Below is a version of a piece I did to accompany French film channel Cinémoi's Jean Gabin season that I've rewritten to include more of the actor's roles in films based upon novels by Georges Simenon.
Jean Gabin was born in Paris in 1904, the son of cabaret performers; he made his way in music hall before cementing his big-screen reputation in the 1930s. He appeared alongside Josephine Baker in Zouzou (1934), was on the run in Algier’s Casbah in Pépé le Moko (1937) and then appeared in a remarkable trio of films in only two years: Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (1938), Jean Renoir’s visceral Zola adaptation La Bête humaine (same date), and Le jour se lève (1939), again with Carné.
During the war he went to the United States, where he pursued an affair with Marlene Dietrich – when Gabin insisted she be given a role in a film in which he was starring, he was sacked and joined the Free French. He was later decorated for his wartime service fighting in North Africa, and was part of the forces that entered Paris on liberation.
His 1950s citations include Jacques Becker’s classic gangster flick Touchez-pas au grisbi (1954) and the recently re-released French Cancan (Renoir, 1955). Like a more recent giant of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu, Gabin’s physical presence is unmissable but while Depardieu’s increasing girth seems to have encouraged softness in his performances, you can never exclude Gabin as a threat. His performance as a music hall impresario in French Cancan is possessed with powerful watchfulness.
It is this characteristic that made Georges Simenon’s Chief Inspector Maigret such an ideal part in a series of three films directed by Jules Delannoy and Gilles Grangier from 1958 to 1963. Gabin and Simenon were great friends but the author was especially thrilled the actor would take on the role, believing Gabin was the screen incarnation of his character (pictured).
By this time Gabin had starred in a number of films based on Simenon novels, including La Marie du port (1950), once more under Carné, La verité sur Bébé Donge (1952), with Danielle Darieux, and Le sang à la tête (1956, from the novel Le fils Cardinaud), alongside Annie Girardot.
Gabin also starred opposite Brigitte Bardot in En cas de malheur (1958), the Simenon book remade in 1998 as En plein coeur (In All Innocence) with Virginie Ledoyen and Gérard Lanvin. In 1961, Gabin was the lead in Henri Verneuil’s adaptation of Simenon’s controversial politician-in-exile novel, Le président (1961). The list gives some sense of Simenon’s cachet in the period, as well as that of Gabin.
In another Simenon adaptation, Le chat (1971), the actor stars as one half of an ageing couple whose hatred for each other is brought into the open when Gabin’s character becomes convinced his cat has been killed by his partner, played by Simone Signoret. He won Berlin’s Silver Bear award for best actor for what would turn out to be one of his last roles. Gabin died in 1976; Simenon, his elder by nearly one year, died in 1989.