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The 50 best films set in Paris: Up to 1960

Paris is not the birthplace of cinema. That accolade is contested by a handful of cities in the Western world, perhaps most convincingly by Lyon, the home of...

'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945)
Paris is not the birthplace of cinema. That accolade is contested by a handful of cities in the Western world, perhaps most convincingly by Lyon, the home of the pioneering Lumière brothers. But when in need of patrons to finance their cinematic experiments, it is to the capital that the brothers turned; and so, in 1895, they gave the first ever private screening of projected motion pictures, in the basement of the Grand Café (where today stands the Hotel Scribe). Thus Paris’s special relationship with the Seventh Art was forged.

Over the next half century, French cinema blossomed into one of the world’s largest, resisting Hollywood dominance with greater success than elsewhere in Europe. The motors at its heart were the mighty Pathé and Gaumont studios, whose bases in and around Paris ensured that the capital remained at the heart of the industry (a former Pathé branch in Montreuil is now home to a performing arts centre). Despite the interference of the world wars, French and foreign filmmakers shot here in ever greater numbers, capturing the city's cinematogenic vistas in some of the most shimmeringly beautiful films ever made.

Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915)

1915: Slaughter at Gallipoli; first use of gas on the Western Front; Lusitania sunk. And as diversion, this serial saga (in 10 episodes) of a band of robbers whose principals include Satanas, who keeps a howitzer behind the fireplace and a bomb under his top hat, and Irma Vep, the notorious anagram, to whom Olivier Assayas rendered homage 80 years later. There's a hero (a resolute reporter), but all the interest goes to Irma and Co...

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Paris qui Dort (René Clair, 1925)

The first feature of director-writer-novelist-Dadaist René Clair resembles his better-known short 'Entr'acte' in its manic comic invention and its all-round energetic absurdity. It starts out with a crazed inventor perfecting a ray that suspends animation throughout Paris, and then has a great deal of fun tracing the paths of a handful of 'survivors' through the frozen city. The prolific jokes about motion and stasis are fundamentally movie concept gags...

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Boudu Saved From Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932)

If you despise bourgeois hypocrisy (and, frankly, who doesn’t?) and find credence in the notion that the middle and upper classes truly believe that inside every poor person is a rich person just waiting to break free, then you’ll love Jean Renoir’s excoriating social satire, a film that feels as ripe now as it did the year it was made (1932). Boudu (the peerless Michel Simon, who also produced) is the boorish, mangy-dog-like transient...

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L'Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)

Some filmmakers have a lifetime in which to develop their art, to explore their themes, to express their world view. Others do it in a single film. 1934’s ‘L’Atalante’ is the single feature from the then 29-year-old French master Jean Vigo and was made as its director died of TB. The result is not so much a film as an entire artistic vision crammed into 89 of the busiest and most beautiful minutes of celluloid ever shot. Dita Parlo plays Juliette, the smalltown girl...

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Les Enfants du Paradis (Marcel Carné, 1945)

In Marcel Carné’s rich, literary romance from 1945 ('France's answer to "Gone with the Wind'!"), four men tussle for the affections of one woman, the conflicted, sphinx-like Garence (Carné regular Arletty), an ice maiden in the league of Marlene Dietrich who, in nearly every shot, has her eyes masked by a beam of light. Such ethereal, delicately cinematic touches add to a film which is content to let a dazzling, witty script (by Jacques Prévert), sumptuous...

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An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)

’S wonderful! ’S marvellous! ’S a teensy bit smug! Yes, Vincente Minnelli’s groundbreaking, breathtaking musical returns to the screens in a spanking new print, giving a new generation of viewers the chance to admire Gene Kelly in a puce body stocking. He plays Gerry Mulligan, a brash, goodhearted ex-GI turned painter torn between love and career. The great things remain great – Kelly’s effortless grace, Leslie Caron’s extraordinary face...

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La Traversée de Paris (Claude Autant-Lara, 1956)

Paris, 1943. Martin (Bourvil), a slow-witted spiv, persuades a stranger, Grandgil (Gabin), to help him shift four suitcases of pork from butcher to buyer during the blackout. As they dodge patrols, hungry dogs and air raids, Grandgil proves resourceful but explosively and abusively unpredictable. He turns out to be a celebrated painter out slumming, scolding the less fortunate from a position of absolute security - demonstrated when the pair are arrested...

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The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956)

‘The Red Balloon’ follows a small boy and his big red balloon, around his hometown. Winner of numerous awards in its day, including the Grand Prize at Cannes, it now serves as a fascinating look at life in a different era – fondly called ‘the old days’ by my kids. ‘Why is he going to school on his own? Mum, he’s stealing that balloon! He ran across the road without looking! Etc…’The classic short film has no dialogue – hurrah –  and with music...

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Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957)

The musical that dares to rhyme Sartre with Montmartre, Funny Face - surprisingly from Paramount rather than MGM - knocks most other musicals off the screen for its visual beauty, its witty panache, and its totally uncalculating charm. The beauty is most irresistible in the sylvan scene, shimmering through gauze, when Astaire and Hepburn find they 'empathise', to use the film's joke. The panache is most sustained in the 'Clap Yo' Hands' number...

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Gigi (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

Not a Broadway-based musical but a screen original, derived from Colette's short novel set in turn-of-the-century Paris, with famous if vapid songs by Lerner and Loewe ('I Remember It Well', 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls'). But the dominating creative contribution comes from Minnelli and Cecil Beaton (responsible for production design and costumes). The combination of these two visual elitists is really too much - it's like a meal consisting of...

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Shelley B
Shelley B

This is a good list, but it's missing three of my "up to 1960" favorites.  "Sabrina", "Love In t he Afternoon" with Audrey Hepburn, and "Paris When it Sizzles".  Lots of great movies on and off the list.  Merci Beaucoup!