Home Video Reviews
Jean (Jean Gabin), a soldier who has returned from Tonkin, Indochina under clouded circumstances, arrives in the French port city of Le Havre. In a dockside shack owned by Panama (Edouard Delmont) he meets a motley assortment of people living on the margins: Half-Pint (Raymond Aimos), a drunk whose greatest desire is to sleep between clean sheets; Michel (Robert Le Vigan), a melancholic painter; and Nelly (Michele Morgan), an already world-weary seventeen year-old girl with whom Jean falls in love. Michel decides to commit suicide and leaves behind his clothes and passport, giving Jean the chance to create a new identity. However, Jean's dream of taking a ship to Venezuela and starting a new life abroad is complicated by two people: Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), a petty gangster with whom he crosses paths, and Zabel (Michel Simon), a creepy shopkeeper who lusts after Nelly, his goddaughter.
Director Marcel Carne and screenwriter Jacques Prevert made seven films together, the most famous two being Le Jour se leve (1939) and Children of Paradise (1945); I would count Port of Shadows among their best. Prevert's screenplay is a model of dramatic unity--the characters' basic traits and their connections with each other drive the plot to its inevitable conclusion in an organic fashion, without ever seeming predictable. Details which at first seem insignificant reappear in interesting ways later in the film. Moreover, Prevert's virtuosic dialogue transforms working-class slang into poetry; the closest equivalent in Hollywood films is the tough repartee cultivated by screenwriters such as Ben Hecht and Jules Furthman. Carne's direction is pointed and fluid, with occasional bravura set pieces--among them the tracking shot into the window of Panama's shack with Jean and Nelly staring outside (the most commonly reproduced image from the film) and the fairground sequence. The port town is recreated in vivid, almost hyper-real detail through Alexandre Trauner's brilliant sets, imparting the squalid milieu with a romanticized quality, further enriched through Eugen Schufftan's atmospheric, at times chiaroscuro cinematography and Maurice Jaubert's moody score.
Jean Gabin, who made a specialty of playing doomed heroes like this, fully inhabits the quick-tempered, garrulous, but likeable Jean. We know that whatever may have happened overseas, he's basically a decent guy because he always fights to protect the defenseless; in the opening sequence he forces a truck to swerve off the road in order to avoid hitting a dog, and the dog follows him around the city, periodically resurfacing. Later, he decides to stand up for the fallen angel Nelly, even if it means resorting to violence. Michel Simon is outstanding as the sinister shopkeeper Zabel. His character has all the superficial trappings of bourgeois life: his tastefully decorated home and fine suits, his fondness for classical music, and his moralizing contempt for the gangsters. However, beneath the respectable exterior we find a man who not only desires his goddaughter, but views her as his entitlement; he is even capable of murder. I can't help but wonder if his character inspired the acidic portraits of bourgeois families in Claude Chabrol's thrillers thirty years later. Pierre Brasseur is likewise terrific as Lucien, the tough-talking gangster who is really a coward; the scene where he practically bursts into tears after being slapped around by Jean is unforgettable. While Michele Morgan, as Nelly, is perhaps not yet on the level of these more experienced actors (she was only eighteen at the time), she does project the necessary despoiled innocence beneath her ravishing beauty. Her memorable introduction--peering out the window, back to the camera, dressed in a beret and a transparent raincoat, suggests that Carne knew he had a great star in the making.
Criterion's DVD is one of their bare-bones releases, its only special features being a gallery of production stills and posters and a booklet containing an essay by Luc Sante (who perfectly captures the appeal of the film) and an excerpt from Carne's autobiography. The booklet, like the DVD as a whole, is imaginatively designed, with plenty of atmospheric black-and-white production stills from the film. More importantly, the high-definition transfer does justice to Carne, Schufftan and Trauner's richly detailed vision. The 35mm print used print is highly variable in quality, being a composite of the best available film elements. Within the same scene some shots can be startlingly clear, while others are very grainy and have much weaker contrast and detail. On the balance, it still looks extremely good for a film of this vintage. The mono sound is clear and without too much distortion. The characters use lots of colorful slang whose flavor is difficult to translate into English, but the subtitles do an admirable job. Anyone with an interest in French cinema or film noir (this is surely one of its precursors) will want to see this film.
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by James Steffen