1939, France, directed by Julien Duvivier
It's impossible not to place La Fin du jour in the framework of the end of an era: the film's elegiac quality, not to mention its title, make clear that we're witnessing the conclusion of something precious, something that, as it passes, will transform the world as we've known it. The film was released in France in March 1939, when war was already in the air, and the last hopes raised by the Popular Front government were disappearing into the wind; the film prominently features the song "Le Temps des cérises", emblematic of the French left since the days of the Paris Commune, in one scene that recalls the emotional rendition of the "Marseillaise" in Casablanca (there was even a film with the title Le Temps des cérises in 1937, directed by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, one of Jean Renoir's collaborators). Duvivier directed another of the key Popular Front films, La Belle équipe, a few years earlier - a film famous, or perhaps infamous, for its alternate endings; there's no similar ambiguity in the conclusion of La Fin du jour.
Duvivier was at the top of the directing game in the 1930s, as the cast lists from his films attest, and La Fin du jour is overflowing with on-camera talent, with a gallery of treasurable character actors crowned by the trio of Michel Simon, Louis Jouvet and Victor Francen (the only weakness is perhaps the young actor who plays Simon's unlikely boy scout pal). The three are brought together in a home for old actors - many of the supporting cast look as though they might have been residents of just such an establishment - where the jealousies, the triumphs and the despair of careers on or near the boards come back to haunt them.
That's not to say that there's anything mechanical about the film, however: these characters aren't simply types but complex personalities, striving to overcome grief or disappointment, or even edging close to insanity after a lifetime of betrayal and self-deception, with the main actors setting even the hint of vanity aside when they portray their characters' more unpleasant tendencies. Still, there's an almost overwhelming sense that they can still preserve something worth saving, something worth the setting aside of petty differences; it's not hard to read the home, threatened from all sides, as a metaphor for the country, and Simon's character, laced with self-delusion and schadenfreude as he is, as the salt-of-the-earth Frenchman willing to make the sacrifices needed to preserve that country.
It's remarkable that the English- and French-speaking cinemas produced, almost simultaneously, two actors as similar as Michel Simon and Charles Laughton, two larger-than-life men who became the unlikeliest of stars in a medium that valued rugged good looks, and both had the ability to play characters far beyond their years: here, Simon plays a man at the end of his life, and he looks the part, yet he was in his early 40s when the film was made, and he was more than capable of casting off the years again when required (he looks far younger in the same year's Fric-Frac). Simon has a magnificent speech, conveying much of what the film implies is worth fighting for, in the middle of the film: each word is perfectly timed, balanced just on the right side of sentimentality. Victor Francen matches him beat for beat at the end, delivering a wonderfully wry and unexpected elegy, a final twist in a battle of wills that somehow seems entirely appropriate.
(These comments follow from David Cairns's admirable attempt to bring La Fin du jour back into public view via his magnificent Duvivier giveaway; you can proceed here for further discussion. Thanks again for your initiative, David!).