The entire French Resistance against the Nazis can be encapsulated in this film sequence: a man—a loner, standing and leaning on his bicycle, smokes a cigarette alongside of the railroad tracks. He carries a newspaper folded up beneath his arm that perhaps serves as a countersign. A freight train passes with a brazen whistle and shortly afterwards, not far away, a loud explosion is heard. Then the voice of Yves Montand is heard intoning the song of the partisans in honor of the comrade dynamiter who blew up the convoy. The station chief winks at him. The man gets on his bicycle and rides off singing softly to himself.
The people of my generation, who danced cheek to cheek to “Les feuilles mortes”, sampled their first Calvados in the Quartier Latin while listening to “Sous le ciel de Paris” played on the accordion, will never forget the expression of panic on the face of Yve Montand as he drove a truck loaded with vials of nitroglycerine over an impassable road in order to put out a fire in an oil well in Clouzot’s film, The Wages of Fear. The movie was filmed in a South American jungle.
Later, Yves Montand, who came from the loving arms of Edith Piaf—that badly wounded cat who had taught him to sing the partisan song, “Alla mattina, appena alzata, o bella ciao, bella ciao” with a very seductive romanticism, would win the love of the progressives when his friend Jorge Semprún wrote scripts of movies for him about sinister dictators in dark glasses that were filmed by Costa Gravas; movies in which one hears the sharp cracks of the locks on cell doors and screams of torture victims from the end of the corridor.
He was named Ivo Livi. He was born in Monsummano Alto in 1921. Monsummano Alto was an Italian village in Tuscany. He was the son of antifascist workers who had to emigrate to Marseilles fleeing Mussolini.
The boy had to leave school at the age of eleven and he worked at various menial jobs before he appeared one day singing in bars and sleazy gambling dens with his lover Edith Piaf.
He was a skinny kid with long legs. He was a sentimental tough guy whose voice seemed to emerge from a throat that had been seasoned with that strong anise which truck drivers drink at day break. The girls at that time would lean their necks on the shoulders of their boyfriends as they danced to his songs and the progressives rejoiced when he married the Jewess Simone Signoret, daughter of Reds, whose father had been exiled in London and would later enter Paris with De Gaulle.
In 1955, Simone Signoret was the protagonist of a movie called Diabolique —a horror film that has never been surpassed. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret belonged to us, a pair of antifascists who embraced political commitment according to the agenda of Sartre. It was impossible to imagine any demonstration without them present and standing behind a banner. The progressives of the time did not allow them any frivolity.
Yves Montand was already famous when he went to New York to perform in a Broadway musical. Marilyn Monroe liked his songs; she knew that, like her, he came from a poor family; she admired his social commitment. Above all, the fact that he physically resembled her old love, Joe Dimaggio, was the reason that she was undeterred in her effort to win his heart.
—Along with my husband and Marlon Brando, I think Yves Montand is the sexiest man I’ve ever met —she said in a toast.
Our hero was sentenced.
For the European progressives, lovers of the French New Wave, Marilyn Monroe was merely a sex symbol and epitomized the blond bimbo inside and outside of the movie screen even though, at that time, she was married to Arthur Miller, the leading intellectual of North America.
In 1960, she and Yves Montand starred in Let’s Make Love. In the movie, Marilyn played the role of the middle class peroxide blond who uses nylon stockings and make up—a living pastel available to anyone who reaches out for her, “Jello on springs,” as Jack Lemmon described her; a girl who wanted to catch a wealthy European gentleman, helpless in the face of the weapons of a woman. This happened within the movie and it happened in real life causing a scandal among the fans of Goddard.
Marilyn’s marriage with Miller was going through a stormy period. While the movie was being shot, the two couples had moved into apartments that were contiguous and connected amid the gardens of the Hotel Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. After an argument, Miller left for Ireland where he was working on the script forThe Misfits, which would be directed by John Houston.
In addition to that, Simone Signoret had to go to Hollywood to receive an Oscar for her role in the movie, Room at the Top; then she had to return to Paris to honor another contract. Yves and Marilyn wound up alone. In this case, the temptation didn’t come from upstairs—as in The Seven Year Itch, but rather from the next door bungalow, separated by a lone hallway.
One must imagine the imminent explosion that would be produced between this lonely woman, filled with self-doubt, longing for love, and the ladies man who was accustomed to this type of conquest. They gave the Oscar to Simone Signoret but Marilyn got Yves.
The scene occurred during an evening when both were suffering insomnia after a boring day of filming which both found humiliating because of the inanity of the story. Yves Montand in pajamas approached the door of Marilyn to say goodnight, sat down on the edge of her bed, and the two began an innocent conversation. How are you? Do you have a fever? Don’t worry, I’ll be okay. It’s been a hard day. I’m glad to see you. Thanks for coming.
Yves Montand went to kiss her on the cheek to say goodnight; Marilyn turned her face toward him and her lips cast their spell. That night was the beginning of a love story that lasted several months. Once again, Marilyn needed desperately to love someone; Montand, having satisfied his tough guy pride, tried to free himself from this woman who called him at all hours of the night, stalked him in airports, and would react to his lack of affection by consuming vials of pills.
Marilyn Monroe, who only played at being a dumb blond and who was actually a gifted actress, ended up making Yves Montand world famous— as she had done with Arthur Miller. The progressives of Paris forgave their hero for that frivolous incident, as did Simone Signoret after she had shed a few tears. She was more offended by the humiliation of the public scandal than her husband’s infidelity.
We already know what happened in filming sessions. Montand redeemed himself: he purified himself working with Costa Bravos. He once again became the guy who sang “O bella ciao, bella ciao” with even more conviction—that song of the partisans of Italy, his country of origin, this time against the fascism which had spread among the Greek colonels.
Many generations retain in their memory, alongside Melina Mercouri, Simone Signoret, and Edith Piaf, the image of this movie star who embodied the mythology of the Resistance whom one must imagine under the autumn skies of Paris, with accordion music in the background, walking over dead leaves through the gardens of Luxembourg.
He died in Senlis in 1991. He is buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise alongside of Simone Signoret and a few steps from Avenida de Muertos Combattants Étrangers par la France; however, in any location of the world there may still be a train passing by and in some remote station there will be a member of the Resistance leaning on his bicycle with a cigarette in his mouth.