Hoping to hop a freighter out of France, Jean stumbles along the Port of Shadows until he finds a boat headed for Venezuela. He makes arrangements for passage and decides to spend one last day with Nelly. But when Zabel confronts the military fugitive, threatening to expose his secret, things get complicated. With Lucien looking to get even with the soldier (Jean slapped him around during a seaside skirmish) as well as the growing suspicion of the police that he had something to do with Maurice's death, Jean must get out of Europe immediately. Yet his love and desire to protect Nelly leads him to abandon his plans and try to save the day as well as clear his own name.
Many critics cite Port of Shadows as being one of the classic examples of poetic realism, and one look at the mixture of artistry with reality cements the categorization perfectly. Master of the genre, Marcel Carné distills the essence of truth and places it like paint, in the palette of his cinematic tools to sculpt a kind of hyper-authenticity. Through a use of lighting, camerawork, composition and framing, Carné illustrates the internal world of the disenfranchised and downtrodden, as it would look in the true light of the real world. Characters maintain a level of humanity while also seeming larger than life, and the plot turns on operatic events that build out of the most mundane of beginnings. Indeed, what this means of cinematic expression really resembles is the works of traditional tragedy, a mode where one flaw fates everyone around the hero to a dim destiny of heartache and pain. As the enigmatic sets and sumptuous scenarios suggest a mythic realm of hidden meaning, the agonizing facts fall at the feet of all involved, rendering them motionless against the tide of truth. Perhaps the reason why these movies leave such an indelible impression is that they simultaneously suggest fantasy while constantly tossing the horrible certainties of life at the character's doorstep.
The majority of Port of Shadows's revolves around this notion of the double life, the service of two separate social agendas, each trying to make up a single person. Everyone in Port of Shadows has a secret, a part of their world they want sealed off from the rest of the community. Quart steals wine from the docks and sells it illegally to support his alcoholism. Nelly is a young girl who, at her tender age, knows the street and the ropes better than most of the men she hangs out with. Speaking of these criminal cads, Lucien, their leader, is a spoiled brat who's resorted to a hidden life of crime as a means of miscreant rebellion against his well-off family. Always playing the piece totting ruffian but really a big, balling crybaby at heart, his power stems more from mutual agreement than outright anti-social acts. And then there is Nelly's naughty guardian, Zabel, a sinister old man with a terrible temper, an arrogant self-righteous belief in himself and a felonious streak a meridian long. Fronting for organized crime while believing (and demanding) that only religious music is the sole legitimate source of harmonious expression, his bearded old coot calmness hides the intense soul of a serial killer.
When military deserter Jean enters into this fray, he initially fits in perfectly. Wanting to maintain a low profile and protect his own secret, he finds himself exposing more and more of the clandestine nature of those around him. As the movie travels through its narrative, Jean is the catalyst for change. He inspires the artist to finally end his life, if only so that Jean can have his identity. Nelly, who seemed wounded, but fairly nonplused about her benefactor and boyfriends now suddenly wants the pure, perfect life of love and commitment. She is ready to squelch her seedy, sordid existence to be with Jean. Lucien careens from coward to killer, finally finding the inner switch to move from whimpering simp to gun-totting terror. And Jean himself realizes that the atrocities of war have made him reevaluate his position as a man. Not that he no longer contains the machismo or the guts to end the life of another: it's more that he realizes those elements do not necessarily make someone more 'manly'. As both a personality and plot mechanism, Jean's solider as spirit, like a renegade guardian angel, steps in to the hamlet of La Havre and stirs up the static souls there, both for the good and the bad. It is no wonder he is at the center of the murder mystery and the emotional heart of the film. He is the only one attempting to truly change, and is thus, condemned for even trying.
In Port of Shadows, there is only one character that is completely upfront and intact – the tavern owner Panama. Though many may consider him the most mysterious of all the individuals to walk in and out of this reprobate's resting place, he actually represents the kind of serene resolve that many of his customers are frantically seeking. He no longer battles his inner duplicity. Indeed, Panama is all introvert, his real personality defeating any semblance of social phoniness. His bar is the perfect illustration of what he is as a man: not much to look at, a little worse for wear and catering to the kind of low class scum that most 'proper' places avoid. Yet the purity of Panama's motives is what sets him apart. He only wishes to provide food, drink and shelter, the basics of any human life. He is not out to judge. He doesn't ask questions and offers no insight into his own checkered (and obviously eventful) past. Instead, he is the eternal sounding board, the understanding bartender at the end of the counter, pouring drinks as the clientele pours out their heart. Though he is only in a couple scenes of the film, it is this character, and his ethereal shack at the end of the port that resonates with us long after the drifters, deadbeats and dangerous types disappear from his doorway. Just as Jean wants to reinvent himself, Panama is the act completed. He is a warning to be careful what you wish for. When the battle of human deception ends, the spoils of such war are occasionally tainted.
Yet there is an element of disappointment in Port of Shadows that seems hard to reconcile. It is an amazing film to look at, filled with images that recall the best of monochrome magic: the hazy, foggy drifts that cascade across the ships waiting at dock; the rain-swept cobblestone streets picking up the rays of the sun, as if tiny jewels had been laid into the road; or the noir like nights filled with glorious gloom and delectable doom. The cast is also superb, with Jean Gabin ever the icon to individualism and smoldering savoir-faire. He makes Jean an extension of his own onscreen persona – a cool customer carrying the conceivable weight of a world of worry on his shoulders. Michele Morgan, as Nelly, is a knockout. Her high eyebrowed beauty is matched only by her unquestioned ability to meet Gabin on the performance playing field and more than hold her own. As Zabel, Michel Simon sets a kind of standard for all future psychopaths with his combination of wisdom and weirdness, all of which plays just slightly off center. From Raymond Aimes gloriously drunken Quart to Pierre Brasseur's wounded weasel in Lucien, the characters here all capture Carné's desire to stretch reality perfectly. And there is nothing wrong with the story. It is a straightforward – perhaps too much so – narrative revolving around a missing person and the discovery of who did it, and why.
So, again, why is the movie not some manner of magical masterpiece? Why does it feel so superficial when it is filled with all manner of meaning and mood. Part of the answer may be in the passage of time. We have come across a great many characters in the course of filmmaking's maturity, and what appeared shocking and controversial then – Deserters! Whores! Drunks! – are now the fodder for dozens of derivative sitcoms. Stereotypes must all find a starting point and several of the dramatic archetypes that have set up residence in the world of cinema for the last hundred years or so seem to have located their founders in Port of Shadows. Indeed, it's hard to envision such modern barroom stories like The Iceman Cometh without the introductory inebriate work here. Surely, Carné had to be influenced by Renoir and his Lower Depths as well as the original novel that this narrative was based on. Both are guiding principles to the character construction. But the overall impression is one of formulaic tradition, the same group of down and out people we've seen time and time again, tormented by a world that they just want to be a small part of. We can almost predict what will happen to each of the individuals here just by the way they are presented – almost like a who's who of the doomed dynamic. Saying we've seen it all before would not do Port of Shadows justice. But to argue that it is some manner of cinematic stepping-stone like The Rules of the Game or Citizen Kane is out of the question. The other reason why this film is not more satisfying is that it fails to offer the kind of cathartic moment of justice done, or even undone, that satisfies our sensibilities toward suffering. Carné puts his characters through a great deal here, making them walk the fine line between saved and sacrificed as part of this plot. That most manipulative of machinations, the stray dog, is used to emphasize Jean's humanity, yet it immediately runs away the minute its master's providence is determined. Nelly needs the steady hand of Jean to help her up out of the personal Hell of selling herself for sex. And yet Jean sets her up, spending the night with her without indicating that he plans on leaving the next morning, this time for good. Lucien's crybaby criminal is a petty posing jerk just waiting for a comeuppance, and yet even the rough treatment by Jean doesn't seem to settle him. Indeed, most of Port of Shadows feels like unfulfilled promise. It is all buildup and very little resolve. Issues are left open ended and character arcs disappear or fail to pan out all together. This could be a case where style scuttled substance, but it's hard to point out where one ends and the other begins. For poetic realism to work well, both entities must be aligned and executed perfectly. Carné manages this moviemaking trick exceptionally well. But perhaps the initial subject matter was just not meaty enough to match the magnificent mise-en-scene.
Whatever, the reason, Port of Shadows is a fine film with a lot of thematic importance, but very little that stays behind after it's all over. Marcel Carné has crafted a motion picture that transcends its destitute trappings to resemble an animated work of art meshed with an experiment in tone and temperament. It is cinema that is gorgeous to look at, interesting to follow and filled with the kind of visual cues that help us understand the symbolism employed. And yet, when it's all over, when the curtain descends and the rolled dice have revealed their play, the resulting emotion is not one of depression or delight, but of disillusionment. For the entire running time of this enigmatic narrative filled with secrets, lies and ethereal elements, we wait for the final payoff that will make all the misery and artifice worth it. But, sadly, it never really comes. Port of Shadows ends with a predisposed whimper, not with a big bang; the kind of send off that would make this movie a masterwork of interpersonal exploration. While it may have been controversial in its day for the way it depicted French life and the kind of 'out of control' hedonism that eventually doomed a nation, Port of Shadows is as murky as its title locale. It is indeed a grand film. But it is just not a very lasting testament to the talent of all involved.