Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin in Le quai des brumes (1938)


(director: Marcel Carné; screenwriters: from the novel by Pierre MacOrlan/Jacques Prévert; cinematographer: E. Schufftan; editor: R. Le Hénaff; music: Maurice Jaubert; cast: Jean Gabin (Jean), Michel Simon (Zabel), Michèle Morgan (Nelly), Pierre Brasseur (Lucien), René Génin (Le docteur), Edouard Delmont (Panama), Raymond Aimos (Half-Pint), Robert Le Vigan (Michel, artist) Marcel Pérèz (Pérèz, Le chauffeur); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gregor Rabinovitch; Criterion Collection; 1938-France-in French with English subtitles)

“One of the reasons the French so readily accepted the American film noir of the 1940s is because they already had it in the 1930s, and this crime drama is proof of that.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of the reasons the French so readily accepted the American film noir of the 1940s is because they already had it in the 1930s, and this crime drama is proof of that. Director Marcel Carné (“Children of Paradise”) and writer Jacques Prévert successfully collaborated eight times in their career. Port of Shadows, as it is also known by, is based on the novel by Pierre MacOrlan. Producer Gregor Rabinovitch bought the rights to the story from the Nazi government, as propaganda minister Josef Goebbels changed his mind about presenting such a fatalistic film in the war tension year of 1938. Carné had to fight with the producer to keep the downbeat novel intact, and by winning the argument he was proven right as this became a critically acclaimed work that boosted Jean Gabin (who has been compared to both Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy) onto the world stage as a recognizable international star.

Jean (Jean Gabin) for some unexplained reason deserted the French army (hints are that he might be a pacifist) and hitches a ride with a truck driver to the port of Le Havre, hoping to board a ship for a South American country. When he saves the life of a stray dog on the road, the mutt follows him around town and he adopts the fellow outcast. Ducking out of sight from passing soldiers, a drunk named Half-Pint (Raymond Aimos) senses Jean’s in trouble and takes him to a seedy waterfront bar owned by a character nicknamed Panama (Edouard Delmont) because of his hat. While dressed in his army uniform Jean meets there a despondent painter named Michel and an attractive 17-year-old girl named Nelly (Michèle Morgan). She’s an outcast like him and they fall in love on first sight. It’s eventually established that Nelly is running away from a creepy, overbearing guardian Zabel (Michel Simon). Nelly came to stay with Zabel after her mom ran away and her heartbroken father died soon afterwards. Her guardian is being hunted down by a punky wannabe tough guy gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), the son of a prominent wealthy family, and his two henchman. Lucien is looking to find fellow gangster Maurice and believes Zabel knows where he’s at. Maurice is a partner of Lucien’s and is the owner of the dive named the Little Joker, where he has upset the jealous Zabel by dating his dancer employee Nelly. When Jean meets Zabel and Lucien, he acts to protect her from both these sordid men.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

Before the night ends, the artist leaves Jean his civvies, money and a passport, and Jean makes arrangements with the doctor on the Louisiana for him to get passage when it sails tomorrow night for Venezuela. In the meantime he beds down in a flophouse with Nelly and spends the best night he ever had. They make plans for him to write her when he reaches his new destination so she can join him. While having breakfast in bed, they read in the newspaper that Maurice’s mutilated body is found by the waterfront. Nelly rushes back to her godfather’s novelty shop and confronts him in his wine cellar and pleads with him not to turn Jean in as a deserter or she’ll tell the police he killed Maurice. He confesses that he did it because he’s hopelessly in love with her and will stop anyone whom she loves. While they are in an altercation, Jean has left the ship to see her once more and gets into a struggle with the evil Zabel and brutally crushes him to death with a large rock. While rushing back to the ship on foot, Jean’s gunned down by Lucien in a passing car.

The foggy night and eerie waterfront locale, even though filmed on a stage set to reinvent Le Havre, give the film its authentic film noir shadowy look to match the similar darkly poetical dialogue. It’s a place inhabited by loners, losers, weasels, psychopaths and misfits. There’s doubt if any but the most cunning, ruthless or most repellent can survive such a state of hopelessness. The atmosphere is tense and all the characters are desperate, but none as much as the innocent star-crossed lovers who can never shake their belief that the world has it in for them and there’s no escape. Carné’s dramatization ably reflects the doomed mood of the time, but it never escapes the superficiality of its characters (all stereotypes) and never leaves us with much to ponder intellectually.