Road to nowhere in Marcel Carné’s ‘Port of Shadows’

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Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan in Port of Shadows

Apparently, there’s something about Le Havre. In 2011, I reviewed Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, a quirky and colorful drama set in the aforementioned French port city, and last year I wrote about Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, a tragedy in which murder is committed on a train bound for the very same burg.

Now it’s 2013, and – entirely by coincidence – it’s time once again to pay a cinematic visit to this foggy coastal town. Our tour guides this time are director Marcel Carné and screenwriter (and poet) Jacques Prévert; the vehicle, their 1938 feature Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes), screening at Pacific Film Archive at 6:30 p.m. on Sat., July 6 as part of the current series “A Theater Near You.”

Gallic matinee idol Jean Gabin stars as Jean, a poilu newly returned home from a tour of duty in French Indochina. Desperate to permanently leave the military life behind him, Jean plans to desert to South America, but first must find a ship and a captain willing to take him there.

Hitching his way to Le Havre, where ships and captains abound, Jean finds his uniform puts him at a disadvantage in the search for sanctuary. Eager to set aside his kepi in favor of civilian millinery, he visits The Little Joker, a local nightspot where inebriate Half Pint (Raymond Aimos) hides him from patrolling MPs and directs him to Panama’s, a portside flophouse with a reputation as the best hiding place in town (it’s a little odd that the police haven’t also heard the rumors, but whatever).

Owned by the eponymous guitar-strumming lowlife (Edouard Delmont), Panama’s doesn’t disappoint. The end of the line for society’s dregs, the dump hosts a suicidal painter (Robert le Vigan) and also serves as a refuge of sorts for teenage Nelly (Michèle Morgan, still with us today at 93), whose unseen boyfriend Maurice is on the run from local gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur).

This is not a recipe for a happy ending, and indeed only tragedy awaits those who pass through Panama’s portals. Prévert’s screenplay delivers the copious bad news with refreshing honesty, his mature, sometimes blunt dialogue standing in sharp contrast to anything penned in contemporaneous Hollywood. This is a film steeped in fatalism, its characters well along the road to nowhere: the best they can hope for is a brief glimpse of sunshine before the curtain falls, and that is all they get.

If the presence of Gabin and Morgan (who, despite being 18 at the time, looks far more mature than her character’s supposed 17 years) isn’t enough to sell you on Port of Shadows, there’s the added bonus of Michel Simon (Boudu Saved From Drowning) among its supporting cast. As good at drama as he was at comedy, Simon brings a sinister seediness to his critical role as Nelly’s guardian, a local merchant with a predilection for church music.

Footnote: producer Gregor Rabinovitch originally intended to shoot Port of Shadows in Germany with a German cast and crew. That didn’t sit well with Third Reich propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, however, who was disgusted by the script’s sympathetic portrayal of a deserter, and the production moved to France.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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