Le Quai des Brumes (aka Port of Shadows) is a magnificent love story, a true classic which was unfortunately marred by a somewhat tumultuous start in life. Plagued by censorship, in the beginning it saw a period during which it was banned, deemed too unpatriotic and too disturbing to the younger generations. It was widely thought that it's narrative was inappropriate. Being about an army deserter, particularly during wartime, didn't sit well with many censors in pre-war europe. Also, the nature of the movie, being firmly rooted in the Poetic Realism movement in French Cinema, was ultimately a tale of tragedy. So often movies of this genre, pioneered by such greats as Jean Renoir and Jean Chenal, featured a protagonist who existed on the edges of society, outcast and alone, given one last chance at love; at happiness. The stories often saw a somewhat disappointing and bitter end for the main character, dashing the rekindled hope in a murky and often sorrowful end. This unforgiving approach to cinema was not welcomed at the time, as it was deemed far more “beneficial” for movies to have a happy ending, and to stir ideas of hope in a time of such turmoil. How wrong they were about this, for the idea of freedom is at the very heart of the film.
It's the story of Jean (Jean Gabin), an army defector who having fled the French Colonial Forces, finds sanctuary in a small wooden hut, tucked away at the end of a pier on the harbour port of La Havre. The hut is full of colourful characters, including an eccentric painter and a warm and welcoming bar man. Jean, is a roguish and powerful man - he is broody and quick to temper. Though his slightly aggressive failings betray him almost immediately upon being welcomed into the makeshift bar, run by Panama (Edouard Delmont), the occupants of the bar remain patient with him, despite his outbursts and general prickly demeanour.
He meets a girl in the back room of the bar named Nelly (Michele Morgan), with whom he becomes besotted. At first teasing her and generally being mean, when fighting breaks out in the front of the bar, he assures her that she need not worry, that he'll protect her. Suddenly there is a spark between the two and his hardened army-conditioned exterior softens slightly. As time goes on, and the couple walk together along the pier, cracks begin to appear in his tough emotional armour.
When Nelly's safety is threatened by Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), a local wannabe gangster, and his lackeys, Jean wades in to protect her, knocking down the bigger of the three tough guys. He explains to Lucien, who is shocked and taken aback with Jean's quick temper and obvious skill in fighting, that if he ever lays so much as a finger on Nelly, that he will find him and beat him. Lucien, his pride hurt badly, scuttles off in his car, leaving Jean and Nelly together.
Romance flourishes, and though Jean plans to leave the port to head for South America, he finds himself drawn to this mysterious and beautiful girl, captivated by her beauty. He tarries in La Havre longer than he had planned, and with a sharp and unfortunate turn of events, finds himself trapped in a tragic destiny, littered with the shattered remnants of his last chance at true love.
Le Quai des Brumes is based on the novel by Pierre Mac Orlan. Mac Orlan and the movie's star Jean Gabin knew each other well, Gabin having featured in the adaptation of Mac Orlan's “La Bandera” several years earlier. One of the most prolific French actors of the time, Gabin was very much the driving force in Le Quai Des Brumes being made, early on expressing a desire to be part of writer Jaques Prevert and director Marcel Carnes next picture, having enjoyed the dialogue he'd read of it very much.
Under contract with the UFA at the time, a major German film studio, Jean Gabin had one more movie to do in order to fulfil his contract. However, upon reading Prevert's treatment of Le Quai des Brumes, the UFA declared that they didn't like it at all. At the time, the Nazi party was in power in Germany, and no movie could be shot without the Goebbels' approval. During a period where the Nazi propaganda machine was in full swing, publishing leaflets and invading practically all of mainland europe, the prospect of a movie about an army deserter was particularly unattractive.
The movie, which had been almost ready for filming, seemed at this point destined to fail. That is until a German producer of Russian descent, who also happened to be an avid fan of Gabin, wanted to take the movie to France to shoot. There, it would not face the German Propaganda approval system, and may escape some of the censorship issues so rife in Nazi Germany. This producer, having barely glanced at the script, was behind the project mostly because Jean Gabin carried such an A-List superstar weight at the time. Perhaps it was a case of dollar signs in front of his eyes, but whatever it was, hope for the movie, it seemed, came in the shape of a German Russian producer named Gregor Rabinovitch.
As the project began to take shape around the Russian born producer, the fact that Jean Gabin's character was a deserter of the French Colonial Forces, came as something of a terrific surprise to Rabinovitch when he finally got round to reading the script. Given that at the time there was an incredible amount of mobilization leaflets going around, and the threat of war looming across all of Europe, Rabinowitch saw this as a potential commercial disaster, a far cry from the cash cow he assumed a movie with Gabin attached might be. Needless to say, his excitement for producing the next Jean Gabin project would not be enough to console him, and the script faced further censorship. The worst kind of censorship – Producer Censorship.
Gabin fought hard against Rabinovitch, defending Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert's script vehemently. After much discussion, it was agreed that the narrative would remain the same, but that the word “deserter” would never be spoken during the film. I'm sure this seemed like a minor victory to Rabinovitch, however what we find is that not saying the word on screen resulted in the implication thereof having a far more powerful effect. Perhaps credit to the character's narrative in some sense can go to the censors. Another area of note that came up is that during one scene in the movie, Gabin changes his Military Uniform for Civilian clothes. In the original script, Gabin throws his uniform to the ground in great relief and disgust, but the scene had to be changed at Rabinovitch's insistence; the uniform should instead be respectfully folded, and carefully placed on the table.
Gabin, throughout the entire shoot, tirelessly defended Carne against the producer's continual insistence that shots be changed or removed. Having a note in his contract with the producer that stipulated that no shots or dialogue could be changed without his consent seems now something of a godsend, since it was Gabin that Rabinowitz was initially signing up to produce and not the movie. Later, this proved a perpetual annoyance for Rabinovitch, as any disputed lines of dialogue or scenes he raised, Gabin would have to approve. Whether constrained by his leading actor's contract, or by pressure from external censors, credit must go to Rabinovitch to some degree, since without him, Carne would never have been able to make this picture.
Carne's attention to detail is brilliant. Little things that would ordinarily go unnoticed are presented in ways that are striking, and poignant – like the juxtaposition between the simplicity of Jean's hopes to escape from the oppressive formality of the army and the chaotic menace of the formidable shipyard he finds himself in, with it's complex and difficult structures, sharp lines and intricate visuals. The attention Carne and Prevert paid to the dialogue is sublime and poetic, such as the artist sorrowfully lamenting his inability to produce art that is satisfactory and pleasing - “I paint things hidden behind other things. To me, a swimmer is already a drowned man”. Carne somehow manages to find despair in the most beautiful of things, and hope in the most desperate of things.
There is a sense of heightened aestheticism that supports the poetry of the characters and their interactions, often drawing very much on the representational aspects of the surroundings, such as the shipyard, ever looming in the background, a constant reminder that there is a gateway; an escape route to a new life; a constant temptation to ditch it all and start again. This contrasts beautifully with the main character's desire to stay and to pursue his one final chance at happiness. Achieving this duality of narrative was no mean feat at the time, since the majority of the shoot was studio bound.
Lighting was a key element to get right in the movie since so much of it was shot in a studio. This is where Eugen Schufftan's cinematography and Rene Le Henaff's brilliant production design really show their salts. Blending together in such a way that gives the movie a strong sense of identity. With extremely precise lighting and camera angles that play to the lighting and set design's strengths, it's easy to see why Le Quai des Brumes is widely considered the catalyst for what would become the Film Noir movement that really began to take off in Hollywood in the 1940's.
Jean Gabin is powerful as the main protagonist, and he exudes charm. He manages to convey the character's confusion at his situation – running from the army as a defector and wanting to sail to a new life in South America, he is torn with a sense of utter weariness and discontent at the hand that life has dealt him, ennui if you will. When suddenly, he is thrust into a scenario where people are nice to him, patient with him, and offer him a chance at happiness. A romance is kindled, and he falls in love. Gabin shows us effortlessly that the character never expected his lot in life to be any different, and shows genuine surprise and confusion when things change for the better. It's easy to see why Gabin was such a huge name in the 30's and 40's – he's a true film star. A French Humphrey Bogart, and that's a big claim I'm sure you'll agree.
Michele Morgan plays her part as Nelly, a 17 year old girl whose hopes of escaping the Port of La Havre become more than just a dream when Jean rolls into town, she is as strong as she is beautiful. Her delivery carries a slight tone of whimsy, as though her character has had nothing more to do than to toy with the boys of the town up til now, but she now shows a strength of character and resolve in wanting to help Jean to escape. She's the typical damsel in distress, but turns very much into the strong woman, so blinkered by her love for Jean. A brilliant and beautiful performance.
The rest of the cast are largely circumstantial to the plot, bar Lucien, played by Pierre Brasseur, who is a devilish and devious spoilt little brat. With an ego the size of a planet, brought crashing down to Earth when embarrassed by Jean and warned off Nelly, Brasseur does a glorious job at making you hate him almost instantly. Then finally there's Michel Simon, who plays Zabel, Nelly's guardian. He plays the affable old fool at first, and brilliantly manages to completely turn his role on it's head in becoming much more sinister, almost out of nowhere. A great cast on the whole, but the show is thoroughly stolen by Jean Gabin.
If you've never seen Le Quai des Brumes, and you love French Cinema, or even just classic Cinema for that matter, then you really should seek it out. It's one of those movies that will remain timeless in its ability to tell a compelling story. An excellent example of how method and ideals were at the forefront of pre-wartime film, and this is a truly captivating example of the Poetic Realism movement that the 1930's saw so much of with the likes of La Bete humaine, Children of Paradise and The Lower Depths. Holding it's own amongst these classics, it is still one of those that can often escapes attention, too frequently slipping through the net and being overlooked. To allow that to happen to you, is a crime indeed.
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