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PORT OF SHADOWS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur, Michel Simon
Director: Marcel Carné
Audio: French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Criterion
Features: Photo gallery, trailer, booklet with essays
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: July 20, 2004

"You can't be bad.  I love you.  And even if you were, I might love you still."

Film ****

World cinema during the early 1930's was in a state of stagnation.  The advent of sound dialogue meant that many directors were sacrificing artistry and creativity for the static and stiff compositions that so typically marred many early sound pictures.  But within the European film industry, there were some notable exceptions, such as French director Jean Vigo, whose lyrical and dreamlike films were imaginative worlds of sight and sound.  His style would eventually foreshadow a new direction for French cinema - the poetic realism school of thought.

Poetic realism emerged as a way of exploring the inherently romantic yet frequently tragic poetry of everyday life.  Often focusing upon working-class characters caught in their world-weary milieus, the films of poetic realism created surreal settings which contained a tangible note of optimism but were ultimately fatalistic.  Perhaps a precursor to the Italian neorealist movement of the 1940's, poetic realism characterized many of the French films of the latter 1930's, the commencing years for what is now considered the Golden Age of French cinema.

Among French actors of this era, none was more identified with poetic realism than Jean Gabin.  A charismatic screen presence, Gabin was described as "the tragic hero of contemporary cinema," having gained great prominence through roles which portrayed him as a strong, silent loner or an outsider type.  His noteworthy performances in such films as Duvivier's Pépé le Moko or Renoir's La Grande Illusion propelled him to international fame, but it was Gabin's role in Marcel Carné's Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) which best exemplified the qualities of poetic realism.

Based upon a 1927 novel by Pierre Mac Orlan, Port of Shadows features Gabin as an army deserter, a stranger in a strange land looking for escape or passage to a better life in the port town of La Havre.  His initial entrance in the film, emerging from the darkness of a fog-shrouded road, his tough-guy appearance - a cigarette butt hanging from his lips, heavy coat hiding his frame, a world-weary demeanor - all define him as a man of destiny, the classic film noir anti-hero or an archetypal Man with No Name.  Into his life will drift a beautiful yet mysterious woman (Michèle Morgan), first seen glancing furtively into the foggy darkness from behind drawn curtains.  Part love interest, part femme fatale, she will be the inciting force that sets Jean upon an irrevocable path of seeming contentment but in actuality ultimate destruction.  The criminal elements of La Havre, as though pre-ordained, ominously cross paths with the potential lovers, either through the jealous manipulations of Zabel (Michel Simon), an old shopkeeper, or Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), a young aspiring hoodlum.

A poignant tale, Port of Shadows follows the lives of these despondent characters, for whom fate has decried a convergence of destinies.  Each character, in his or her own way, seeks freedom, either from oppression or from fear, if even fleetingly so.  However, the foreboding sense of impending despair is always reflected in the film.  One man, a painter, notes, "If I see a swimmer, I immediately think he'll drown, so I paint a drowned man."  Another character continuously runs away from her vicious guardian, only to return: "I ran away.  If I go back, it'll be awful.  Same thing if I don't."  This fatalistic thread, even during brief instances of happiness, is a hallmark of the poetic realism style.

At a time when many films were light-hearted comedies or musicals, Port of Shadows stages its scenes in run-down settings.  Conversations are carried out in darkened nightclubs or isolated taverns, alongside foggy cobblestone roads or oceanside piers, even upon surreal fairgrounds.  There are implied murders or suicides; the film is even structured somewhat like a mystery, revealing one facet of each character at a time, slowly unfolding intangible or discreet connections between them all..  Port of Shadows also presents relatively shocking scenes for the era - repeated slaps administered by Gabin's soldier to the face of the hoodlum Lucien, a violent and emotionally-charged murder, and an intimate hotel bedroom love scene, to list a few.

At its premiere in the Venice Film Festival, the film was charged by critics with being perhaps too morbid or pessimistic.  Nevertheless, it won the Golden Lion Award for direction.  Port of Shadows was a collaboration between Marcel Carné and poet-screenwriter Jacques Prévert.  Their partnership would later achieve some of the finest masterpieces in French cinema in such films as Le Jour se Lève (Daybreak, 1939), also starring Jean Gabin, and Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945), considered one of the most aesthetically-pleasing films of all time.  Port of Shadows must also be included among Carné's finest films, not only as a classic example of French poetic realism but also as one of the great films from the golden age of French cinema.

Video ** 1/2

Port of Shadows is presented in its original black & white format.  The transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain composite master.  The picture is generally quite sharp with good delineation of outlines, solid contrast levels, and fine details.  There are some minor scratches and instances of debris, with occasional flickering of the screen image due to uneven film emulsion.  These flaws are inevitable, given the film's age and the composite nature of the print itself, but do dissipate somewhat as the film progresses.

Audio ** 1/2

Although the soundtrack is monaural, the dialogue in Port of Shadows is relatively clear and forceful.  There is an occasional hiss in the background but nothing out of the ordinary for this old European film.

Features * 1/2

The extra features on the DVD are quite sparse.  There is a vintage trailer with a very washed-out, contrasty appearance; it has seen better days.  There is also a photo gallery containing thirty-four publicity shots, production stills, and posters, with brief descriptions and captions interspersed among them.

Lastly, Criterion has included a handsome 32-page booklet with this release.  Amidst images taken from the film as well as cast information, the booklet also presents two essays.  The first essay, by Luc Sant, describes the film's influential role in French cinema.  The second essay is a long excerpt from Marcel Carné's autobiography, "My Life with Gusto," in which the filmmaker details his recruitment of Jean Gabin for Port of Shadows and early production struggles with Germany's UFA studio (due to objections concerning decadence and subversion in the film from Dr. Goebbels, then-head of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda).  Both essays are well worth reading and help immeasurably in establishing the film's significance.

Summary:

Port of Shadows foreshadows elements of the American film noir style as well as Italian neorealism.  Gorgeously photographed, skillfully-directed, it is one of the finest examples of French poetic realism.  Highly recommended for film enthusiasts everywhere!