Le Quai des Brumes (1938)
Also known as The Port of Shadows, this early French noir movie relates the story of a deserted soldier who arrives in Le Havre and seeks a new identity and a new life, preferably an obscure one in as faraway a land as possible. While planning to stow away on a ship bound for South America, he gets caught up in the affairs of the locals, off-setting both their lives and his own life in various ways. Our protagonist, Jean (very well played by Jean Gabin, who to me looks enourmously like Kenneth Branagh), has no money, so he holes up at a remote harbour bar used as a base for some of the city’s rejects. There is a drunk whose only wish is to sleep between clean white sheets, a suicidal artist who only sees the dark sides of life and the artist’s young lady-friend, the sad and world-weary Nelly, a runaway 17-year-old who, almost like a cliché, instantly turns into our protagonist’s love interest (she is played quite excellently by the 18-year-old Michèle Morgan, whose character in this movie, rather funnily, seems to be the one that Michelle of “la resistance” from the classic sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo is based on). And then there is the local petty gangster, Lucien, a young psycho who comes from a decent and wealthy family, but is himself the worst kind of snivelling delinquent; a coward hiding behind money and power.
Throughout the movie there is a sense that things will end badly; that the couple in love will leave each other and that our protagonists will turn out to be too damaged and immoral to allow themselves to be happy, but the movie surprises you in several ways. As a noir movie it does turn out to be a modern tragedy, but not quite in the way you expect. It consciously skirts a lot of cliché territory; sentimentality and moodiness almost overflows here and there, while the characters sometimes engage in high-falutin’ philosophical dialogue. But the movie actually manages to circumnavigate the clichés and start a healing process of the main characters’ hollowed-out hearts. You think that Jean and Nelly will do something to make each other unhappy, but the love between them is actually portrayed with deep realism and authenticity, in that they both find the other’s happiness more important than their own.
The movie has a wholesome plot, but it is rather too tight; it depends on too many coincidences (people happening to be in the right places at the right times – and sometimes the wrong times) in order to work. The tragic end, while seemingly fitting the tone of the movie, does not seem fully logical in terms of plot analysis. A tragedy should be a cautionary take; it should appear from the narrative where the wrong turn was made; what the specific and theoretically avoidable cause of the tragedy was. This is not quite clear here, unless it is the hero’s flawed and intolerant attitude towards the petty gangster. The hero, being a deserter, is of course flawed to begin with, and perhaps, in the movie-makers’ logic, does therefore not deserve a happy ending. This is after all a movie made in the late ‘30s, which was not released until 1941, and then only after some heavy government censorship. Its message seems to be: don’t be a deserter; it cannot come to good. Even though the movie’s point is to be melancholy and reflective of the world’s ills, there is still a sense of a wagging moral finger which is not quite in line with a properly artistic sensibility.
The gender attitudes of the movie are very much of its day; it portrays a deeply male-dominated society in which “women are all the same”: tempting men with sex appeal, but really wanting romance (although of course true love transcends such generalities). Whereas today the general attitude is more like the precise opposite: men are all the same, and trying to seduce women with a pretense of romance, but really wanting sex. It’s an interesting change in attitude; back then women were femme fatales, and men their victims; today, men are sexual predators and women their victims. Although both attitudes are based on a great amount of unfounded prejudice, it is at least progress that we are now acknowledging that the woman has a tendency to be the wronged party in both the former and the latter equation. Equality is still a ways off.
For a ‘30s movie, the Blu-ray disc presents a quite good-looking remastered print. The disc contains a short introduction to the movie, and also a 44-minute feature about the history and making of the movie, with film historians talking about the actors, the production, the locations, etc. A very decent package indeed.
Le Quai des Brumes is released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on September 10.
Director: Marcel Carné
Cast: Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan, Michel Simon, Pierre Brasseur, Robert Le Vigan, Edouard Delmont and others.
Runtime: 92 min.