It was the only French film of the 1930s, Simone de Beauvoir reported, that she and Jean-Paul Sartre jointly admired, largely for "the fog of despair enveloping the entire film." Yet it was banned by the Vichy government on moral grounds, accused of contributing to a national malaise that led to the German occupation and condemned by a French Catholic organization for telling "a profoundly demoralizing, somber story." It's "Port of Shadows," one of the treasures of French cinema now newly restored to its original glory.
Released in France in 1938 as "Le Quai des Brumes," this was an early film by director Marcel Carné and writer Jacques Prévert, the team that went on to create 1945's "Children of Paradise." It's known for being the epitome of the poetic realism genre the men pioneered.
Because of its controversial sensibility, "Port of Shadows" was badly treated by French censors even though it starred Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan, Michel Simon and Pierre Brasseur. This Cinematheque Francaise restoration, which brought back cut material, was long overdue and especially welcome because of the film's exemplary visual qualities.
As shot by Eugen Schüfftan (who won an Oscar for "The Hustler" decades later) and production designed by the great Alexandre Trauner (who did "Children of Paradise" while hiding from the Germans), "Port of Shadows" is stunning to look at, a visual symphony of headlights in the fog, brooding docks and artfully blurred vistas.
Jean Gabin's Jean is introduced first, a soldier in uniform who hitches a ride on a truck to Le Havre. Shot just a few years after the actor's breakthrough in "Pépé Le Moko," this film reveals Gabin in his prime, perhaps the most memorable male presence in all of French cinema, an actor who casually projects fatalism and nameless despair.
While Jean is getting to know the town and attracting the attention of a persistent mutt, other characters are meeting at a local night spot. Petty gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur, the actor who plays Lemaitre in "Children of Paradise") is trying to get some information out of Zabel, a classic petit bourgeois shopkeeper who finds the club's jazz music "degrading."
The bizarre Zabel provides another reason to appreciate the splendid French actor Michel Simon, who made a specialty ("Boudou Saved From Drowning," "L'Atalante") of playing odd men out. His Zabel is a real piece of work, a character whose true dimensions are only gradually revealed.
Jean, it soon becomes clear, has deserted the army and is looking for a way to flee the country. He finds refuge for a night in a rundown shack called Chez Panama, where he meets fellow members of the brotherhood of the powerless and dispossessed.
In Chez Panama's back room, Jean comes across Nelly (Morgan), a 17-year-old runaway who looks stunning in a beret and plastic raincoat. Though Jean mistakes her for a prostitute and mocks the very notion of romantic love ("Like in the movies, one look and I fall for you"), things change soon enough.
For against all odds these two fall immediately and passionately for each other. "This must be what love feels like," Nelly says in one of the film's enrapturing close-ups. Their happiness is real and shared, but in this film's bleak world it is inevitably going to be dearly bought. Because it is so uncompromising, so pure, "Port of Shadow's" particularly French brand of romantic fatalism still knocks us out decades after the fact.
'Port of Shadows'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, Pasadena