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Waterfront brothel, smuggling, a sunken ship combine in seedy Marseilles tale
What is the real running time of "Port du Desir"? Some dvds say it's 94m (PAL) and others say 114m. There's a version on Youtube that's cut, missing several very important scenes, and it runs 85m. I watched a version that runs 91 minutes that was taped from a television showing. I am sure it too has some small cuts. I think the correct time is 94m.
At any rate, this is a film well worth seeing. It has all sorts of interesting and captivating highlights. It can be classified as noir, due to its focus on a seedy brothel and criminal elements. However, in the end it doesn't come across as a pessimistic story. It doesn't have a strong noir tone or atmosphere of dislocation, instability or doom. In this it differs a lot from "Dedee d'Anvers" (1948) and "Port of Shadows" (1938), two other stories set in darkly lit ports. It has been revived in a Gabin film fest by The American Cinematheque in company with some other Gabin noirs. But in truth it's not as dark as "Grisbi" and "Le Rouge est Mis".
The title is well-chosen. The story is about the goings-on in one part of the port area of Marseilles known as Joliette. Several characters share almost equal screen time, including the leads Jean Gabin, Henri Vidal and Andree Debar. A number of supporting roles also are prominent, including Edith Georges as a dancer and singer, Leopoldo Frances as a black man who frequents the brothel/hotel run by Gaby Basset, and Jean-Roger Caussimon as the villainous sadistic smuggler.
In the pre-story, Caussimon had sunk a ship in the harbor with contraband and to cover up the murder of the sister of Debar. Shifting currents now require it be lifted, and Jean Gabin's salvage boat is hired. Henri Vidal is Gabin's diver, a decent guy who spends everything he earns on women, wine and good times. Debar arrives at the brothel, where Basset conspires with Caussimon. She's looking for her lost sister whom she hasn't heard from. Caussimon is out to get the submerged ship blown up and induces Vidal to the task. Caussimon's character is an interesting man without a conscience who has a fetish for hatpins. It's details like this strewn throughout this story that elevate it considerably. Gabin has a paternal interest in Debar, while Vidal's interest is amorous. He and Georges have an on-again, off-again relationship; she likes him but he won't commit, and she also likes him more when he has the money to buy her a fur coat. Vidal and Debar's relationship is filmed with a feeling that it is real love, but challenged by life's forces and their pursuers. Their possibly ill-fated love is filmed sensitively.
These elements afford ample opportunity for intrigue, some songs, some thuggery, some underwater diving, some neat location photography, and some difficulties for Vidal and Debar, who find themselves pursued by Caussimon's men. It's an enjoyable stew with a few surprises and interesting characters.
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