A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection
Port of Shadows (1938)
Directed by Marcel Carné
A truck moves through the foggy night along a tree-lined road outside of Le Havre, France. The driver peers ahead through the misty darkness. Suddenly, a lone figure materializes out of the gray fog, a man in a soldier's uniform raising his hand to hail the driver. The truck comes to a halt, the soldier climbs in, and the truck continues on to Le Havre. The driver asks the soldier if he's on leave. The soldier makes no reply. Further down the road, a dog darts in front of the truck, and the soldier jerks the steering wheel to prevent the truck from running it over. The driver is enraged at this, and the two men nearly come to blows.
This is the opening scene of the classic French film Port of Shadows (the title sounds better in the original French, Le quai des brumes, but then again, doesn't everything sound better in French?). The scene is also our introduction to Jean, an army deserter who has come to the busy port of Le Havre looking to find passage on a ship heading for foreign lands, somewhere he can find a new identity and a new life. Jean is played in the film by the great French leading man Jean Gabin, a man so cool he made Humphrey Bogart seem comparatively square (try not to be impressed by the way Gabin smokes, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth as he speaks around it). Gabin's unique brand of cool, a toughness of physique and demeanor that is tempered by world-weariness and sentiment, is exemplified in the opening scene in the truck: he cares enough about an unfamiliar dog to risk his own safety to avoid hitting it, but he will just as readily engage in a fistfight with the driver who rebukes him for it.
Nelly returns to Zabel's shop, where Zabel makes physical advances toward her, shedding light on her reasons for hiding out. After inquiring about departing ships at the docks, Jean finds his way by chance to Zabel's shop, looking to purchase a gift for Nelly. Zabel invites him in, and quickly figures out that Jean is a deserter, although he hints that he will keep Jean's secret if Jean will get rid of Lucien for him. Jean blows him off with an insult, comparing him to a bug. Nelly goes to the cellar to get a bottle of cognac, where she discovers a familiar pair of cuff links on the floor beneath the stairs. It is clear that they belonged to Maurice, and Nelly immediately suspects Zabel of foul play in his disappearance.
Things begin to look up for Jean. Fortuitous circumstances bring him a set of civilian clothes and new identification papers, and he befriends the doctor on a ship setting sail for Venezuela the next day. He meets Nelly at a small carnival by the docks later that evening, and their feelings for one another grow. There is another altercation with Lucien at the bumper cars, and he is again humiliated, this time in front of his date. Jean and Nelly spend the night together at a waterfront hotel, and the next morning she says that this is first time she has ever felt she could live a happy life. Their bliss is interrupted by the news that Maurice's mutilated body has been found at the docks, and that a soldier is the main suspect (Jean's discarded army uniform was also found in the water). Jean breaks the bad news, that he must leave that afternoon aboard the Venezuela-bound ship, although he is clearly reluctant to do so. Whether he chooses to stay with Nelly or not, his plans are threatened by the machinations of the jealous Zabel and the vengeful Lucien.
Port of Shadows was one of the defining films of a movement known as "poetic realism," which dominated French cinema in the late 1930s. One of the prime characteristics of the movement was its emphasis on fate, and from the fog-enshrouded opening images of Port of Shadows, there is the sense that everything that happens was destined to lead Jean and Nelly down a tragic path. The sense of impending doom that hangs over the film is so compelling, it is hardly spoiling the plot to say that things don't end happily.
It is a beautiful and moving film, with a script by Jacques Prévert that infuses the tragic fatalism and criminal milieu with lyrical flourishes. "With every sunrise," says Nelly, "we think something new is going to happen, something fresh. Then the sun goes to bed, and so do we. It's sad." The film's use of music and sound is also noteworthy. During Jean and Lucien's confrontation at the bumper cars, the cheerful carnival midway music acts as a counterpoint to the sudden tension and sense of impending violence. In a later scene, another act of violence plays out to the sound of a choral hymn coming from a radio in the next room. And always, in the background, there is the sound of the docks and of ships' whistles blowing, a constant reminder of Jean's imminent departure.