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.