Beloved in France but little known elsewhere, La traversée de Paris holds the distinction of being the one film by Claude Autant-Lara deemed acceptable by the young François Truffaut, in his campaign against the prevailing cinèma du qualité in 1950s France.
One reason for the exception is that it’s sort of an odd film, known also as Four Bags Full, and A Pig Across Paris. It features little actual plot, but some great noirish nighttime street scenes, and much humanity and comedy of frustration. It is also fantastically French, full of funny looking older men, talking fast and gutturally, gesticulating and exhibiting the fondly characteristic venality of the French working classes: the squealing of the slaughtered pig is covered by accordion music and, the deed done, glasses of calvo are naturally handed round.
We are in occupied Paris, and that pig is worth a lot. Amateur black-marketeer Marcel Martin must carry it in four suitcases across the night-shrouded city. His partner is a no-show, so he enlists flaneur Jean Gabin, primarily to prevent a suspected liaison with his own wife. Bourvil won best actor at Cannes, partly for his finely-pitched performance of a little man trying to convince even himself he is a big one, whilst trying to hold on to a self-respectable measure of integrity; and partly for standing up to Gabin, who is on terrific, unchained form. More frequently the embodiment of ultimate masculine stoicism and world-weariness, he plays here a more free and anarchic figure. It turns out his Grandgil is an artist (not a frightfully good one, it must be said, but gaining some renown), out on the hunt for experience and amusement, observing (along with Autant-Lara) the variety of ways in which his compatriots react to and deal with the privations and moral compromises of the Occupation. He himself represents the spirit of free will that can never be quashed.
He is also lucky enough to be able to sweet-talk his way out of imprisonment, since the German officer admires his work. The German presence is felt in the film only at the end; the focus is more on how these people react to adverse circumstances, than the specificity of those circumstances. Much of the film is content to meander along with the stream of dialogue and bickering between Gabin and Bourvil, as they make their way across town, but it does find room for such grandstanding scenes as Gabin’s escalation of his exhortative terms to the increasingly cringing butcher (breakout role for Louis de Funès); or the strikingly photographed conclusion to their journey. Mostly, however, it is a film which encourages us to enjoy the company of these flawed, rascally, or irascible people, and gently reminds us that we’re all in this together.