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.
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:
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