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As epochal as any film made in France in the 1930s, Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes, 1938) is a definitive example of the style known as “poetic realism.” The ragged outlines, the lowdown settings, the romantic fatalism of the protagonists, the movement of the story first upward toward a single moment of happiness and then down to inexorable doom—the hallmarks of the style had germinated in some form or other through the decade, but in Marcel Carné’s third feature they came together as archetypes. The poetic aspect will be immediately apparent to contemporary viewers, although the genre’s claim to realism may be a bit more difficult to fathom. After all, the story occurs in a strangely stylized place the film wants us to believe is the bustling port of Le Havre. There are splendid documentary inserts of ships being unloaded, of course, but it might otherwise seem as though the town has a population of about twenty, all of whom might bear labels rather than names and who seem to enter and exit the action as if it were occurring on a stage.
The term can perhaps best be understood by reference to the popular music of the time, specifically the style called chanson réaliste. As made famous by Edith Piaf, Damia, Fréhel, and Lucienne Delyle in particular, this genre evokes a world-weary romanticism with untrained and frequently raspy voices, minor-key melodies, and dark narratives set more often than not in semicriminal milieux. What made it realistic was its scorn for happy endings and bucolic settings; even if it amounted to another sort of fantasy, it was at least a fantasy that was congruent with working-class lives. Similarly, Port of Shadows and the other examples of poetic realism in the cinema owe little to Émile Zola, but neither do they have anything to do with dinner jackets, cruise ships, or independent incomes. The high artifice of Port of Shadows, meanwhile, might best be understood if the movie is considered as a kind of song: a boy, a girl, surging love, lurking death. Its fated momentum adheres to the mind as tenaciously as a refrain.
By the time he appeared in Port of Shadows, Jean Gabin was already a major star, having appeared in Pépé le Moko (1937) and Grand Illusion (1937), among other things. His entrance here, though, flagging down a truck on a fog-shrouded road late at night, is one of those generation-defining moments. An awful lot of them involve men from nowhere headed in the direction of destiny (think Humphrey Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Clint Eastwood), and this one is no exception: Gabin plays an army deserter, about whom we learn little other than that he served in Indochina and doesn’t care to remember it. He forces the truck to swerve to avoid hitting a dog—who will attach himself to Jean and maybe take on his soul. Then he comes into town and meets a drunk (the redoubtable character actor Raymond Aimos), who steers him to a shack on a lonely stretch of beach. It’s a bar, or, more to the point, a depot of lost souls, run by a man in a white suit and tropical hat who is unsurprisingly named Panama. A gun battle soon breaks out—some gangsters are after Michel Simon, sporting the beard he wore seven years earlier in Jean Renoir’s La Chienne, (1931)—and you can’t quite tell whether it’s meant to be sinister or comical or both. Meanwhile, in the back room stands implacably the seventeen-year-old Michèle Morgan, a vision of unearthly beauty in a transparent raincoat.
Naturally she and Gabin’s character will find love, however briefly, and naturally he will protect her from predators, who include Simon, ostensibly her guardian, and the chief gangster—Pierre Brasseur, in the grand tradition of sadistic weaklings. Naturally, too, everything that is good in life will unravel, quickly and dramatically. The sense of impending doom begins almost with the first shot, materializing as the fog. “If I see a swimmer, I immediately think he’ll drown, so I paint a drowned man,” explains an artist (Robert Le Vigan), who will soon commit suicide by means of the ocean and leave his clothes and passport to Gabin’s character. The fatalism was such that a few years later Vichy propagandists accused the film of having prepared the ground for France’s defeat by the Germans—to which Carné replied, “Does one blame the weather on the barometer?” Just as the early days of the Popular Front had resulted in such euphoric films as Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le Crime de M. Lange,1936) and Julien Duvivier’s La Belle équipe (1936), so its decline was echoed in Port of Shadows and the movie that is virtually its companion piece, Le Jour se lève (1939), which Carné made the following year with Gabin and Arletty.
Carné was an ambitious if somewhat erratic auteur, capable of spectacular masterpieces (Children of Paradise [Les Enfants du paradis], 1945) as well as of second-rate exercises (most of his work after the early fifties). His films can usually be measured by the quality of his collaborators, of whom the most essential was the poet Jacques Prévert, who wrote the scripts to all his best movies, which is to say seven of his first eight. Prévert, who had a way of maintaining an invisible balance between lyricism and snap-brim slang repartee, came closer to owning the poetic-realist franchise than any other figure. This picture was one of four Carné made that were scored by the composer Maurice Jaubert (who died in combat in the first days of the war), and it can scarcely be imagined without his delicately foreshadowing music. And, like eight other movies by Carné, it was designed by Alexandre Trauner, whose work accounts for the deserted-fairground strangeness of what is ostensibly a lively and populous harbor town—the streets of Le Havre were all built on a soundstage. While they are realistic enough foot by foot, the houses have an oddly animate quality, and the perspectives do not quite align. Trauner apprenticed with Lazar Meerson, who constructed similar dreamlike streetscapes for the films of René Clair and Jacques Feyder.
Port of Shadows possesses nearly all the qualities that were once synonymous with the idea of French cinema. Gabin—eating sausage with a knife or talking around a cigarette butt parked in the corner of his mouth or administering a backhanded slap to Brasseur’s kisser—is the quintessential French tough guy, as iconic a figure as Bogart playing Sam Spade. Michèle Morgan, ethereal and preoccupied, may pale a bit in comparison to some of her sisters in Parisian movies of the time (Arletty, for example), but she comes to life in bed, in a scene you can’t imagine occurring in an American movie before 1963 or so. The hazy lights, the wet cobblestones, the prehensile poplars lining the road out of town, the philosophical gravity of peripheral characters, the idea that nothing in life is more important than passion—such things defined a national cinema that might have been dwarfed by Hollywood in terms of reach and profit but stood every inch as tall as regards grace and beauty and power.
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, Evidence, The Factory of Facts, and Walker Evans, and co-editor of O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors. He teaches at Bard College.