Obituary: Gilles Grangier

Film directors who start at the very bottom of the ladder in the movie business and learn their craft by working in the humblest of studio jobs on their way to the top are fairly rare these days. But Gilles Grangier was such a one. "He knew his trade inside out, except for the writing of scenarios," as the author of Dictionnaire du cinema, Jean Tulard, pointed out in a television homage.

Grangier was a real Paris street sparrow, like Piaf and Arletty, and his deep knowledge of the various Paris quartiers, their characters and their peculiar atmospheres was captured to perfection in his unpretentious and entertaining movies, in which he worked with the biggest stars, all of whom became personal friends - Jean Gabin, Pierre Brasseur, Fernandel, Bourvil, Arletty and many more, including the scenarist Michel Audiard who, with Gabin and Fernandel, helped to create Grangier's short-lived production company Gafer. The name is in fact derived from the first letters of Gabin, Audiard and Fernandel, with the last two letters of Grangier added. The company made only one film, L'Age intrat ("The Awkward Age") in 1964.

Immediately after leaving school, Grangier, fascinated since early childhood by the films shown in his small local flea-pit, found work in the film studios of Billancourt, as walk-on, prop boy, stuntman, grip; then on to manager, assistant director and eventu- ally director. He evokes that long period of dedicated apprenticeship in his very amusing book, 50 Ans de cinema (1990), written in conjunction with the fine film critic Francois Guerif.

After working as assistant director with Georges Lacombe, Grangier was made a prisoner of war in 1939, but benefited from an early release and in 1942, with the comedian Noel-Noel, directed his first film, Ademai bandit d'honneur, with an unusual production company composed of ex-prisoners of war, and a scratch crew of technicians calling themselves "Prisonniers Associes". This was to be the first of over 40 feature films, all of which were immensely popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Among the best-known are: Danger de mort (1947), Gas oil (1953), Le Rouge est mis (1955), and Le cave se rebiffe (1961), all starring Gabin, who in Le Rouge est mis had as his co-star Lino Ventura.

These were precisely the kind of entertainments derided by the nouvelle vague critics and directors. Grangier liked strong storylines, not vague psychological vapourings, solid characters, not mystifying nonentities. But at the same time, he was capable of very sensitive direction, of the swift establishment of the famous French atmosphere first defined by Marcel Carne and Arletty in Hotel du Nord (1938), one of the starstruck movie fan Grangier's favourite films. There was no one to equal him in the economic setting of a working men's bar at dawn, with the day labourers and house painters strolling in to down their first vin blanc or cafe cognac of the day, each one a memorable character distinguished by some neat little personal touch in dress or banlieue slang. Grangier's public delighted in recognising types like themselves and their neighbours, made vivid by these true-to-life details in brasseries and local fairs they knew so well.

Moreover, Grangier's direction always had a warm- hearted glow, a generous affection for his fellow-men of all classes, a humanity that set him apart from the more sinister directors of the 1950s like Duvivier and Autant-Lara. Only Grangier could depict directly, with humour but without harshness, the local people coming out of mass and making for the cafe, or a working-class wedding with accordions and fiddles, and the inevitable couple of girls dancing together.

He directed with conviction and confidence in his craft, and never wavered from that unmistakable personal style looked down upon by the nouvelle vague with smug con- descension, with the notable exception of Truffaut. As Grangier was to write about this distressing period in his cinematic career: "I became just one of the poor has-beens of the cinema. But I was made of cast-iron, an armoured tank, and went my own sweet way." Bertrand Tavernier was another, later, director who recognised Grangier's true worth, and his great friend Gabin, whom he had directed for the first time in 1953 in Le Vierge du Rhin, defended him tooth and nail: "His is not a cinema with a 'message'. Above all, it's that hardest thing to achieve, a decent entertainment, well- constructed, a believable story with believable characters."

Gilles Grangier refused to go into a decline. In the 1970s he started making television serials, rejoicing in the new techniques and saying that television had restored his youth and given him a new lease of life. Among his most popular productions were Walter Scott's Quentin Durward (1971), Les Mohicans de Paris (1973) and Deux ans de vacances (1974). His last work was Banlieue Sud-Est (1978), on the now even more topical theme of suburban violence and racial discrimination in a typical Grangier series of working-class environments.

During his final years, he wrote a book whose title came from a saying by Gabin that had stuck in his memory: Passe la Loire, c'est l'aventure ("Once south of the Loire, you're in Indian territory"). He was also archivist for the Association des Auteurs de Films, a post he was perfectly fitted for. He was made Officier de la Legion d'Honneur de l'Ordre National de Merite in 1994. Grangier was also awarded the Croix de Guerre of the TOE (Theatre d'Operations Exterieures) in recognition of the value of his wartime activities. To the time of his death, he remained a titi de Paris.

James Kirkup

Gilles Grangier, film director: born Paris 5 May 1911; married 1947 Lucie Bourdillon; died Paris 28 April 1996.

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