Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes)
May 20, 2004
“Oh, society is what it is, a bit sinister, a bit seamy, but I’ve heard there are beautiful things in it too.” This line is spoken by an artist early on in Port of Shadows (1938) and perfectly describes the world of this movie. Based on Pierre Mac Orlan’s novel of the same name, Marcel Carne’s film is a fascinating look at a murky criminal underworld steeped in tragedy and fatalism. Criterion has assembled an impressive looking print of this French cinematic classic and a slim collection of extras.
The film begins with a truck driver picking up a tired soldier named Jean (Gabin) hitchhiking by the side of the road. He is an army deserter (although, we are not told why) who isn’t in any hurry to talk about himself. They ride through a thick fog captured beautifully on grainy film stock that is akin to looking through gauze bandages. The driver drops Jean off at the port city of Le Havre where he meets Half-Pint (Aimos), a bum who dreams of one day being to afford to sleep between clean, white sheets. There are more stunning shots of soldiers walking through the fog-enshrouded city that establishes a mysterious atmosphere. At times, it seems like a bustling seaside port. Other times it seems like there are only ten people in the city.
Half-Pint takes Jean to a bar named Panama’s, a run-down shack near the water where they can rest and eat in anonymity. Jean meets an interesting group of characters, including an artist (“To me, a swimmer is already a drowned man,” he muses.) and a beautiful woman named Nelly (Morgan). Eventually, a criminal named Zabel (Simon) arrives, on the run from a trio of gangsters led by Lucien (Brasseur). Jean and Nelly become romantically involved and her links to both Zabel and Lucien result in an ending that is a perfect example of, what Luc Sante calls in the DVD’s liner notes, “romantic fatalism.”
Jean Gabin’s character is a man of his principles. When Zabel asks him to kill Lucien and make it look like an accident, he angrily refuses and is repulsed by the man’s offer. Jean minds his own business and stays out of others unless it affects him directly. His fatal flaw is when steps in to help out Nelly and this sets the wheels in motion for his eventual downfall. Lucien, on the other hand, is a typical blowhard pseudo-tough guy who has no problem roughing up Nelly but when Jean intervenes and smacks him around on two occasions, Lucien shows his true cowardly colours.
There is a decent collection of production stills and movie posters from Port of Shadows. Also included is a US theatrical trailer which features some truly awful dubbing.
The booklet that accompanies the DVD features an excellent essay by Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York and an excerpt from Marcel Carne’s autobiography, My Life with Gusto.
The characters in Port of Shadows may be considered low lives that live on the fringes of society but the film treats them with respect. Ultimately, the film is a tragic love story as Jean tries in vain to escape a troubled past and creating a new identity and a new life. He only dooms himself in the process.