Port of Shadows
d. Marcel Carné (1938)
KL Studio Classics
A few weeks ago, in my review of Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (here), I rejoiced that some important films starring Jean Gabin were finally coming to us on Blu-ray. Along with Touchez pas au grisbi, Kino just released Marcel Carné’s 1938 film Port of Shadows, featuring Gabin in his prime.
Port of Shadows, beyond being an exceptional film, is a landmark of poetic realism, and one of the films that is often cited as a thematic precursor of film noir. That’s not surprising given its downbeat take on life and fate, amidst the foggy shadows at the ports and dives of Le Havre.
The film begins in the night. A truck is driving down some quiet road when a man appears, stalwart and dour, in the center of his headlights, staring the driver down. The man is Jean, played by Jean Gabin, just barely in his 30s, and he’d like a ride into town.
Jean is dressed in military clothing, but his refusal to talk and his volatile temper quickly show that he is not on leave. Anxious to stay in the shadows until he can book a passage out of the country, he finds his way to the Panama, a bar at the extreme edge of town. It’s little more than a few planks somehow held together and looking as if any moment it might slip along the mud into the sea. Here you can see it in the background:
There are others trying to stay out of sight, too, at the Panama; it’s the right place to lie low when life is chasing you down.
Hiding in the back room is a young woman named Nelly (Michèle Morgan, in one of her first major roles; she had just barely turned 18 when the film was released in France).
Nelly, we come to learn, is hiding from her godfather, Zabel, played by the always great Michel Simon.
Zabel attempts to come off as suave and in control.
But he also finds himself at the Panama, and not because he was looking for Nelly.
Jean’s quiet attempt to stay a stranger and then get out of the country instead pull him into a community where almost everyone feels the weight of life is too much to bear. Not only does he find himself caring for Nelly, and consequently getting embroiled in her relationship with her jealous godfather, but he also gets caught up with the local gangster, a weak man played to mousy perfection by Pierre Brasseur.
The rainy streets, the foggy air, the ships to a distant land . . . it’s a beautifully told story that, we fear, isn’t going to end well. Jean and Nelly certainly resist any hope that it will.
“Port of Shadows” definitely has that seedy, murky nothing good will happen here because the world is too mean and all goodness will be destroyed. There’s a bit of mystery too. If there are flashes of decency in the hero why is he on the run? The atmosphere is forbidding as are many of the people. Many ports have seedy bars where unfortunate people congregate and no kindness goes unpunished. The original cinematography though black and white is quite elegantly lush, very detailed and specific. The bare bar as opposed to the ornate gift shop. The simple parallel of the little dog trying to escape like the hero and almost finds happiness among the hero and heroine. The camera is very fluid and the action flows smoothly. It is a strange but likeable film implying much with little. It reminds me a bit of the film “Chinatown.” But “Shadows” sets down a kind of style footprint in 1938 that “Chinatown” ended up emulating much later. It’s good these early gems are being restored and aren’t lost.
Thanks for your comment, Larry! I love thinking about these things again, and you’ve made me already want to go rewatch this!
If you can try to, view the French film company Studio Canal’s restoration DVD of the 1939 “Port of Shadows” film, because along with an excellent print of the film there is (I’m pretty sure) the special bonus of an extremely knowledgeable American film critic who tells you all about the director, all about the actors, and shares revelatory comments written by french film reviewers of the time. Plus this guy probably fully explains the nuances of “Port of Shadows” particular poetic realism and film noir qualities and probably also offers critical explanations concerning the characters, plot and the action. I suspect this because a Studio Canal version of another Jean Gabin classic, the 1954 film noir, “Touchez Pas Au Grisbi” translated as “Hands Off The Loot” directed by Jacques Becker contains this film companion quality bonus commentary. Also “Touchez” like “Port” was an adapted screenplay from two different French novels. “Touchez,” besides being described as a classic example of film noir is the most elegant very upscale french film I have ever seen with a superb jazz infused film score including the protagonist’s favorite theme recording. And it is the only film I have ever seen that actually has a whopping 100% rotten tomatoes rating. The characterization of the protagonist is so well worked out and the little details of action, looks, glances, reactions are so meticulously worked out like in a good novel. The reason I suspect the same excellent commentary is on the “Port of Shadows” DVD is because the film critic compares “Shadows” director Marcel Carne with “Touchez Pas Au Grisbi” director Jacques Becker in the “Grisbi” bonus commentary. Apparently both directors are two giants of French cinema revered by later New Wave French film directors like Francois Truffaut. Both film DVDs can be rented by putting them in as “next” on your Netflix DVD queue. Not sure if they are available on Netflix streaming but you could check.