As part of the BFI’s season dedicated to French acting maestro Jean Gabin, Marcel Carné’s hugely influential film noir Port of Shadows is re-released at the Southbank this week. Three-quarters of a century since its inception, the film remains a high-point of the genre, and was an important precursor for the post-war American noirs that followed.
Pre-war French disillusionment is rife in Carné’s brooding, sparse film; the fog of war, as it is put, and the angst of killing, has been a heavy burden on Jean (Gabin), an army deserter who hitches a ride to Le Havre with the hope of starting a new life. Here he meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a 17-year old girl caught in the midst of criminals and degenerates, and looking to escape it; Jean might just be her ticket.
When viewed today, Gabin’s Jean might remind us of those more memorable tortured heroes from recent film history; Stallone’s Rambo, Jeremy Renner’s William James, and perhaps even Pacino’s Carlito Brigante. Despite its age, Port of Shadows connotes the same visceral tone and feel as these films, while stewed in that very unique, unmistakable brand of French miserablism. Memorably, an artist enters the pub where Jean is staying and utters, “to me, a swimmer is already a drowned man”. To modern audiences, it might seem a little cliched and overtly, damningly bleak in its world view, but placed within its context, encompassing love, life, and society, it is exactly what it tends to be: poetically realistic.
The poetic philosophy to the dialogue that the French do so well comes off as considerably less forced than other films of the same period; it feels less homogenised and pedagogic, instead keen to engage differing viewpoints. We get the opulent poets, the gangsters who aren’t as downtrodden as they look, and throughout it all, the notion of identity remains key. With the pervasive malaise which hovers through the film like a spectre, identity becomes transient, resulting in some much-needed morsels of humour later on, as Jean assumes the name of an artist and spouts his rhetoric like a parrot.
Despite the grim material, Carné’s film is a bustling romance between Gabin and Morgan’s characters, totally charming and thoroughly romantic. It is a shame Morgan never became as revered as the solid-gold femme fatales of the genre, because she lights up the screen with a firm presence and striking look; her chemistry with Gabin is sublime.
Inevitably, though, Carné follows through with the grim reality of his worldview, revealing the true heart of darkness and real purveyors of immorality. Hope quite literally sails away at the end, and there is little in way of catharsis. Indeed, Carné is making a statement, and it is a powerful, entertaining and thought-provoking one, even over 70 years later.
Carné’s thrilling film is an important and undervalued influence on the post-war American noirs of the 1940s.
Port of Shadows is re-released at the BFI from today.