"Port of Shadows" **** (out of ****)
A stranger arrives in the town of Le Havre. He is an army deserter. That is the least of his problems. He wants to escape the past. He needs a new identity. He speaks of the "fog in his mind". What horrors did he seen in combat? He looks troubled, worn down, beaten. With a face a little rough around the edges the audience can tell this is a man that has seen a lot in his life. If he is lucky Le Havre will be the place he begins anew. It is a port town, ships coming and going. If he can board one of them, he'll never look back.
And so it is in the French film "Port of Shadows" (1938) directed by one of the great poets of cinema, Marcel Carne. The movie has endured as one of the classics of world cinema. To some it is a definitive example of the "poetic realism" movement, popular in French cinema of the 1930s, in a category with "L'Atalante" (1934). Others proclaim it should be viewed as the first noir movie.
The stranger in town is Jean (Jean Gabin). It is a character not unlike one Humphrey Bogart would play in American movies. Jean Gabin practically invented this type of character. Watch Mr. Gabin in the iconic "Pepe le Moko" (1937). It is the beginnings of raw masculinity in cinema, the tough guy character. It is not an over statement to say Mr. Gabin belongs alongside Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne. One has to wonder if "Port of Shadows", in any way, influenced "Casablanca" (1942).
The filmmaker, Marcel Carne, may not be a name instantly recognizable to American audiences. A shame. His name doesn't get thrown around as often as his contemporaries such as Jean Renoir but his talent as a director is immeasurable. One of his movies, "Children of Paradise" (1945) is routinely acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made. Other poetic masterpieces include "Daylight" (1939), also starring Jean Gabin and "The Devil's Envoys" (1942). These films stand out in the canon of Mr. Carne's films due to his collaboration with screenwriter / poet / lyricist Jacques Prevert, whom sometimes received all the praise for these movies success, even in France.
I have shamefully / embarrassingly not devoted enough time to discussing Mr. Carne's work. I have only written about his comedy "Drole de Drame" (1937), also co-written by Mr. Prevert and "Therese Raquin" (1953) based on a novel by Emile Zola, it may one one of Mr. Carne's later films which comes closest to the brilliance of his earlier films, such as "Port of Shadows".
As Jean arrives in town he finds himself in a hide-a-way owned by a man named Panama (Edouard Delmont), a man who says he is not looking for trouble and doesn't ask questions. He invites Jean inside. There are other lonely figures there too; a suicidal painter (Robert Le Vigan), who says he paints with is hidden in images. If he sees a swimmer, he paints a drowned man. And Nelly (Michele Morgan) a 17 year old runaway, who lives with her religious godfather, Zabel (Michel Simon), who is secretly (?) in love with her.
Nelly and Jean seem drawn to each other. Jean doesn't shy away from telling Nelly he thinks she is beautiful. There are two "lost souls". Each has a past they would like to leave behind. For Nelly it is a man that said he loved her, Maurice, whom a local gangster, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) is looking for. Lucien has also been harassing Zabel as well. According to Lucien either Maurice or Zabel will have papers he desperately wants to get his hands on.
Because of Nelly, Jean and Lucien will met. In trying to protect Nelly from Lucien, Jean and Lucien will get into an altercation which results in Jean humiliating Lucien in public. Yet another example of the tough guy image. It will all lead to Jean being accused of murder.
American movie fans may recognize Michele Morgan. In the 1940s, as war broke out in France, Ms. Morgan came to the United States and signed a contract with RKO. She made her American film debut in "Joan of Paris" (1942). Frank Sinatra fans may recall her in "Higher and Higher" (1943). She also co-stared with Humphrey Bogart in "Passage to Marseille" (1944) and was in the British film "The Fallen Idol" (1948).
When you watch "Ports of Shadows" you will notice a distinctly different way Jean and Nelly are photographed. Nelly is shot in a softer light. The movie really accentuates Ms. Morgan's beauty. Nelly isn't seen in darkness the way Jean is. This was probably done to present Nelly as a "saving grace" for Jean. A light of redemption.
Much of the appeal of the film will have to do with its visuals. A black and white town with a mist in the air. It all perfectly suits these characters living in the shadows. All covered in fog. The cinematography was done by the Academy Awarding winner, Eugen Schufftan, who won his Oscar for his work on "The Hustler" (1961). Mr. Schufftan left Germany as the Nazis began to gain power. First he settled in France and eventually America. He also work with Mr. Carne on "Drole de Drame" and with another French filmmaker, Rene Clair, on the American comedy "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944).
Although the movie romanticizes the harsh realities of life in poetic fashion you can also see the seeds of film noir. Social outcast, trying to escape his past, the pretty woman who will either be his redemption or downfall, gangsters.
There is a minority of movie fans that consider "Port of Shadows" a disappointment. They feel the plot is too predictable. Lets for the moment agree they are right. There is still so much to enjoy while watching the film. The atmosphere, the acting, the cinematography, the over all poetic nature of the movie. "Port of Shadows" is able to elicit emotions even if you know the path that lies ahead for these characters.
"Port of Shadows" is one of the greatest movies ever made. Anyone that is serious about cinema should see it.