Le Quai des Brumes
Marcel Carné’s 1938 romantic crime drama gets a well deserved restoration
One of the definitive examples of the ‘poetic realism’ style of French cinema of the pre-war and wartime years, Marcel Carné’s 1938 romantic crime drama has been treated to a well-deserved state-of-the-art restoration. Thanks to the digital dust-off, the heightened realism of the low-life milieu of Port of Shadows looks absolutely luscious, albeit in a down and dirty kind of way.
Set in the northern port Le Havre, it follows an army deserter (played by Jean Gabin, star of another romantic crime drama, Pépe le Moko, a year earlier) who falls hard for and subsequently attempts to protect a beautiful young girl (Michèle Morgan) from a gang of small-time hoods. Despite receiving some assistance from the various local down-and-outs who inhabit the waterfront bar in which most of the action takes place, Gabin’s doomed do-gooder is, ultimately, unable to avoid a fateful end.
All of which is perfectly in keeping with the poetic realist style, which was defined by a moody mix of bitterness, disillusionment, fatalism, and - more often than not – death. From the moment we meet Gabin’s surly deserter hitching a lift on a foggy highway, it’s a dead cert (as it were) that the guy’s not going to make it. But the distinctive and unrelenting darkness of tone is offset with some very lovely studio sets and equally impressive location work around the French port. And if there are some weak links in the cast – Michel Simon’s all-mouth-and-no-trousers villain is just a bit too wet to contribute significantly to the drama – Gabin convinces as the sullen tough with a heart, while Édouard Delmont and Robert Le Vigan’s helpful locals are eccentric delights.
At the time of its initial release, Le Quai des Brumes was criticised by some for its negative portray of French character. Indeed, it was originally envisioned as a co-production with Germany, but propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels passed on what he saw as disagreeable material. The project was reassigned to Jewish producer Gregor Rabinovitch, who hired Carné and in doing so instigated the beginning of a beautifully creative relationship between the director, and the screenwriter and surrealist poet Jacques Prévert. Thus, one of the all-time greats of European cinema also stands as testimony to the utterly amazing vagaries of filmmaking.