Julien Duvivier was born in Lille, France, on 8 October 1896. He started out as a stage actor in Paris in 1915. He worked at the Odéon under the direction of the reactionary André Antoine, whose realist approach left a lasting impression on the young Duvivier. In 1918, he started working for cinema, as a part-time screenwriter and assistant director to such masters as Louis Feuillade and Marcel L’Herbier.
His first notable success was in 1925, with his poignant adaptation of Jules Renard’s Poil de Carotte (which he later remade in 1932, one of his favourite works). This resulted in an invitation from from producers Marcel Vandal and Charles Delac to work for their film production company, Film d’Art. Here, Duvivier stayed for nine years, perfecting his craft as a film-maker and learning the value of team work. It was in the 1930s, with the arrival of sound, that Duvivier’s career as a film director suddenly took off. By the end of the decade he had earned an international reputation as one of the most important French film-makers of his generation. His successes included such works as David Golder (1930), Poil de Carotte (1932), La Tête d’un homme (1933), La Bandera (1935), Un Carnet du Bal (1935), La Belle équipe (1936) and Pépé le Moko (1937).
It was the international success of Pépé-le-Moko which earned Duvivier an invitation from MGM in 1938 to direct a lavish Hollywood musical, The Great Waltz, a biography of the composer Johann Strauss. Duvivier returned to America during World War Two where he made a number of big-budget films, most notably Tales of Manhattan (1942) and Flesh and Fantasy (1943). Duvivier (along with Marcel Carné and Jean Grémillion) was one of the few directors to master poetic realism and Pépé-le-Moko is often cited as one of the finest examples of this style of French cinema. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Duvivier’s more serious films show a marked change from the poetic realism of the 1930s to a far darker kind of realism which explored the worst qualities of human nature.
Examples of this are to be found in Sous le ciel de Paris (1951) and Voici le temps des assassins (1956). Meanwhile, he was making popular comedies such as Le Petit Monde de Don camillo (1951), the first in a series of films starring the popular actor Fernandel. This film won him a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. Duvivier’s last great film was Pot-Bouille (1957), which combines the grim realism of Zola’s novel with popular farce. On 30 October 1967, shortly after completing his final film, Diaboliquement vôtre, Julien Duvivier died tragically in a car accident, aged 71. Whilst unquestionably one of the most important film-makers in the history of French cinema, Julien Duvivier has never achieved the status accorded to other great directors of his country, such as his contemporaries Jean Renoir, Marce Carné and René Clair. The main reason for this was perhaps Duvivier’s versatility, his ability and willingness to tackle a wide range of subjects of varying degrees of merit. In between making films of sublime artistic merit he would occupy himsef with lesser works, often on commission, to supply the need for popular films. Paradoxically, it would often be his less impressive films that would prove to be more successful commercially than his greater films. Duvivier’s film making career spanned nearly half a century and comprises 67 films. This includes over a score of films which are now regarded as masterpieces, and it is on the quality of these films that the director should be judged. Many other film-makers, including Jean Renoir and Igmar Bergman, regarded him as a man of rare talent, not just a master technician, but a great poet as well.