Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I've seen several examples of what's known as French poetic realism, but Port of Shadows is
the first that makes me think I might have arrived at an understanding of the term. This picture isn't
proto-film noir, it's an animal of its own, a romantic French brand of fatalism. The images
on screen almost seem printed in charcoals, and the melodramatic kissing and killing plays out in
a landscape that seems to be hiding something fantastic. Criterion's beautifully restored
presentation rejuvenates image and especially audio so that Jean Gabin's lost soldier and Michel
Simon's bizarre criminal immediately grab our attention. Many scenes are as clear and expressive
as vintage stills.
Presumably AWOL from the army, Jean (Jean Gabin) avoids the military police in Le
Havre until jolly wino Quart Vittel (Raymond Aimos) steers him to the harborside shack of
Panama (Edouard Delmont), a generous man who offers shelter and food to all. Also hiding out is
Nelly (Michèle Morgan), who has run away from her guardian Zabel (Michel Simon). Zabel shows
up as well, with a bloody hand and eluding gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur). After Jean leaves with
Nelly the next morning, Panama searches to find the soldier some civvy clothes ... and The Painter
(Robert Le Vigan) donates his own - because he's preparing to commit suicide!
Port of Shadows really rubbed some noses the wrong way in France of 1938. Some producers
wanted nothing to do with its grim story and the makers had a difficult time finding financing.
According to Marcel Carné Jean Renoir objected verbally to the finished film, and French
authorities tried to block it from export for its "negative" image of France. But the film has
been a legendary and not easily seen classic ever since, made by the makers of the later
Children of Paradise.
For all its dark content there's a lot of goodwill in Port of Shadows. Iconic tough guy
Jean Gabin comes from nowhere but finds a lot of patient goodwill and tolerance in Le Havre. Quart
Vittel lives in an alcoholic blur but hasn't a mean bone in his body. The curious Panama
is like an oasis of hospitality weirdly ensconced in one of those waterside shacks that seems to
be the last outpost at the end of the world. 1
Suspicious stranger Jean is met with understanding and generosity, as if Panama intuited soulful
secrets about his visitors. Panama knows that Zabel is up to no good (they have a discussion of good
faces and bad faces) and that the Painter's obsession with dark thoughts is sincere. Jean needs
some civilian clothes, the Painter's wearing some ... maybe now's the time to do what he's been
thinking about forever.
Carné plays his scenes short and dark. Characters explain their feelings in stylized speeches,
but they rarely explain their backgrounds. The angelic Painter is contrasted with the venal crook
Lucien (Pierre Brasseur of Eyes Without a Face), a coward who cries when Jean faces him down.
Love in Port of Shadows is instant and intense. Nelly and Jean exchange a few words while
hiding out in Panama's kitchen and that's all there is to it. Carné likes to frame them in
dirty windows or leaning in doorways. He shows their affair in a hotel room as a natural thing of
beauty; the morning-after carries no guilt or shame, just a joy neither of them has felt before. In
other parts of the movieMichèle Morgan is austere almost to a fault, but as Luc Sante
explains in his essay, she positively glows in bed.
There's a bizarre murder mystery in Port of Shadows that I don't want to give away. Suffice
it to say that a man has disappeared and Nelly fears the worst. In his essay about the film,
director Carné talks about a severed head being carried around in a case, but I didn't notice
it being emphasized in the movie (a peek at the head was filmed but disallowed). Carné also
mentions a suicide that he was very proud to sneak past a troublesome producer, but that scene
doesn't seem to be in the movie either.
Reviewers tend to be blown away by the film's violent ending. The sorry fates of the stylized
inhabitants of Le Havre were obvious to me and the enjoyment of the film was watching director
Carné working out the morbid details in poetic form. Jean picks up a mongrel dog early on,
and it becomes his constant companion. At the end it provides the symbolic transmigration for Jean's
tortured soul. Jean seems to come from nowhere like Andy in the horror film
Deathdream. This film must have had
a relevance to the Vietnam generation, for Jean mentions his foreign service at "Tonkin" in
French Indochina. That's Vietnam, of course.
Criterion's DVD Of Port of Shadows is one of their less expensive titles, probably because special
docus or surviving participants for interviews simply weren't available. The transfer is excellent
after a shaky beginning, probably completely a factor of source masters. Fog scenes tend to be
grainy, but many scenes look like fine B&W photographs. The film really does have that charcoal look
I mentioned above. The two essays in the fat insert booklet cover many unusual details about the
film, including the sooty oilsmoke used to produce fog on the set. Luc Sante's analysis is thoughtful
and written as poetically as the film itself; Marcel Carné's account of preproduction and
filming makes late-30s French filmmaking seem complicated and problematic. But talented directors appear
to have been in charge over moneymen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Port of Shadows rates:
Supplements: trailer, Stills and Posters, insert essay booklet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 13, 2004
1. Similar strange seaside
buildings show up in
Sorry, Wrong Number and
Criss Cross. The one here was designed by the legendary Alexandre Trauner, who contributed to
many beautiful Billy Wilder films. The Main street set is reminiscent of the Rue Casanova in
Irma la Douce
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson