Film history is a strange affair; certain directors are lionized, others are forgotten. Some directors travel well internationally, while others don’t. Henri Verneuil (1920–2002) had a long and distinguished career in French cinema, but because the New Wave critics didn’t embrace his work, and perhaps because he was something of a traditionalist in an era given to radical innovations, his films don’t get the international attention or respect they deserve.
With a career that stretches from the late 1940s to a TV mini-series in 1993, and collaborations with such distinguished actors as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale, Verneuil created an interesting mix of commercial and “art house” films, sometimes creating light entertainments, but often dealing with serious issues of class, labor, and capital. He won a César for his lifetime of work in 1996, a few years before his death. But is he as well known as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Henri-Georges Clouzot or numerous other of his compatriots. No. Does he deserve to be. Simply, yes.
People of No Importance (Des gens sans importance, 1956) features iconic French star Jean Gabin as Jean Viard, an aging truck driver who routinely drives 60 hour shifts, and has a miserable home life. He meets and falls in love with truck stop waitress Clotilde Brachet (Françoise Arnoul), and the two begin a long distance relationship between his trucking assignments, but their affair, of course, is destined to end in tragedy.
What makes the film so compelling is Verneuil’s relentless, brutal direction of both the camera and the actors, creating a work of such compelling bleakness that it almost defies description. Shot for the most part on location, the film is deeply sympathetic to the plight of the working class, even as it suggests that they will never be able to escape their milieu. Gabin, typically world-weary, dominates the film, but Arnoul is equally compelling as the hardboiled Clotilde, who knows that the deck is stacked against her, but keep trying nevertheless.
People of No Importance is every bit as compelling as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953), but never got the critical or commercial attention it deserved outside of France, where it was a substantial boxoffice hit, due in part to Gabin’s participation. But it never broke through in America, unlike many other films of the era, when “art houses” functioned across the country, bringing international films to a wider audience.
Since the film isn’t available on DVD in America, only in a French version with no English subtitles, this situation isn’t likely to change in the near future. But as with so many excellent films that aren’t generally known to the public, People of No Importance remains ready for discovery, for those who really care about the history of cinema. One bright spot: the film was recently run on TCM, so perhaps a DVD release is in the cards down the line.