Le Grand Jeu. Released 1934. 120 minutes. Directed by Jacques Feyder; Cast: Marie Bell (Florence & Irma), Pierre Richard-Willm (Pierre Martel & Pierre Muller), Charles Vanel (Clément), Georges Pitoëff (Nicolas Ivanoff), Françoise Rosay (Blanche), Camille Bert (Le colonel), André Dubosc (Bernard Martel), Pierre de Guingand (Le Le capitaine).
Le Grand Jeu is an early French romantic drama that follows the “riches to rags to Legion to riches to Legion path” of a carefree Parisian named Pierre Martel. The movie starts in Paris where Martel is shown in all his swank life greatness and we learn of his love affair with an equally dolled-up, gold digging blonde named Florence. All too soon Pierre is called to his rich uncle’s office to account for his embezzlement and failed investments of company funds (which he had used to fuel his lavish lifestyle with Florence). Pierre is told that arrangements have been made to cover his debts and he won’t go to jail but that in order to protect the honor of the Martel family name he must leave the country. So Pierre tells Florence to wait for him to return but he seems to know that’s not going happen and joins the Foreign Legion as Pierre Muller. He also teams up with a Russian Legionnaire named Nicolas and they spend their days complaining about the Legion and their nights drinking and whoring in the various local bars.
One night Pierre sees a woman, one of the new girls brought in for entertainment, who is identical to Florence, his lover that he left in Paris. At this moment it appears that Pierre Muller is stricken with le cafard. He becomes obsessed with this new girl, Irma, eventually buying her contract out from the cabaret and then living with her in a tawdry room above the Bar Normandie. He thinks at one point that Irma must really be Florence but that she lost her memory of him in a botched suicide attempt after he left her. Eventually they both fall for each other. Pierre is still in the Foreign Legion, a Sergeant, but now with Irma, he has a life to look forward to at the end of his enlistment. When the bar owner, Clément, attempts to have his ways with Irma, Pierre inadvertently kills him but the murder is covered up to protect Pierre by Clément’s mercenary wife Madame Blanche. Blanche is also the dealer who tells people’s fortunes with a deck of playing cards (from which the title is derived). The Regiment eventually gets sent into combat and Nicolas, also a Sergeant, volunteers to lead a dangerous patrol where he gets killed–seemingly knowing that he had to take the risk instead of Pierre who he knew was in a relationship with Irma. Then a couple of months before Pierre gets out of the Legion he gets a telegram with news that his uncle died and left him a small fortune and now Pierre and Irma can return to France and live normal lives together.
Of course there is one last card played on poor Pierre when he finally becomes a civilian again. After purchasing his and Irma’s steamer tickets back to France he bumps into the real Florence, and her rich Arab escort, on the street. Pierre agrees to met Florence the next day even though Irma will have to sail without him–she is told to wait a couple of days for him in Marseilles. Pierre then tries one last time to make Florence his but when she gives the same tired excuses he ultimately realizes he must walk away from her for good. …and he does–right back to the Legion recruitment office where he hitches up for another five years. The final scene has Pierre and Blanche both drunk, as she again reads his fortune from the playing cards. The cards foretell death for him in his next combat but this doesn’t stop a newly invigorated Pierre from heading out to join his unit as it marches past the bar leaving Blanche in her despair. Fin.
I thought this was a great Foreign Legion movie despite the complete absence of “combat action” scenes. It’s reminiscent of tales written by P. C. Wren (The Wages of Virtue especially) which were often set in the nightclubs and bars of garrison towns. These gin joints and dives are a staple in Legion fiction as perfect settings for intrigue, romance, story telling, friendship and bonding as well as brawling and murder in the back alleys. In fact, Le Grand Jeu has a classic scene when a bar fight breaks out and an outnumbered Legionnaire calls out “A moi la Legion!” and dozens of his comrades within earshot come racing to even the odds. Also, of course the uniforms, equipment and settings were perfect for the movie. It was filmed in Agadir, Morocco and very likely featured real Foreign Legionnaires in several parts of the film (as did several other movies filmed there to include early Captain Gallant episodes 20 years later). The acting was very good especially by the gal who played Irma/Florence. There were also plenty of philosophical references made about he Foreign Legion’s ability to “wipe off one’s slate” and start anew and gain redemption for past failures in life. The only downside to the movie was that a couple of scenes didn’t really contribute to the plot such as when an elderly Legionnaire bugler reports to the Regimental Colonel to protest not being included on the next campaign. Also, I couldn’t help but keep thinking that Blanche often resembled Graham Chapman in his full Monty Python’s women/drag get-up–but that’s just me. There are some good reviews on the web that address the “artsy” merits of this movie–Wiki and imdb. I posted some screen shots below in a .pdf file.
NOTE: Le Grand Jeu was remade in 1954 by Robert Siodmak. The English version was renamed Flesh and the Woman and stared a young Gina Lollobrigida. Hopefully I can find a copy of that movie for a future review.