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During a thick fog, a truck driver picks up a soldier named Jean (Jean Gabin) who has seen his share of tragedy while serving duty in Indochina. But despair is not isolated to battlefields and colonialist incursions into foreign lands. It infects everyone this army deserter encounters after the truck driver deposits him in La Havre. Jean finds the port town swarming with gangsters, murderers, morally wounded men and women and a sense that humanity is a doomed race.
Marcel Carne's fatalistic film Port of Shadows/Quai des Brumes (1938) was part of an entire cycle of French cinema of the '30s made in stark opposition to the light comedies and musicals of the day. Carne's film was considered a progenitor of this genre of "poetic realism" for its mixture of harsh reality and a romantic treatment of life's tragedies and ordinary people. Carne along with the directors Julien Duvivier, Jacques Feyder, Jean Renoir and Jean Gremillon were the five principal practitioners of the form, of which Magill's Survey of Cinema notes, "in the cinema of poetic realism, there is never a cause, nothing larger than the mirages of love, escape, and freedom for which the little people involved in the dramas struggle."
A major presence in this emerging film form was rising French matinee idol Jean Gabin, known for playing pariahs and loners in films such as The Grand Illusion (1937) and Pepe le Moko (1937). One of France's most popular prewar actors, Gabin gives a painful veracity to his world-weary soldier and makes you believe him when he says of life; "she's been rotten to me so far." With Gabin as its existential hero, Port of Shadows's pessimistic ambiance did much to anticipate the similarly world-weary tone of film noir and Italian neorealism.
In La Havre, Jean hides out in a remote cabin at the edge of the sea, a sanctuary run by Panama (Edouard Delmont) for those on the run or simply seeking refuge. Jean meets a painter with a suicidal streak, a sympathetic alcoholic who helps Jean find safe harbor with Panama, and a beautiful young woman Nelly (Michele Morgan) who frequently flees to the cabin to escape her overbearing godfather Zabel (Michel Simon). Jean's fate is disastrously sealed through his involvement with the beautiful but haunted Nelly who describes herself as "damaged goods" and is relentlessly pursued by both a neurotic gangster, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), and Zabel, her malevolent guardian. Both exhibit a disturbing, suffocating desire to possess Nelly. But before Jean can hop a boat to Venezuela to escape a murder rap and his own personal demons, fate intervenes in Port of Shadows' grim finale.
When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, critics commented on Port of Shadows' extreme pessimism. The film was admittedly brutal for the time, and treated material like suicide, sex and murder with surprising frankness. The Nazi Ministry of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels also had problems with what was seen as the film's decadence and subversion. Though some have compared Port of Shadows to another romance about various strangers marooned in a remote city during wartime, Casablanca (1942), Carne's film is a far more dire affair, its thoroughly grim attitude attributable to the four years of bloodshed and national sacrifice France experienced during WWI.
Carne and his collaborator poet/writer Jacques Prevert went on to work together on several other masterworks of French cinema like Daybreak (1939) and Children of Paradise (1945). Port of Shadows is considered a landmark film because of the combined imaginations of some of the French cinema's greatest talents such as Prevert, composer Maurice Jaubert and art director Alexandre Trauner, who gives La Havre the atmosphere of a ghost town populated with lost souls.
Director: Marcel Carne
Producer: Gregor Rabinovitch
Screenplay: Jacques Prevert from a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan
Cinematography: Eugen Schufftan
Production Design: Alexandre Trauner
Music: Maurice Jaubert
Cast: Jean Gabin (Jean), Michel Simon (Zabel), Michele Morgan (Nelly), Pierre Brasseur (Lucien), Edouard Delmont (Panama), Aimos (Quart-Vittel), Robert Le Vigan (Michel Krauss).
by Felicia Feaster