LE MURA DI MALAPAGA is Rene Clement’s 1949 Franco-Italian co-production, a neatly bilingual movie with Jean Gabin as a fugitive in post-war Genoa. It’s also a kind of compendium of Gabin’s greatest hits: he’s on the run for murdering his lover, making it play like either a sequel to GUEULE D’AMOUR or an alternative reality version of LA BANDERA. The city becomes his prison, with shots explicitly evoking the urban cage of PEPE LE MOKO ~
And the poetic realist brand of pessimistic romance and fatalism is everywhere, almost offensively so. It could easily feel too calculated, but there are some striking and particular qualities to this film which help give it originality…
We first meet Gabin hiding out shipboard in that little metal room where they keep the anchor chain. Like where that sailor dies in Lewton’s THE GHOST SHIP. He’s been there in the dark for three days with a toothache, as wince-inducing an analog for hell as I can imagine. So as he determines to risk his neck by going ashore in search of a dentist, I was more than usually inclined to sympathise.
Gabin’s plan is to get his tooth fixed and then turn himself in, but he gets his pocket picked and has to threaten the dentist into operating — without anaesthetic. Having had his immediate problem fixed, he feels hungry. Waiting in the police station for a French-speaker he can explain his situation to, he loses patience and heads to the nearest restaurant. He figures he can eat a hearty meal and then, in lieu of payment, get the proprietor to call the cops, and it’ll all be the same anyway. But in the restaurant he finds love…
Oh yes, we’re also in QUAI DES BRUMES territory — it’s a great plot engine, the character who has to get out of town in a hurry, and finds a way to do so, but simultaneously makes an emotional connection which prevents him. Although the love story, featuring Isa Miranda (from Ophuls’ LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI) as the waitress with a young daughter (the affecting Vera Talchi: Clement was always good with kids) is quite touching, the fatalism seems more a genre requirement than something Clement is enthusiastic about, and it makes things fizzle where they could have sparkled. But the other strength the film has its environment.
Gabin in his steel shoebox full of massive chain-links at the start cued me to expect another film about metal, like BATAILLE DU RAIL, but this is actually a film about walls (like SATYRICON), variously crumbling, towering and teetering. Smashed statuary and worn steps. Genoa, as shown here, resembles both Piranesi’s infinite prisons and Chirico’s depopulated, abstract urban expanses, frightening and colossal and ancient, perpetually collapsing into rubble yet seemingly determined to stand forever in defiance of time.
A bit like Gabin’s craggy features, no longer conducive to the romantic Hollywood lighting of PEPE LE MOKO (a slash of luminescence across the glittering eyes), already rapidly assuming the quilted hangdog folds of the later years, or decades even. Maybe the fatalism sits less well here since the aged Gabin always suggested a stubborn hostility to the idea of succumbing to time’s bludgeoning blows. Battered, even bowed, but still trudging onwards.