Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and Le Jour se Lève (Daybreak, 1939) were the two greatest collaborations between director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, both films being far superior to their more celebrated but somewhat overblown Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945). Both Le Quai des Brumes and Le Jour se Lève were existentialist films noir, although they were classified at the time as examples of “poetic realism”, a term that now only applies to a few French films (mostly scripted by Prévert) made in the 1930s. Le Quai des Brumes is the more explicitly philosophical work, but its great strength lies not so much in its philosophical musings, but in the romantic relationship between its two main stars, Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan, in the last half hour fo the film. In other respects the films mannered stylistics may be off-putting to some modern viewers.
The story of Le Quai des Brumes is one of continual gloom and depression from the very outset. All of the principal characters are pessimistic and weary of life, and the expressionistic production values consistently maintain an environment shrouded in the fog and murky shadows of French seaport Le Havre. The pervading romantic mood is also considerably enhanced by the Maurice Jaubert's sombre background music. Carné seems to have wanted to present a visual tone poem dedicated to melancholia, and the details of the crime plot that drives much of the action seem to be of only secondary importance. In most narratives, there are two types of plot themes: one type based primarily on action and attainment in the environment, and the other type based on personal relationships in the story. Usually these narrative types are intertwined, so that the protagonist might both solve the murder mystery and win the heart of his beloved. In Le Quai des Brumes there are both types of narratives present, a criminal plot and a developing relationship, but the criminal plot seems to be almost window dressing compared to the relationship between Gabin and Morgan. In fact in the prints of the film available today, some of the key details of the criminal plot are somewhat unclear.
The story begins with a French soldier coming alone to Le Havre, and it proceeds in three main sections.
- Setting the Scene (about 22 minutes). The French soldier, Jean, has recently served in the colonial army in Indochina and hitches a ride with a truck driver into Le Havre. The soldier may be a deserter, and it is clear that he wants to hide from the authorities. He runs into a drunk, known as “Half-Pint”, who guides him to a seedy, out-of-the-way tavern, Panama’s, along the coast near the harbour. Meanwhile the action cuts to a nightclub where two gangsters are attempting to bully an elderly gentleman, Zabel (played flamboyantly by Michel Simon, with his signature quirky voice and awkward physical mannerisms). The gangsters, the leader of whom is Lucien, are searching for the whereabouts of someone named “Maurice”. Back with Jean, he arrives at Panama’s, where he meets Michel, a gloomy, philosophical painter, who speaks longingly of the temptations of suicide and the hopelessness of existence. Jean also meets a beautiful young lady, Nelly, who he takes to be a prostitute.
- Zabel and the Gangsters. Lucien and his thugs show up at Panama’s looking for Zabel (and perhaps Maurice – it is only later that we learn that Zabel has already killed Maurice and has dumped the body near Panama’s). A gunfight breaks out between the tavern proprietor and the gangsters, ultimately driving them away. At daybreak, Jean and Nelly, now casually friendly, walk into town, where they encounter Lucien and his men. After Lucien rudely tries to grab and embrace Nelly, Jean humiliatingly roughs him up in front of his own men and drives him off. Jean and Nelly then part, promising to meet that night at a street fair. Meanwhile, back at Panama’s, the painter Michel has committed the foretold suicide by drowning himself in the sea. The scene now shifts to Zabel’s gift shop in town, which is first visited by Lucien and the gangsters (who are still demanding something from Zabel) and then by Nelly, who turns out to be Zabel’s goddaughter. Jean happens to wander into the same shop, and discovers Nelly there and her relationship with Zabel.
- Jean and Nelly. Panama gives Michel’s clothes, passport, and cash to Jean, which give him the new identity he needs to escape on a ship. After arranging passage on a ship headed to Venezuela the next day, Jean meets Nelly at the street fair. This is 65 minutes into the 91-minute film, and the narrative focus now shifts to their relationship, which has been minimal up to this point. Nelly melts before Jean, and they kiss passionately. While enjoying a ride at the fair’s bumper car concession, they encounter Lucien again, and once again, Jean slaps the bully around in a humiliating fashion. Jean and Nelly then continue their romancing and spend the night together in a hotel room. The next morning the lovers part, and Jean boards the ship bound for Venezuela. But after a few minutes, Jean wants to see Nelly one last time and runs back into town to find her. He discovers her with Zabel, who has admitted to murdering Maurice and is now throttling Nelly. Jean brutally bludgeons Zabel to death with a brick, but on his way back to the ship, he is shot to death by Lucien, who had been waiting for him. Jean dies in Nelly’s arms.
Consider how the action plot starts off and then peters out. In part 1, we are introduced to a set of characters who all appear to have some significant narrative weight and are given some attention: Lucien, Zabel, Jean, Panama, Half Pint, Michel, and Nelly. There is also the mysterious Maurice. Yet Panama, Half Pint, and Michel quickly fade away into insignificance in Part 2, despite their atmospheric presences in Part 1. Maurice never appears (there were plans to show his severed head contained in a package, but this shot was cut by the censors). We never learn what business Lucien has with Zabel, and Nelly never tells whatever she knows to Jean about these circumstances. So the criminal action plot is more or less a red herring all the way, despite occupying much of the film. Nevertheless, the film is worthwhile to me, because of the hypnotic charm of the romantic tragedy that takes over the story in the last 25 minutes of the film and which is worthy of comparison to von Sternberg’s dream-like cinematic meditations. After the previous doleful proceedings, in which everyone was either glum or passively resigned to a dead-end existence, Nelly erupts with a passionate love for Jean and sweeps the two of them into romantic hopefulness. This dramatic appearance of hope had been cinematically foreshadowed by the depiction of natural innocence in the form of a little mongrel dog first befriending Jean early on and then tagging after him through much of the film.
Jean Gabin had emerged as a leading French star by the late 1930s, but the precise nature of his charisma is not easy to grasp. He is not tall, does not have an athletic physique, and is not particularly handsome. Perhaps as a consequence he has been compared to Humphrey Bogart, although his persona is quite different from Bogart’s. He represents a kind of gritty, working class hero, who is usually not demonstrative, but who holds strong passions inside and out of view. So it is in this film. At times he explodes with anger over his pent-up frustrations. He holds things in reserve, but when goaded into it, he’s a man of action, not words. Early on at Panama’s, he blows up at Michel’s melancholy musings about art and suicide, saying that he hasn’t eaten in two days and was fed up with such self-indulgent talk. Up to that point he had not shown outward signs of hunger, an example of how he typically held his feelings in check. Later when he sees Lucien hassling Nelly on the street, he blows up again and furiously slaps Lucien rudely across the face. In this explosion, he reveals his underlying, passionate nature. He repeats this violence on Lucien at the town fair, and when he finally beats Zabel to death with a brick, it is a shockingly violent scene that exposes the tragic flaw of his character.
Nelly, who is a 17-year-old-girl in the story, is played superbly by Michele Morgan in her first major role. Although to me she looks older than 17, she was actually that same age at the time of the filming. Her convincing looks of rapture are what stay in the mind after the film is finished. The mise-en-scene in Part 3, showing their mounting ardour, carries the audience along with them. This is a brilliant depiction of the sudden rise of hope and exhilaration that changes the world from shadows into sunlight. But at the end, dark fate puts and end to their dreams, the little dog runs a way, and the dreary port of shadows returns.