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Port of Shadows

Port of Shadows
Criterion 245
1938 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 90 min. / Quai des brumes / Street Date July 20, 2004 / 29.95
Starring Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur, René Génin
Cinematography Eugen Schüfftan
Art Direction Alexandre Trauner
Film Editor René Le Hénaff
Original Music Maurice Jaubert
Written by Marcel Carné, Jacques Prévert from a novel by Pierre Dumarchais
Produced by Gregor Rabinovitch
Directed by Marcel Carné

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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