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Port of ShadowsPort of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes)

Directed by Marcel Carné

(France, 1938, 91 minutes, b&w, DVD)

Jean Gabin . . . . . . . . . . Jean
Michel Simon . . . . . . . . . . Zabel
Michèle Morgan . . . . . . . . . .Nelly
Pierre Brasseur . . . . . . . . . Lucien

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

A rundown tavern on a wind-scoured portside moor... A soulless hotel room overlooking the docks... The port of shadows is a night-time of empty provincial roads, of comfortless public houses and mean nightclubs, a grimy waterfront and its transient anti-community of petty crooks, ambitious gangsters, and life's losers, all drifting against the quay like week-old newspapers stirred by a resentful breeze. Now, there arrives in this gloomy limbo an emotionally maimed deserter from the army, and a beautiful young woman, on the run from life. How long they will survive in this fetid and tragic habitat, only a bored Destiny can know...

This is the world of Marcel Carné and Jacques Prevert's Port of Shadows, and along with their films Hotel du Nord (1938) and Daybreak (1939), it is the melancholy high tide of prewar French cinema, romantic melodramas that tell of l'amour fou, the addictive doomed love between two people who are drawn to one another against all reason. Here, the most prosaic spaces become prisons when the films' wounded working class heroes mistake them for places of refuge. Like the regret-soaked cabaret music of Edith Piaf or Lucienne Delyle, the poetic realist masterpieces of Carné and Prevert, of Renoir and Duvivier, all sing of failure -- the failure of love to conquer circumstance, the failure of ambition to break class determinism, the failure of community in the face of alienation. Some critics have even said that these films speak of the allegorical failure of a nation in turmoil to arrive at some state of self-knowing that would armor it against fascism, against war, against ignominious defeat, against Occupation, against the disaster of French participation in the Holocaust. Indeed, Vichy apologists would later accuse the popular and fatalistic Port of Shadows of having been indirectly responsible for France's humiliating defeat by the Germans in 1940. Director Marcel Carné' famously replied, "Does one blame the weather on the barometer?"

Few cycles of films have managed to be as simultaneously beautiful and ugly as the French poetic realist cinema of the 1930's. The crabbed, narrow streets of films like Port of Shadows and Daybreak, designed by the extraordinary Alexandre Trauner at slightly less than full-scale, are tunnels that keep their hapless denizens always tracking toward their fate; their grubby furnished rooms, squalid establissements, tired shops and weary train stations somehow take on the gravity of their protagonists.

The nobility of their despair makes these characters deeply endearing to us, and to their filmmakers. Their fates, intractably cast as if by oracle bones after the first few minutes of these films, become a matter of real pain for an audience who comes to identify with these drifters and prostitutes and factory workers and locomotive engineers and small-time thieves. Actors like Port of Shadows' Michèle Morgan (then only 17 years old) made these characters live, in some of the most compelling performances in all of French cinema; Luc Sante has aptly called Morgan's character Nelly "a vision of unearthly beauty in a transparent raincoat." And at the margins, character actors like Michel Simon uneasily populate the mise-en-scene like broken furniture in the dark corners of a room, specters of insistent sadness. The film reserves its most extravagant pessimism for the painter Michel Krauss (Robert Le Vigan), whose meditations on spiritual defeat are his own last testament.

No actor better embodied the spirit of the poetic realist cinema than Jean Gabin. Battered, yet handsome, rough yet vulnerable, self-sufficient yet always reaching out, pitiable, yet refusing pity; this is the Gabin of Port of Shadows, Renoir's The Human Beast, and a dozen other brilliant films of these years. Gabin's impassive, haunted face is a ruined map of bitter experience, an essential element of one of the most remarkable star personas in all of film history; appropriately, his character is known only as "Jean." Precise to the point of narrowness, Gabin meticulously limited his performance to a small vocabulary of gestures, expressions, and intonations, yet within these confines, he is as vividly expressive as any titled Old Vic Shakespearean. Among other great screen performers, only Robert Mitchum found such variety in restriction.

After the war, admiring filmmakers like Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang remade several of the poetic realist films in Hollywood; some, like Anatole Litvak's remake of Carné and Prevert's Daybreak, called The Long Night (1947), are so awed by their progenitors that they are virtual shot-for-shot mimicry. But the poetic realist cinema had a far more important legacy than cloning. In quite literally hundreds of films made between 1945 and 1958, American drifters and prostitutes and lesser criminals and working men and women enlist our sympathies as deeply as did Gabin and Morgan. The American films in question are tragedies of hope unrewarded, of prosperity never realized, of mad love or of true love never consummated, and of a world so imbued with treachery that Hollywood's trademark optimism is rendered preposterous. Even now, looking back on these great and tragic films, films like Force of Evil and Out of the Past, On Dangerous Ground and The Set-Up, The Asphalt Jungle and Night and the City, they seem defiantly un-American in their existential resignation. In fact, these films were part of a movement that looked back at the French poetic realist cinema as longingly as Nelly looks for solace and Jean looks for a way out. That movement was called film noir.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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