A military deserter finds love and trouble (and a small dog) in a foggy, French port city.A military deserter finds love and trouble (and a small dog) in a foggy, French port city.A military deserter finds love and trouble (and a small dog) in a foggy, French port city.
The opening sequence of PORT OF SHADOWS, thanks to the memorable tracking shot and stylized mise en scene - a typical hallmark of the director, set the tone for the story and provide the feeling to it: we see a road and a man fleeing his past. What preceded and what follows is of no significance, what counts is here and now. Jean (Jean Gabin) is heading for a new haven of his life. He stops at spots which he had not intended to set foot in and meets people who he had not planned to know. Yet, nothing and nobody coincide with the doomed fatality of his situations. Even if there is hope, it is doomed... Yet, in all this hopelessness, the viewer is struck by truly great surprises not likely to be skipped.
COLLABORATIVE EFFORT: The author of the article in Senses of Cinema does not deny the powerful influence of the director on various people of cinema, including Visconti, Reed and Bergman. What, however, seems to be most striking is the fact that PORT OF SHADOWS is simultaneously an individual vision and a common work --- the director's "most coldly formal work," and "the very DNA of French classical film-making" where "a confused soul" and "an obstinate cineaste" (Carne according to Francois Truffaut) makes his "romantic and fatalist mode of address" (Senses of Cinema) particularly clear. It is achieved thanks to great collaborative effort, the director's production designers, composers, actors and cinematographers. But there is one primordial strength that seems to emerge almost throughout the movie, the very product of the period: ATMOSPHERE
STIMULUS ON SENSES: No wonder Frank S Nugent, a New York Times reviewer observed that "there is a bitterness even in its humor." That is best revealed in the supporting character of the painter who says one of the lines that the greatest 'nostalgic prophets of doom' would probably most agree with: "When I paint a tree, I make everybody ill at ease. That's because there is something or someone hidden behind that tree. I paint these things hidden behind things. For me a swimmer has already drowned." That feeling resembles the very essence of provoking cinema we are all much more used to at present. As a result, PORT OF SHADOWS creates a unique atmosphere and is still one of these movies that are forever stamped in viewers' memories.
ITS FOGGY ECHOES: Within the restored DVD version, Ginette Vincendau rightly points that Carne's film is heavily influenced by German Expressonism and serves as a gateway to the noir genre so widespread in American cinema since the 1940s. The obvious echoes of the predecessor are noticeable throughout in the cinematography by Eugen Schueffen and the aspects hidden within the portrayals of characters. Fog is the predominant concept of the movie and serves as a clear allegory of the characters and their lives. Yet, despite all the uncertainty, all the disappointments, all the confusions they experience, it is far in spirit from older Bergman or dramatic Visconti. The idea of loving one's life predominates. Certain predictability in the action (we actually feel from the very start that the protagonist is doomed to fail get on board a ship to Venezuela) does not interrupt this very crucial concept. And the PERFORMANCES?
JEAN GABIN gives a brilliant portrayal of the protagonist, a deserter heading for a more stable life. In his role, what appears pretty obvious is the fact that he is already disillusioned with life in need of some dramatic change. However, there is a certain duality in his character that makes him particularly humane. He is skeptical of true love and yet, never stops searching it. He doubts success in escaping and yet, he does not resign from attempting. Within the context of other male characters that appear in the movie, he is easily to be identified with and quite likable for viewers who are truly not content with some less 'sophisticated' depictions of a human being.
As a centerpiece of his and our attention comes Nelly played memorably by beautiful MICHELE MORGAN. A very pretty and skillful actress makes her 17 year-old character unforgettable (mind you her age must have prompted objections from 'perfectly moral audiences' at the time). A young woman torn apart between two men: one is a miserable villain Zabel (Michel Simon), her stepfather clearly lusting for her, the other is Jean (Jean Gabin). While the growing chemistry between the two occurs to evoke powerfully with excellent closeups and perfect romantic atmosphere, her first conversation with Jean is filled with some excellent lines. Kudos to screenwriter Jacques Prevert! One of their best lines highlights the quintessential concept of sexes' relations: "men and women do not understand one another and yet love one another." Much due to the wonderful collaboration with the camera, Ms Morgan is truly an unforgettable female character. She combines the dramatize of Garbo with eroticism of Dietrich in a performance of her own.
SUPPORTING: Pierre Brasseur does a fine job combining the cruel and ridiculous aspects of Lucien, such a predictable villain of romantic stories who, naturally, spoils everything. A little dog that makes friends with the protagonist is also worth mentioning.
A strength of the movie not to be skipped is its pace. The action really keeps you awake, curious, attentive. Scenes are finely paced and action develops in a right manner. That is something that makes PORT OF SHADOWS stand out among many other films of its period.
PORT OF SHADOWS, no matter if you like its content or not, is a significant production and an interesting glimpse into a true French classic. In spite of being a rendezvous of sorrows, it is a passionate kiss of French Poetic Realism. 8/10
- Aug 17, 2014