LE GRAND JEU (Jacques Feyder, 1933)

“Who knows what makes us cry.”

Le grand jeu (The Full Deck) is an engrossing, highly entertaining melodrama that flashes glints of considerably more depth than Jacques Feyder and Charles Spaak’s chiseled script and Feyder’s roomy, flowing direction can deliver on. I enjoyed almost every minute of its two hours but, apart from one brilliant performance, I could not hold anything in it dear.
     Nondescript Pierre Richard-Willm—Feyder had wanted Charles Boyer—plays Pierre Martel, who embezzles money from business clients in Paris to support the lavish lifestyle that his infatuation for society girlfriend Florence demands. His family covers his debts on the condition that he leave France; when Florence won’t accompany him, he joins the Foreign Legion in Morocco, hoping to forget her. How can he, though, when Irma, a prostitute at the local bar-brothel, resembles her? They couple; periodically she will say or do something that convinces Pierre Irma is Florence, taunting him. Is this possible? Florence is a cold blonde; Irma, a warm, sensitive, vulnerable brunette. Marie Bell, her voice dubbed in by someone else as Irma, plays both roles.
     In part, Pierre’s impulse to expose Irma as Florence derives from his dogging guilt over the switch in his own identity; Pierre Martel has become Pierre Muller—an index of the disgrace he feels he has brought to his family. Yet even we sometimes share his uncertainty about Irma, if not his rage. After all, we recognize Bell. Thus Feyder’s film anticipates Idiot’s Delight (Clarence Brown, 1939), The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941) and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), among others. Although not so dark or moody, in its fatalism Le grand jeu also anticipates the poetic realism of Marcel Carné, who just happens to have been Feyder’s assistant on this film.
     Indeed, the film’s title refers to the “card-readings” by which Blanche, the brothel owner’s wife, distracts herself from a miserable marriage and foretells Pierre’s tragic fate. (Ironically, the Frenchman who has assumed a German last name will meet his end fighting Germans.) Françoise Rosay, already long-married to Feyder, is shattering as Blanche. An uproariously belly-padded Charles Vanel is good as Clément, Blanche’s husband, who can’t keep his hands off the merchandise, so to speak.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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