Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Port of Shadows (1938)
Pre-war French cinema gave us, among other things, the poetic-realism school of aesthetics. The team of Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné was the steady duo of that school, the poet and the director who made a bunch of memorable films together. One of those is Port of Shadows and it begins like this…
After a shot of a ship laying still in a foggy harbor, we see the headlights of a truck before zooming to the driver. Then, from the opposing view, a silhouette of a man appears in the dark. He turns around and facing the lights he demands for the truck to stop. He is Jean (Jean Gabin), a soldier who just got back from fighting in Tonkin, Indochina and is heading to the port of Le Havre. As they arrive Jean notices a dog passing in the truck’s way. He grabs the wheel and turns suddenly, saving the dog but pulling the truck off the main road, having the angry driver demand an explanation. They go outside to pick a fight but Jean calms down and asks for a cigarette. When the driver says he thought he’d pull out a gun, the shot closes up on Gabin’s weary face as he gives a short speech, butt in mouth, over how weird it feels to draw and shoot a living person. He then shakes hands with the man and marches to the port. After a few steps in the damp night he notices a dog following him, the same dog he saved from the truck. He ignores him at first but soon, he drives him off with a stone. Later in the film someone asks him if he doesn’t like dogs. “I don’t like anyone looking for a master,” he declares.
What happens in this movie in terms of plot isn’t nearly as important as the main character and his doomed fate. Jean is an army-deserter, as we understand, trying to find a way out. Where better than a port. On the way, the more he tries to avoid people, the more they bump into him – making their stories a part of his. He meets a kind drunk who takes him to a hospitable shack by the sea where he finds some rest and food. There, he meets the host, a man blabbering about the days he spent in Panama, a suicidal painter blabbering about the futility in life and a beautiful teenage girl, Nelly (Michèle Morgan) to whom he blabbers about love. He almost encounters the other two significant characters, a local storekeeper named Zabel (Michel Simon) and a local gangster named Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) as they are both driven off the shack by Panama and his gun. We learn about a crime that has probably taken place, a guy named Maurice is missing, Lucien is after Zabel for some papers and Nelly is hiding from someone.
But all this implied drama is just the background for Jean’s rise and fall, his finding a moment of happiness only to lose it in a shocking way. “Do you love life?” the painter asks him. “It has its moments,” the soldier replies while looking at Nelly. “Does life love you?” the man comes back. “It’s been rotten to me so far, but maybe she’ll change, since I love her,” Jean says with his signature hardheadedness and his reflexive optimism.
Jacques Prévert, the surrealist poet and steady collaborator of Marcel Carné’s, wrote this script based on a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan. He builds every character as a reflection on Jean’s stranger, the mysterious but likable, the self-confident but withdrawn, the misanthrope but capable of great love. Each one of them has his own moments to throw a short speech or a quotation. The dialogue is full of such memorable exchanges of words, like the ones I cited above. Since people don’t really talk that way, it feels crafted, but it’s pleasurable. Jean walks around, hands in pockets, trying to mind his own business but his path is constantly blocked by trouble. It’s as if, while he knows nobody in this forsaken port-town, they all have been expecting him in a way, to help him fulfill his fate. Totally ignorant of the greater trap and as the dog becomes his shadow, Jean follows his gut and tries his doomed escape while we root for him, sucked in by his personality and appalled by the possibility of an unhappy ending.
Jean Gabin is remarkable and hauntingly familiar as Jean, and his romance with the beautiful Michèle Morgan works like a charm. Pierre Brasseur is a bit over the top in the role of the cowardly small-town gangster but Michel Simon paints a very low-profile, inconveniently slimy villain. Along with the rest, they all feel like a group of caricatures, surrounding the main character preventing him from being invisible.
Marcel Carné’s narration of Prévert’s story is very clear and never lets Jean out of its attention. Nevertheless, he introduces the secondary characters one by one in a careful manner, never failing to accentuate their significance in moving the plot forward. His image of Le Havre, is that of a very limited town where a stranger can’t visit but a few places, and only the footage of the large cargo ships provide some hope towards something greater. The atmosphere looks dumpy and artificially lit, as the photography doesn’t rely on heavy contrast but blends all shades of gray leading to a dull result, while some backgrounds look like they could have been painted.
Port of Shadows is one of those films that had a great influence on the film-noir genre which became so popular for a couple of decades later. Even if it’s a lot more romantic, which makes it feel kind of dated, Port of Shadows plays like a song to which you know the words and the ending, but find yourself humming it over and over again.