Port of Shadows

The poetic realism of Marcel Carne, Jacques Prevert, and Jean Gabin.



Would life be as poignant without the certainty of death?


The question hangs over director Marcel Carne's film Port of Shadows like the fog that permeates the port city of Le Havre, where army deserter Jean has traveled to escape the nightmares of war on a ship to Venezuela. Le Havre is as much an infirmary as a town, home to reclusive dreamers and suicidal painters, scheming godfathers and impotent gangsters. And as the French knew all too well in 1938, there could be no escape for any of them.


Now out on Criterion DVD, Port of Shadows is an early entry in the French film movement known as poetic realism, a style of doomed romanticism that found its greatest expression in the films of director Carne and poet and screenwriter Jacques Prevert. Carne's and Prevert's best-known collaboration, Children of Paradise, also available on Criterion in a two-disc set, was chosen by a 2000 poll of French film critics as the greatest French film.


To those who've already seen Children of Paradise, Port of Shadows may seem less developed structurally, but arguably more human for being so (countless essays have undoubtedly been written about Children of Paradise's archetypal characters and intricate references to Shakespeare's Othello).


Played by Jean Gabin, who in 1937 starred in such classics as Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion and Julien Duvivier's Pepe le Moko, Jean is the sort of character that Humphrey Bogart typified in the U.S.: world-weary, cynical, yet beneath all his bluster lies a heart of gold.


After hitching a lift into town—nearly killing his ride by grabbing the wheel to avoid a stray dog—Jean meets Half-Pint, a drunken homeless man who finds him a place to stay. The place is Panama's, a tumbledown shack named for its proprietor, a man in a white suit and tropical hat so enamored by his 1906 visit to that sunny country that he's fixed the shack's barometer so it can't display "foggy."


Port of Shadows isn't a story so much as a mood, and its centerpiece, a love affair between Jean and the stunningly attractive Nelly (Michele Morgan), is suitably melancholy. Carne and Prevert had a sincere appreciation for those who, contra-Hemingway, simply shatter at the broken places, those too sensitive or too good to weather life's indignities.


"I'd see a crime in a rose" says the suicidal painter at Panama's. Yet the film closes with Half-Pint fulfilling his simple dream of sleeping between white sheets. Keep hoping, Carne and Prevert seem to say. Just hope small.


--Joshua Avram

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