The style is poetic realism, but viewers will be forgiven for confusing it with film noir, which followed a few years later in America. The "realism" can be hard to spot amid the clouds of man-made fog, street sets built in forced perspective, and heavily stylized exteriors; the word here refers less to the look of the film than to the fact that its characters were criminals and its "heroes" of dubious moral standing. (Contrast the outsiders of Port of Shadows with screen contemporaries such as, say, Astaire and Rogers, done in up in evening wear, dancing the night away at a glittering Art Deco nightclub, and the difference becomes clear.) The "poetry" figures into both the exquisitely evocative feel of the film and its writer's and director's conviction that even ordinary lives - that of their deserter hero, his licentious young love, a suicidal artist - sometimes traffic, however transiently, in the sublime.
The plot unfolds as such: Our army deserter (Jean Gabin), fleeing presumably unfortunate events which are never related, plans to leave France aboard one of the many cargo ships anchored at Le Havre. He is waylaid there by a beautiful 17-year-old (Michèle Morgan) whose godfather (Michel Simon) monitors her romantic life rather too closely, and whose favors are sought by a small-time gangster (Pierre Brasseur, who giggles and sulks with a wonderfully sinister girlishness). Both the gangster and the girl are in pursuit of a certain Maurice as well; a box the girl's godfather carries may or may not hold a valuable clue.
But the treasure most zealously pursued in Port of Shadows is love, and it's the one most jealously guarded, too. Gabin, recently having overtaken Charles Boyer as French matinee idol of the day, executes the duties of his office with square-jawed efficiency and a fashionable hint of existential insouciance. Opposite him, Morgan radiates an arresting sensuality; in her then-scandalous morning-after scene with Gabin, she's frankly, surprisingly sexual. She's a real beauty with a feline gaze, and in her young Nelly we see a woman in whom an instinct for survival is developing. She'll pay a lot for love: Morgan shows us that. But you feel that she won't for long. As her godfather, Simon is a screen original. Even his ostensible virtues - his patience, the way he stands up to the gangsters - grate on you. He, like Brasseur, is a marvelous villain, a character it's a real joy to hate.
Port of Shadows is a pleasure to watch, and there's much to recommend it. But, like that other poetic realist stalwart Pépé le Moko, what's best about it is its atmosphere of romance. This fog-enshrouded Le Havre teems with human traffic, the ships in the harbor looming above. It seems built for chance encounters. Only natural that these might change lives.
The new Criterion release of Port of Shadows presents the film in a cleaned-up digital transfer that restores the film's moody ambience, with accompanying essays that provide enlightening insight and, not least, at last solve the enigma of what's in the box.
Aka Le Quai des brumes.
Run time: 91 mins
In Theaters: Sunday 29th October 1939
Box Office USA: $26.8k
Distributed by: Rialto Pictures
Production compaines: Ciné-Alliance
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 22 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Marcel Carné
Producer: Grégor Rabinovitch
Screenwriter: Jacques Prévert
Starring: Jean Gabin as Jean, Michel Simon as Zabel, Michèle Morgan as Nelly, Pierre Brasseur as Lucien, Édouard Delmont as Panama, Raymond Aimos as Quart Vittel, Robert Le Vigan as Le peintre, René Génin as Le docteur
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