Port of Shadows (1938)

Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur,
A military deserter finds love and trouble (and a small dog) in a foggy, French port city.
  • 7.7 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Pierre Dumarchais, Jacques Prévert, Writer:
  • Marcel Carné, Director:
  • Producer:


7 / 10

If we have lost the war.....

...blame it on the "Quai des Brumes" !Both the right wing and the leftist reviews were chilly ,calling the movie " morbid" .Military censorship quickly banned "Le Jour se Lève" which was,if it were possible,even more depressing -and in my opinion even better,though at such a stratospheric level of art,this is minor quibble.

"You do not blame a barometer which forecasts the storm" was Carné's famous answer.

"Quai des Brumes" belongs to the legend of the French cinema.In a poll made around 1980,it was 8th best French film of all time (the number one,another Carné's masterpiece " Les Enfants Du Paradis" was a safe ,predictable choice ).More than the detective plot (there are many deaths in this film) ,the atmosphere of this misty harbor,with its ships about to sail away for these islands in the sun you'll never know ,is all that counts.It was the triumph of the Réalisme Poétique ,a label Carné himself did not like : these stories were poetic but they were not that much realistic,for they were filmed in studios ;masterpieces of cinema de studio of these golden years ,when the French were the best in the world : the harbor is unforgettable,as are the Canal Saint-Martin in "Hotel Du Nord" ,the metro station in "les Portes de la Nuit" or Le Boulevard Du Crime" in "Les Enfants Du Paradis".

After an odd effort -which is today considered ahead of its time- " Dr?le De Drame" , " Quai Des Brumes" is actually the follow-up to "Jenny" (1936).The gallery of sinister-looking persons was already present in Carné's first movie,and Fran?oise Rosay's last lines indicated that the relatively optimistic ending would mute .

"Quai Des BRumes" leaves no hope to the viewer .This harbor which should mean freedom,escape is actually a blind alley ;nobody can escape.When Gabin appears in his shabby uniform and the gorgeous Michele Morgan in her raincoat and wearing her famous beret ,we know that their fate is already sealed.All the b.... around cannot understand true love .This is Carné's favorite subject: Michel Simon and Michèle Morgan are the prototype of the director's odd couple :see also Jules Berry and Jacqueline Laurent in "Le Jour Se Lève" or Pierre Brasseur and Nathalie Nattier in "Les Portes De La Nuit".

Extraordinary scenes: Michel Simon,playing loud classical music which becomes "exotic" in such a rotten world.The same ,crying his heart out for love which he has never known "Nobody loves me!" ;Nelly and Jean on the harbor,exchanging Prevert's haunting lines " Every time the sun rises ,we hope something fresh will be born,but when it goes down,it the same old gloomy world" "The bottom of the sea is full of rubbish" ;the opening scenes ,with this truck running through a foggy country .

All the endings of Carné's movies of that era are mind-boggling:from the sun rising as the tragedy is complete ("Le Jour Se Lève") to the still beating hearts ("Les Visiteurs Du Soir"),from Baptiste lost in the crowd ("Les Enfants Du Paradis" ) to the stunning editing which concludes "Quai Des Brumes" : Jean,Nelly,the ship,the dog ,all this ,more than the other endings had a strong influence on more movies I can think of: Yves Allegret 's "Dédée D'Anvers ",Carol Reed's "Odd man out" -also influenced by Duvivier 's 'Pepe le Moko" are two prominent examples.

We may have lost the war...but we have gained another masterpiece by one of our greatest directors and one of our greatest writers.

10 / 10

Like Being Punched Really Hard in the Gut

I took a class in French Poetic Realism and Italian Neorealism this past Fall in which I saw many of the best films I will ever see. The third film we watched in the class was Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, which is just about the most gorgeous experience in film viewing I have ever experienced. I left the building in a cloud of euphoria, and I have never stopped thinking about it. One week later, we watched Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows). It affected me greatly in the opposite direction of L'Atalante. It made me lonely and grief-stricken. That is in no way a criticism; for the most part, any film that transforms my emotions, whether for the better or the worse, is a great film.

Le Quai des brumes is about a man played by the great Jean Gabin (the star of La Grande Illusion) who has deserted the army (a fact that is never mentioned specifically, since the French censors refused to let the filmmakers portray such an immoral deed). Everyone who he finds around him is morally corrupt. He finally befriends a dog, the most loyal of all animals, and then Nelly, a young woman who is being torn apart by her gangster suitor, Lucien, and her foster-father Zabel (played by L'Atalante's own Michel Simon).

The whole film falls into unavoidable and quite grueling violence. It is so depressing that the French director Jean Renoir (of La Grande Illusion and Rules of the Game) accused it of being Fascist. Those who know the film know this quotation, and have pondered it for the longest time. It does make perfect sense however. Hope leaves quickly after it is seen, and it is hard to get rid of. It fascistically knocks you down. 10/10

8 / 10

A barrel of laughs (not)

When I was young this is what I used to call a "bulger", the first time I saw it when 18 years old I was so impressed by the bulging murky atmosphere, and the over-riding sense of doom pervading the film I thought it couldn't be bettered. Then I read up on Warner Bros. techniques for their best "atmospheric" potboilers such as The Big Sleep and realised it was, as usual, all down to saving money. LQDB is nearly completely studio-bound, therefore the fogs, darkness and even excessive cigarette smoke all came in useful in disguising the limitations created. In this case however the limitations are deliberate as it is the crux of the story, the elemental mist at Le Havre and Man's mental mists playing havoc with lives.

Not surprisingly, plenty of erudite praise has been showered down on LQDB over the years. Essentially it remains only a entertainingly depressing adult yarn, with a straight-faced storyline coupled with some gloomy and gleaming but pleasing black and white photography. I think Renoir called it fascist in a patriotic outburst; for Carne to get past the disapproving censor Gabin couldn't even be called a deserter in the film (although his one night stand with Nelly was cheerfully depicted). Needless to say, this has probably led to some confusion over the years as to why Gabin is on the run (more like stroll) anyway! Anyway, Fascism and fascism are both dark and depressing for the majority of us so that would make LQDB a faithful representation!

This was the 2nd of Carne's classic 6 consecutive films, culminating in 1945 with Les Enfants Du Paradis. To my mind the quality of this series remains unsurpassed in world cinema - unless you can think of another director who made 6 timeless classics one after another? All subjective, of course!

Nevertheless, one of my favourite films, not to be watched too often but always an effective antidote to the real world. Next: Hotel Du Nord.

9 / 10

Engaging, provoking theatre

Interesting what a contrast this movie makes to Carne's "The Children of Paradise". The two are almost complete opposites where mise-en-scene is concerned, and yet more interesting is that they both show a filmmaker with a craft of form and expression that rises beyond most other filmmakers, including his contemporaries.

"Port of Shadows" is about a French army deserter (Jean Gabin, wonderful as usual) who attempts to flee the nation in order to finally begin a life away from the bad luck that's always held him. He appears at a small port town, immediately falls in love, and sets off a chain of events that show an inherent fatalism with a sense of humor, tragedy, and substance.

This movie has one of those scripts that's very appealing in the way that it sends characters wandering through the mists, and yet somehow everything comes together and ties up all loose ends by the end. Adding to it the moody, brooding cinematography filled with fog and smoke, and one can't help but immerse oneself gladly into a different world. Also, Carne adds a sense of theatricality and the Carnivalesque that even Fellini couldn't compare to.

This is definitely a film that well deserves being called "a classic of French cinema." --PolarisDiB

7 / 10

Rendezvous and Kiss of French Poetic Realism

Pauline Kael labeled Marcel Carne's work in the 1930s as the "definite example of sensuous, atmospheric movie making" and it seems that this characteristic emerges most powerfully here.

The opening sequence of PORT OF SHADOWS, thanks to the memorable tracking shot and stylized mise en scene - a typical hallmark of the director, set the tone for the story and provide the feeling to it: we see a road and a man fleeing his past. What preceded and what follows is of no significance, what counts is here and now. Jean (Jean Gabin) is heading for a new haven of his life. He stops at spots which he had not intended to set foot in and meets people who he had not planned to know. Yet, nothing and nobody coincide with the doomed fatality of his situations. Even if there is hope, it is doomed... Yet, in all this hopelessness, the viewer is struck by truly great surprises not likely to be skipped.

COLLABORATIVE EFFORT: The author of the article in Senses of Cinema does not deny the powerful influence of the director on various people of cinema, including Visconti, Reed and Bergman. What, however, seems to be most striking is the fact that PORT OF SHADOWS is simultaneously an individual vision and a common work --- the director's "most coldly formal work," and "the very DNA of French classical film-making" where "a confused soul" and "an obstinate cineaste" (Carne according to Francois Truffaut) makes his "romantic and fatalist mode of address" (Senses of Cinema) particularly clear. It is achieved thanks to great collaborative effort, the director's production designers, composers, actors and cinematographers. But there is one primordial strength that seems to emerge almost throughout the movie, the very product of the period: ATMOSPHERE

STIMULUS ON SENSES: No wonder Frank S Nugent, a New York Times reviewer observed that "there is a bitterness even in its humor." That is best revealed in the supporting character of the painter who says one of the lines that the greatest 'nostalgic prophets of doom' would probably most agree with: "When I paint a tree, I make everybody ill at ease. That's because there is something or someone hidden behind that tree. I paint these things hidden behind things. For me a swimmer has already drowned." That feeling resembles the very essence of provoking cinema we are all much more used to at present. As a result, PORT OF SHADOWS creates a unique atmosphere and is still one of these movies that are forever stamped in viewers' memories.

ITS FOGGY ECHOES: Within the restored DVD version, Ginette Vincendau rightly points that Carne's film is heavily influenced by German Expressonism and serves as a gateway to the noir genre so widespread in American cinema since the 1940s. The obvious echoes of the predecessor are noticeable throughout in the cinematography by Eugen Schueffen and the aspects hidden within the portrayals of characters. Fog is the predominant concept of the movie and serves as a clear allegory of the characters and their lives. Yet, despite all the uncertainty, all the disappointments, all the confusions they experience, it is far in spirit from older Bergman or dramatic Visconti. The idea of loving one's life predominates. Certain predictability in the action (we actually feel from the very start that the protagonist is doomed to fail get on board a ship to Venezuela) does not interrupt this very crucial concept. And the PERFORMANCES?

JEAN GABIN gives a brilliant portrayal of the protagonist, a deserter heading for a more stable life. In his role, what appears pretty obvious is the fact that he is already disillusioned with life in need of some dramatic change. However, there is a certain duality in his character that makes him particularly humane. He is skeptical of true love and yet, never stops searching it. He doubts success in escaping and yet, he does not resign from attempting. Within the context of other male characters that appear in the movie, he is easily to be identified with and quite likable for viewers who are truly not content with some less 'sophisticated' depictions of a human being.

As a centerpiece of his and our attention comes Nelly played memorably by beautiful MICHELE MORGAN. A very pretty and skillful actress makes her 17 year-old character unforgettable (mind you her age must have prompted objections from 'perfectly moral audiences' at the time). A young woman torn apart between two men: one is a miserable villain Zabel (Michel Simon), her stepfather clearly lusting for her, the other is Jean (Jean Gabin). While the growing chemistry between the two occurs to evoke powerfully with excellent closeups and perfect romantic atmosphere, her first conversation with Jean is filled with some excellent lines. Kudos to screenwriter Jacques Prevert! One of their best lines highlights the quintessential concept of sexes' relations: "men and women do not understand one another and yet love one another." Much due to the wonderful collaboration with the camera, Ms Morgan is truly an unforgettable female character. She combines the dramatize of Garbo with eroticism of Dietrich in a performance of her own.

SUPPORTING: Pierre Brasseur does a fine job combining the cruel and ridiculous aspects of Lucien, such a predictable villain of romantic stories who, naturally, spoils everything. A little dog that makes friends with the protagonist is also worth mentioning.

A strength of the movie not to be skipped is its pace. The action really keeps you awake, curious, attentive. Scenes are finely paced and action develops in a right manner. That is something that makes PORT OF SHADOWS stand out among many other films of its period.

PORT OF SHADOWS, no matter if you like its content or not, is a significant production and an interesting glimpse into a true French classic. In spite of being a rendezvous of sorrows, it is a passionate kiss of French Poetic Realism. 8/10