism." Carne and Prevert contrast the grittiness of Francois's psychically devastating job in a foundry with the fantasy world created by Valentin, who manipulates the truth as he manipulates the dogs in his stage act. The camera films the police in pursuit of Francois as if it were a story on the six o'clock news, including the comments of neighbors and friends of the "killer". At the same time, there are moments in the film of delirium and there are dreamlike apparitions. Much of the film seemed more mature in its examination of human relationships than was typical of the Hollywood studio films of 1939, generally considered the "greatest" year in the history of American movie making. Check out the visual elements in the clip below, a trailer for a foreign rerelease of the classic.

I enjoyed the film, and respected it, but I was not carrying it with me a week later. I happened to be preparing a packet for my students to introduce them to the lists of the greatest works of world cinema. Every decade, the British Film Institute's publication, Sight & Sound, gathers together critics, reviewers, film writers, and directors from all over the globe to assess the canon. The results are published during years ending in "2". Thus, 2012 is a big year, one cinephiles await with great anticipation. I have discussed the selections with my students since 1982. I remember fondly trying to persuade film critic F. Anthony Macklin, one of my college professors and the editor of Film Heritage, to include Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on his 1972 ballot. We sat in the college cafeteria and debated whether Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, and other recent films would stand the proverbial test of time. Surely, it was too soon, we thought, for them to make a Ten Best List.

What stunned me, while I was preparing this unit, was the appearance of Le Jour se Leve on the very first Sight & Sound Top Ten--from 1952. In 1952, apparently, the critics posited that the Carne film was one of the ten greatest films ever made! Clearly, I needed to spend some time examining the lists. The first consensus is listed below. The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 1952 Critics’ poll

  • 1. Bicycle Thieves (DeSica)

  • 2. City Lights (Chaplin)

  • 2. The Gold Rush (Chaplin)

  • 4. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)

  • 5. Intolerance (Griffith)

  • 5. Louisiana Story (Flaherty)

  • 7. Greed (von Stroheim)

  • 7. Le Jour se lève (Carné)

  • 7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)

  • 10. Brief Encounter (Lean)

  • 10. La Règle du jeu (Renoir)

What amazes about this list is the number of films less than a decade old that were nevertheless deemed all-time classics of World Cinema. The Neo-realist Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), directed by Vittorio DeSica, was released only four years earlier, in 1948, as was Robert Flaherty's last film, Louisiana Story! Brief Encounter was released just three years before that. The Carne and Renoir films were from the late 30s. What was not surprising was the inclusion of six silent films in the group of eleven. If I had to guess, I'd say that about half of the silent films on this list will still maintain votes in 2012. Silent films have all but disappeared from the recent Top Tens; only two films made the list in 1992 and 2002. The Battleship Potemkin has always remained strong, and one can never count out Chaplin and Keaton as candidates. The Carne film will likely not crack the Top 100 in 2012. As beautiful a melodrama as Brief Encounter is, it's impossible to imagine it sniffing the Top 100 again, never mind the Top 10. In the 2002 poll, Brief Encounter received under five votes from more than 150 critics. The same was true of Carne's Le Jour se Leve, though his Children of Paradise received seven votes, and tied for 27th place. Bicycle Thieves, the number one film of all time in 1952, received only five votes in 2012, tying fifteen other films for 45th place!

By 1962, the world of cinema had changed. A serious body of criticism had been established, film societies had been formed, and film preservationists had recovered many lost classics. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) had vaulted to the top of the list, where it remained in 1972, 1982, 1992, and 2002! "The Greatest Film of All Time" no longer seemed a debatable issue. After five decades, would critics feel compelled to vote for Kane just because it would seem contrary not to? That was the question. And after five decades, if some other film were chosen, would it have to demonstrate all the attributes of Citizen Kane--great acting, great direction, innovative cinematography, breakthrough set design, a memorable musical score, and a legendary screenplay? Would it have to be fun as well as great--like Kane? Would it have to have a history behind it, as Kane did with William Randolph Hearst attempting to buy up all the prints just so he could burn them? What film could reasonably offer all this? Part II tomorrow.

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