Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938)
By Leo White
Marcel Carné's much lauded Le Quai des brumes has been restored, from a variety of sources, to a print that is as close to its original release as can be reasonably expected.
Jean (Jean Gabin) manages to hitch-hike himself out of the army and catches a ride to Le Havre, from where he intends to board a ship and escape to a new world, far from his military obligations. Jean discovers a bar on the outskirts of town, within the depths of deep fog that engulfs the harbour port, where he can hide out temporarily. Along with a range of patrons, including the ship-in-a-bottle-loving owner Panama (Édouard Delmont), Jean meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a local girl who is finding living with her businessman godfather Zabel (Michel Simon) a touch troublesome. This is not her only problem. Her one-time boyfriend Maurice has disappeared and she fears the worst, not least because of some vicious and thuggish encounters with criminal rich-boy Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) and his henchmen. Fortunately Jean is quite adept when it comes to fisticuffs and manages to send the thugs packing. Jean and Nelly begin a wondrous romance but surely it is only a matter of time before the past catches up with them.
As a romance between two very different personalities living through complex times, Le Quai des brumes has elements of Casablanca (1942) to it, although its outlook is very different. It is the story of a burgeoning romance, emerging in difficult personal circumstances. Their encounters with other denizens of Le Havre make their affair far more confrontational and thrilling as Jean fights the rich hoodlums led by lecherous wretch Lucien and tries to determine the highly questionable motives of Nelly's godfather.
On top of the romance (which is truly moving and emotional once the relationship has started in earnest – the dialogue about eyes and beauty are enough to make any reasonable adult smile) there are a multitude of other elements that add to the complexities of the plot and characterisation: Jean's desertion from the army and his attempted escape to foreign climes, the mystery of the fate of Maurice and the issues Nelly has to confront with her family and suitors. Noir elements mix with situations that range from sweet to criminal to gothic. These help maintain the film's complex structure whilst ensuring a popularist approach that is audience friendly. The production design is wholly in keeping with the narrative, the shadows from the fog-bound harbour are stylistically and artistically realised and the film's combination of location and studio work is utilised to great effect.
Le Quai des brumes still holds its viewing audience in its spell with its tales of love, anguish and a forlorn regard for society. It is never contrived and always balances the cinematic elements with a sense of realism and believability. It is a romance between two people who manage to find love despite themselves and their situations.
The Blu-ray extras feature a number of fascinating insights into the creation and distribution of the film as well as critical reaction, especially interesting given the time the film was made. Issues regarding morality, particularly in terms of what could be depicted at the time and the censorship issues both prior to filming and after its final inception are also discussed.
For those familiar with Le Quai des brumes no further recommendation is needed (save a very nicely restored print that is a worthy addition to previous home releases). For everyone else, this is simply a must-see.
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