‘Port Of Shadows’ opened on Friday, January 25th at the Music Box Theater.
We’re probably never going to see a truly clean, complete print of Marcel Carné’s Port Of Shadows (Le Quai Des Brumes) (France, 1938). With Nazi Germany breathing down France’s neck, and with the threat of France splitting into Free France and Vichy, the then-existing Third Republic was scrupulous about how France and the French character were portrayed in arts and letters. When Carné (and his brilliant writing partner, Jacques Prèvert) presented this film, portraying a French army deserter mingling with the irretrievably corrupt denizens of one of their major port cities, Le Havre, they weren’t happy. Carné and Prèvert had already been pushing the envelope; their 1936 film, Jenny (a project they had inherited from Alexander Korda) was a variation on Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the George Bernard Shaw play that involved a madame explaining her chequered vocation to a visiting daughter she hadn’t seen in years. And Drôle De Drame (Bizarre, Bizarre) was a black screwball comedy critical of the police and the Anglican Church. Port Of Shadows was chopped up and re-edited to obscure the less flattering aspects of the story; Carné was furious, but what could he do? Since then, there have been a series of restorative versions of the film, but, even now, there are some pretty rough transitions between the digitally-restored sequences and the older, excised footage that has been returned to the print.
Along with the sublime Le Jour Se Lève (Daybreak) (1939), and their acknowledged masterpiece, Les Enfants Du Paradis (Children Of Paradise) (1945), Carné and Prèvert had established what came to be known as French Poetic Realism, employing a gauzy, dreamlike, atmospheric visual strategy to deeply fatalistic portrayals of love, passion and human foible. From film to film, Prèvert was able to more directly invest his narrative and characterizations with that sense of moral ambiguity, but Port Of Shadows is probably the most overt visual reckoning of those ideas. The city of Le Havre is perpetually blanketed in fog and shadow, and most of the film takes place at night or just before dawn. Jean (the great Jean Gabin) is a disillusioned soldier who has made his way to Le Havre to escape France and start a new life away from the violence and squalor of mid-century Europe. Brought to a run-down tavern / shack near the waterfront, he meets other down-on-their-luck types like amiable drunk Quart Vittel (Raymond Aimos), the jaded innkeeper Panama (Édouard Delmont), and the fetching Nelly (a diaphanous Michèle Morgan), who comes to Panama’s to seek refuge from her corrupt foster-father Zabel (Michel Simon). Zabel has run afoul of a punkish, small-time sociopath named Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), who thinks that Zabel is protecting Maurice, another low-life whom Lucien wants to take revenge on for betrayals in both business and love (Maurice is the boyfriend of Nelly, whom Lucien also has designs on). Nelly and Jean get along swimmingly, and it isn’t long before Jean becomes acquainted with Zabel, and punk-ass Lucien. Will Jean hop a freighter to Argentina and leave it all behind, or will he stay in the arms of Nelly and contend with the decadence of Le Havre, and World War II?
The atmospherics and swooning passions of the film are undeniably wonderful, and the cast is remarkable. But the objections of the French government were understandable as well, at the time – the film is a steady progression of The Worst Possible Things Coming To Pass; the ending is not a happy one. But Carné and Prèvert created a whole other league of romantic melodrama that informed countless films that came after. It’s a must-see on the big screen, even in the uneven prints that exist today. The Music Box showed the most recent print of Children Of Paradise fairly recently, and this version should also be the best available. Le Jour Se Lève is my own personal favorite – let’s hope a good restoration of that follows quickly behind. In the meantime, make a point to see the landmark Port Of Shadows – big-screen showings are few and far between.