Kino Lorber releases a gloriously restored version of a French film classic.
DIRECTED BY MARCEL CARNE / FRENCH/1938
BLU RAY STREET DATE AUGUST 13, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Port of Shadows is a proto-film noir made in France in 1938. Directed by Michel Carne, it spins a tale full of criminality, deciet, violence, passion and murder. Neither the film’s producer, nor the French government were happy with the subject matter, but Port of Shadows is a true classic that stands the test of time as a great film. With this restoration and subsequent Blu-Ray release, Kino Lorber has given the film the star treatment it deserves.
French film icon Jean Gabin plays Jean, a soldier whom we meet while he wearily trudges his way towards the port city of Le Havre. It soon becomes clear he is a deserter, and he’s heading into town to find some clothes, some money, a hot meal and a ship to take him away to a new life. He instead finds Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a 17 year old who has run away from her guardian, Zabel (Michel Simon), following the disappearance of her fiance Maurice. Jean and Nelly spend a lot of time together, even as Jean still plots his escape to South America. They have several run-ins with a trio of tough guys, who are looking for Maurice. These guys, led by Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), try to intimidate Nelly into telling them what she knows, but Jean easily humilates them and drives them off.
That would seem to be the end of it, but Jean, despite himself, falls for Nelly and falls hard. He can’t bring her with him, but can he just leave her behind in a situation which she seems desperate to get away from? And will Lucien and his cronies let go of the slights Jean has inflicted on them?
A shadow can be threatening or frightening until we can see what’s casting it. Likewise, all of the characters in Port of Shadows project outward appearances that attempt to obfuscate what lies beneath. The men we read initially as tough gangsters turn out to be scared rich boys playing dress up. An “honest merchant,” who seems at first to be a victim, is involved way more than he’s telling. Jean is a deserter, who nevertheless finds attachment- first to a dog whose life he saves, and then to Nelly. He even takes over another man’s identity and pretends to be a painter.
Nothing is as it seems. Nothing speaks truth. A barometer foretells pleasant weather, even on the foggiest nights, because its hands have been nailed down. Sitting on the edge of the docks, Jean looks into the water and makes a remark about the seabed. “That’s not the seabed,” Nelly corrects him. “The seabed’s farther out and deeper.” Later the two will have their picture taken in front of a fake backdrop suggesting they are aboard an ocean liner. Even the (real) city of Le Havre is fake in the movie, recreated on soundstages because the director wanted the film to be awash in shadows and fog as befits its murky subject matter.
Port of Shadows had a troubled production, and the film was initially banned upon release because the authorities felt its subject matter was ‘demoralizing.’ The fact that Gabin’s character was an army deserter was a bridge too far for the French government. The censors eventually relented, on the condition that the word ‘deserter’ is never uttered during the film. They got their wish, although in the absence of the word, Jean’s status screams all the louder.
In his 2004 essay about the film, Luc Sante called Gabin “the quintessential French tough guy, as iconic a figure as Bogart playing Sam Spade.” Jean might be a tough guy, but his eyes tell us he’s seen more than enough violence and shooting. Gabin sells us on the idea of a man who’s done watching men “scream and grab their guts, like a kid who’s eaten too much.” But Jean is also a man who can’t stand idly by and watch injustice. That’s the instinct that will get him into trouble.
Morgan was only seventeen at the time she was cast, but she proves a capable match for Gabin. The two share a remarkable onscreen chemistry. When they finally fall into each other’s arms at a small seaside fair, it lights the screen on fire.
The blu-ray disc comes with a documentary: “On the Port of Shadows.” It sheds light on the film’s history, from the anecdotal account of its genesis, through its rocky production. The film was at one point to be produced by the German company UFA. Goebbels (yes, that Goebbels) rejected the film due to its “degenerate and sordid” subject matter. The film was picked up by a French producer, who apparently didn’t read the script closely enough, and who complained about the film and demanded changes all throughout filming. The movie would eventually go on to be a big success in France, and win most of the major film awards there. It was banned once the war began, but was re-released afterwards to become a classic and a movie whose style (a heightened tone called ‘poetic realism’) would have far-reaching influences.