Criterion // 1938 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 2nd, 2004
"I wanted to tell you that, thanks to you, I've been happy once in my life." -- Jean
Director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert were the preeminent practitioners of a World War II-era French film style known as poetic realism. Along with the duo's 1945 epic Children of Paradise, 1938's Port of Shadows (Les Quai des Brumes) is one of the finest examples of the poetic realist style, and the Criterion Collection has been kind enough to make it available to us all on DVD.
An army deserter named Jean (Jean Gabin, Grand Illusion) hitches a ride to the port of Le Havre with the intent of leaving France. Once there he meets the flotsam and jetsam who congregate at a roadhouse/flophouse belonging to a white-suited gent nicknamed Panama (Edouard Delmont, The Baker's Wife) because of his romantic tales of foreign adventure. The group includes a beautiful girl named Nelly (Michèle Morgan, La Symphonie Pastorale), and Zabel (Michel Simon, The Passion of Joan of Arc), her lecherous godfather. Zabel, a seller of trinkets, is being hounded by small-time gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur, Children of Paradise) about the whereabouts of a fellow hood named Maurice Brevin.
Jean obtains a fake passport and means to leave for Venezuela, but fate has something else in mind as the former soldier falls in love with Nelly and makes an enemy of Lucien.
The poetic realism of French cinema is an odd combination of the high romanticism we associate with Hollywood's golden era and a bleak fatalism born of France's hard slog during the war. Transforming Casablanca into a work of poetic realism, for instance, would only require tweaking the finale so Victor Laszlo is gunned down on the tarmac by Nazis, Rick Blaine is arrested by the Vichy authorities, and Ilsa Lund is left to the carnal mercies of the nefarious Captain Renault. It would be an entirely different movie, though only a few minutes of its running time was changed. Indeed, Port of Shadows feels simultaneously like a foreign imitation of a Tinseltown mystery/romance and a different, more pessimistic animal entirely.
The film delivers a peculiar atmosphere created by Carné's reinvention of Le Havre as a foggy ghost town peopled with misfits and dark strangers. The port feels like purgatory, a creepy way station on Jean's trip to a final destination either better or worse. As in the aforementioned Casablanca, all of the characters are unmoored and desperate, from the drunk named Half-Pint who leads Jean to Panama's place, to the artist who gifts our hero with his passport and identity because he's decided on suicide with a casually existential resignation. Local gangster Lucien's tough-guy antics are at turns menacing and pathetic. We can never quite grasp whether we're to fear him as a threat or pity him as a dumb kid trying to hide his own weakness. When an angry Jean shows him the back of his hand, revealing him as a coward in front of his cohorts, it's both entertaining and uncomfortable -- sure, the kid had it coming, but watching him humiliated makes us squirm. Zabel's nature, too, is murky. What does he know about this mysterious Maurice, and what is the nature of his relationship with his ward, Nelly, a girl too weary, wary, and wise for her 17 years? Even the little dog Jean rescues from being run down by a truck at film's beginning is pathetic in the way he spends the remainder of the film trying to befriend his savior. The little mongrel is a metaphor for the movie's lonely human souls, and his place in the film's final shot is rich in hard-earned pathos.
At the center of the proceedings, of course, is the inimitable French movie star, Jean Gabin. His soldier-on-the-run Jean comes off as both above the fray and out of his depth in the dangerous and insular Le Havre, not to mention the fact he's got his own demons with which to contend. The success of Gabin's interpretation of character is grounded in his screen persona, which is like a hybrid of Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy, combining the former's machismo and cool self-interest with the latter's easy-going romantic charm. He proves the ideal linchpin in Port of Shadows, a bridge between its romanticism and fatalism, equally at home in each so that neither is short shrifted. It's difficult to imagine the film striking such a delicate tonal balance with a lead other than Gabin (little things like the jaunty angle at which he wears his military cap prevent the pessimism from becoming oppressive). Both the actor and the film are iconic in French cinema, and each helped to establish the iconography of the other. Port of Shadows and Jean Gabin represent a perfect melding of material and actor.
The picture was made under Germany's Universum-Film AG banner, which had fallen under complete control of the Third Reich's propaganda minister Josef Goebbels the year before (Goebbels had driven away most of UFA's heavyweight German talent years before -- Fritz Lang, for instance, jumped ship in 1933 when Goebbels banned his The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). In the long excerpt from his autobiography, Ma Vie à Belles Dents (My Life with Gusto), translated and reprinted in the DVD's insert booklet, Carné details the difficulties he had negotiating the studio's politically-driven environment and finding a reasonable producer for the film. Port of Shadows's pessimism, coupled with its attachment to a Nazi-run studio (an unavoidable reality for French filmmakers during the war), resulted in a cool reception by French audiences nearly on par with that of Henri-George Clouzot's Le Corbeau. But Port of Shadows, made five years earlier than Clouzot's masterpiece, is less morally ambiguous. Jean may be an army deserter, but he still maintains an air of heroism. Carné's film at least posits a universe in which altruism and love are possible (if rare) motivations for human agency, even if such motivations lead to cosmic punishment.
Criterion's DVD production of Port of Shadows was clearly challenged by problematic source materials, and the image quality is wildly uneven as a result. Establishing shots and stock footage of the ships at Le Havre are uniformly muddy, grainy, and prone to flicker. But even medium shots of the actors alternate between crisp detail with subtle contrast, and coarse-grained haze, sometimes from shot to shot within the same scene. It's a minor disappointment when compared with Criterion's beautiful treatment of Le Corbeau, but Port of Shadows is an older film and the outstanding image quality of many of the scenes leaves little doubt that the folks at Criterion did the best they could with the materials available. Other than some minor distortion around sibilant dialogue, the restoration of the mono audio track is outstanding. Dialogue is in French, of course, and optional English subtitles have been provided.
The DVD's on-board extras are limited to a gallery of about 25 production stills and 7 posters from the French theatrical release, as well as the original French theatrical trailer. The stills were provided by Iconothèque/Bibliothèque du Film and Studio Canal, and have explanatory title cards to place them in context. The beefy insert booklet contains the excerpt from Carné's autobiography mentioned earlier, an essay by cultural historian and Bard College professor Luc Sante, and Criterion's usual technical details about the transfer of the film to DVD.
Port of Shadows is a compelling drama that exemplifies a unique style of cinema born of France's tenuous position and identity crisis during World War II. It's as entertaining as it is historically significant.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1938
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Stills and Posters Gallery
* French Theatrical Trailer
* Essay by Cultural Historian Luc Sante
* Excerpt from Marcel Carné's Autobiography