Cast & Crew
A deserter encounters in a harbour a poor girl. They fall in love but he kills his girl-friend's tutor who wanted to rape her. At last he's killed himself by a hooligan and the ship he wanted to go aboard to escape goes away without him.
Le Quai des Brumes (aka Port of Shadows)
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
Le Quai des Brumes (aka Port of Shadows)
Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows on DVD
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