The Port Of Shadows (Le quai des brumes)

France (1938) Dir. Marcel Carné

You might like life but does life like you? Something we rarely think about is in fact an important question to ask ourselves, otherwise why do so many good people have such bad luck whilst the less pleasant get to enjoy continued good fortune? It can’t just be to balance out the universe, so is it a matter of attitude or perspective?

Army deserter Jean (Jean Gabin) hitches a ride to the port city of Le Havre, where he hopes to leave France and start anew somewhere else. With no money and having not eaten, Jean, and a dog that take a liking to him, are escorted to the Panama, a shack at the end of the harbour dubbed the most peaceful bar in town. There Jean meets 17 year-old Nelly (Michèle Morgan) and it is love at first sight.

Nelly is hiding from her godfather Zabel (Michel Simon), whilst gangster Julein (Pierre Brasseur) is looking for Nelly’s ex-boyfriend Maurice who has recently disappeared, all of whom are in love with Nelly. Jean, who wants a simple life after the hell he endured in the army, finds himself caught up in Nelly’s problems, and tries to help her stand on her own two feet in time to be aboard the ship sailing for Venezuela the next night.

Considered one of the earliest examples of film noir, Marcel Carné’s The Port Of Shadows was a bit of a cause célèbre upon is release in 1938. French censors felt a film covering topics like suicide were too depressing for young audiences whilst the army and the state disapproved of Jean’s cynical deserting character. Despite winning the 1939 Prix Louis-Delluc, the film was edited to remove all the offending content and when war broke out, was banned completely.

Thankfully, the formation of the Comité d’organisation de l’industrie cinématographique (COIC) in 1940 saw this ruling overturned and the film was re-released a year later, though the version many people saw were different from what Carné envisioned due to the earlier cuts made. Luckily, this recent Blu-ray release restores most of the damaged and missing from a preservation copy of the original negative.

Based on the novel by Pierre Mac Orlan and adapted by Jacques Prévert, it is an rather dark tale for its day, using language I’ve not heard before from this period and featuring an outburst of violence that is very graphic for the time. It would be considered tame by modern standards but in a time when blood was almost never seen on screen, you can almost see why the censors objected to it.

Jean is a curious character to follow – terse, insular, and quick to temper when pushed – but how much of this is a result of his tour of duty? That he is on the run from the army and his dour discussion with the truck driver he hitches with about the horror of shooting man in the stomach, reveals a man whose outlook on life has been tarnished by threats to his own mortality and the free reign given to end that of another man.

His desertion and fleeing is not through cowardice but disgust and moral fatigue. If he is a bit gruff, it is for these reasons and not an inherent personality trait, though it is was, he would fit in with the folk of Le Havre, a right bunch of characters they are. But, Jean lucks upon those willing to help him, getting food from Panama (Édouard Delmont) and an unexpected leaving gift from a suicidal artist patron (Robert Le Vigan).

Perhaps it is him being an out-of-towner that attracts Nelly to Jean but for whatever reason, she reciprocates his attention over the unwanted desires of Julien, Zabel, and Maurice, whose disappearance is an integral part of the story. It has to be said there is something creepy about a 17 year-old being such a target for adult male lust, and Carné pushes this further with a “next morning” bedroom scene with Nelly and Jean, which I’m sure gave the censors palpitations for the wrong reasons.

Lending itself to the proto-noir label beyond the mystery and romantic entanglements is the visual presentation, in which light and shade are used to create a tense atmosphere, but the signature effect on this occasion is the pervasive fog of Le Havre. Not just an intrinsic part of the port’s aesthetic but also a symbolic omen for the dangers that lurk physically and mentally, an allusion Jean makes early in the film about his time in the army.

Eric Rohmer is said to have chosen to become a filmmaker after watching this film, hardly surprising given the first act is almost all talking, with the cast waxing lyrically about life in a typically French prolix way. Once the story picks up, layers are added to the drama and whilst the mystery is predictable, the sense of dread that the happiness Jean seeks is falling into his lap too easily proves compelling in raising the suspense in the final act, even with the comic gangster Julien playing a major part in this.

At 34 years-old, Jean Gabin looked much older but his rugged, stoic features suited the world-weariness of Jean’s despairing character. Michèle Morgan was actually 18 when she played Nelly yet looks about 30 and acts it as well, but her presence as the unwitting teenage femme fatale is a striking one, and is easy to view her as the template for those who followed. But if I’m honest, the dog was my favourite performer!  

Now a revered film, The Port Of Shadows takes a little too long to get going, drip feeding salient clues of the central mystery amidst protracted philosophical exchanges about life and beyond. Once the brakes are off, a bleak and incisively caustic slice of poetic realism that was clearly ahead of its time in the themes it broached and images shared, can be enjoyed and appreciated here.