The picture even made an impact in the U.S. when it was released in 1939; American critics and audiences were bowled over by stars Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan, both of whom were eventually lured to Hollywood, making a few films there during the war. In France the picture won the Prix Louis-Delluc, the industry's highest honor, though many were outraged by its dark, despairing depiction of the country. The film was subsequently edited for censorship reasons. Much of it takes place in a shack-like saloon at the edge of town where various characters gather, and early scenes suggest a movie something like a cross between The Petrified Forest and The Iceman Cometh. Colleague Cinesavant describes the look of the film as resembling charcoal drawings, which it surely does. It has a unique style, but before long its compelling characters and their various problems draw the viewer in.
Jean (Gabin), a French Colonial Forces soldier having experienced the horror of combat in Tonkin (in Vietnam), has quietly deserted, first glimpsed hitching a ride from a generous lorry driver (Marcel Pérès) though they quarrel briefly when Jean suddenly grabs the wheel to save the life of a small dog rushing across the road. The grateful canine subsequently follows Jean wherever he goes.
At the port city of Le Havre, Jean finds a remote bar at the tip of the harbor whose eccentric owner, Panama (Édouard Delmont), is willing to provide food and shelter to the Franc-less Jean. Though exhausted, he listens to the conversations of other patrons, including a suicidal painter (Robert Le Vigan), a cheerful alcoholic (Raymond Aimos), and 17-year-old runaway Nelly (Morgan). Shortly before dawn, there's a shootout just outside between gangsters lead by Lucien (Pierre Brassaur, of Eyes without a Face) and bearded merchant Zabel (Michel Simon), who's later revealed to be Nelly's godfather and guardian.
The following morning Panama agrees to help Jean acquire civilian clothes, as he hopes to catch a boat and quietly slip out of the country. The painter, noting their similar sizes, obliges soon after, taking off his own clothes and finally committing suicide, drowning himself. Jean and Nelly, meanwhile, fall in love, though cowardly Lucien, also smitten by the young girl, pitifully tries to threaten Jean, who slaps Lucien around to the point of tears. The possessive intellectual Zabel is also in love with Nelly, and she fears he may be responsible for the disappearance of her former lover.
Beyond the charcoal drawing-like landscapes, Carné's poetic realism extends to the film's elaborate forced-perspective sets of Le Havre at Pathé Studios, rather than actual locations beyond the harbor itself. These were the work of production designer Alexandre Trauner, whose 60-year career stretched from 1930 to 1990, and whose designs remind viewers of his later Parisian sets for Billy Wilder's Irma la Douce.
Michèle Morgan in her Hollywood films, like the ill-conceived Passage to Marseilles (1944), always struck me as a rather cold, austere actress, a kind of moody Paulette Goddard, but here she's positively luminous, especially in her bedroom scenes with Gabin, frank in a way Hollywood's Production Code wouldn't have allowed until the 1960s. And, like Morgan, Jean Gabin is radiant, c'est magnifique, as director Jacques Becker admiringly described him. They fall in love almost at once, and never do they (or the audience) learn much about their backstories, and yet their passion is entirely believable because it's so pure.
Because it was made as war with Germany seemed imminent, its deserter-hero troubled some, while others were bothered by its despairing tone and comparatively explicit sexuality. Gabin, already a huge star, put his weight behind the film, and only minor changes were made to Jacques Prévert's screenplay of Pierre Mac Orlan's novel, and a few minor things were cut.
Video & Audio
? Criterion released Port of Shadows to DVD in 2004. That, reportedly, was an excellent video transfer save for the first reel. Kino's release sources a newer 2K restoration, apparently using the original camera negative for most of the film, a safety negative for bits later cut out by censors. Mostly the black-and-white, 1.37:1 standard release looks great, especially considering the fog-shrouded streets and softer visual approach, which lower-res format would certainly have struggled with. The DTS-HD 2.0 (mono) Master Audio, in French only, is arguably even more impressive. The opening scenes especially almost sound newly-recorded, albeit mono. The subtitles are very good and the disc is Region "A" encoded.
The primary supplement is a keeper, a 46-minute documentary made in France entitled "On the Port of the Shadows." Articulate, well-chosen interviewees, including director Claude Lelouch and (via a 2012 telephone interview) Michèle Morgan, trace the film from development through its release in great detail, often referring to archival documents and earlier interviews. It's the best one of these I've seen in a long while. Also included is a short introduction by Ginette Vicendeau, though I'd recommend watching it after rather than before; and a trailer.
In licensing so many Studio Canal-restored French and other titles, including their often excellent supplementary material while occasionally adding new extras of their own, Kino is really upping their game, and giving Criterion a run for its money. More importantly, Kino's release of titles as important as Port of Shadows is cause for celebration for anyone who loves classic cinema. Keep ‘em coming. A DVD Talk Collectors Series title.