The setup is for a classic farce: Two punters must carry hundreds of pounds of illegal fresh ham, via four suitcases, across Occupied Paris over one long night, dodging policemen, Nazis and packs of starving stray dogs en route. Martin (Gallic comedian Bourvil), is a struggling hustler who recruits a stranger, Grandgil (Jean Gabin), to help physically freight the contraband pork. But this dashing associate turns out to be an anarchic wild card who shakes down their butcher employer (Louis De Funès) for extra cash and smashes up a speakeasy for sport. Luckily, when they’re nabbed by the Germans, Grandgil has an ace up his sleeve: He’s far from the low-class thug he appears to be.
Although comedic high jinks do ensue in Claude Autant-Lara’s beloved-in-France postwar fable—namely a bit with a gathering parade of sow-sniffing hounds—the laughs it engenders get snarled in the throat. The director casts an unsparing, mirth-quashing eye upon Gestapo-ruled Paris, a desperate place populated by opportunistic merchants, shifty black-marketeers and the ration-starved unemployed. Such tonal ambiguity extends to the film’s look, with its disquieting, noirish black and white clashing with painted backdrop fabrications, as well as to Gabin’s misanthropic charisma. More than 50 years on, the film plays less like a classic than a still-festering wound—and is all the more valuable for it.
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