Truffaut (1932-1984) had intended to do a sort of trilogy on the living arts; first about cinema (Day for Night ); theater (this film); and vaudeville, for which he did not live long enough. Fortunately, the first two films stand quite well on their own.
The title refers to the very real concern of getting out of the theater or cinema in time to catch the last subway. If you missed it and were caught on the street after curfew, it could lead to serious trouble.
In a long, uncut shot, the camera follows Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) as he tries to pick up the pretty Arlette (Andréa Ferréol). Bernard constantly runs in front of her, refusing to understand her cues to get lost. Each time, Truffaut frames them in two shots as they move on. Tired of his advances, Arlette finally agrees to give him her phone number.
The cut finally comes as the camera frames Bernard’s face who slowly realizes that she gave him the number to call and ask what time of day! He’s down.
Of course, it turns out they’re both headed for the same destination – the Théâtre Montmartre – rumored to be directed by the relentless Marion Steiner (an award-winning performance by Catherine Deneuve). Everyone involved with the theater believes that her Jewish husband Lucas (Heinz Bennent) fled Nazi-occupied France – but he actually lives in the theater’s basement, where Marion sneaks him food and conjugal visits.
The concierge’s 10-year-old son (Rose Thierry) hops along the sidewalk and gets patted on the head by a German officer. His mother snatches him away and a few scenes later we see her washing his hair angrily. That actually happened to 10-year-old Truffaut in 1942!
Bernard is at the theater for an audition. As he waits, he watches Marion and gay director Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret) discuss their reluctance to hire a Jewish actor. Cottins must stop a disgusted Bernard from walking away, who ends up signing the contract, stating that he is not of Jewish blood.
Incidentally, Poiret is also known as the author of the play La Cage aux Folles.
The rest of the cast is outstanding – including a menacing Daxiat (Jean-Lous Richard) – based on Nazi puppet collaborator Alain Laubreaux – and Nadine Marsac (Sabine Haudepin), who is as apathetic to the cast as she is close to it to be an employee yourself.
Georges Delerue’s score is spare and subtle, as it should be, and Nestor Almendros’ cinematography matches the russet colors that characterize the period.
Only the happy ending sounds wrong to this reviewer, because in reality the Gestapo rarely searched a basement where a Jew was hidden without success.