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Port of Shadows: Criterion Collection

Indelibly introduced while emerging from a cloud of fog and costumed as a solider, Jean (Jean Gabin) hitches a ride to the port town of Le Harve and almost gets in a fight with his driver when he makes the man swerve to avoid a dog. The men talk themselves out of fighting and part friends, but somehow the dog recognizes a faithful guardian and follows Jean. And it is in this opening scene that sets the tone for the entirety of Marcel Carne's 1938 Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes). In it, men act by their nature and are karmically rewarded for it; unfortunately, not always pleasantly. Once Jean arrives in Le Harve, his situation becomes clear: He's a deserter and has no money. A new friend, drunken Half-Pint (Raymond Aimos), takes Jean to Panama's, a place where he can get some food and rest. There, Panama (Edouard Delmont) — much like Jean — has acquired a collection of mutts, including the artist Michael (Robert Le Vigan), whose art reflects death. While stuffing his face, Jean meets Nelly (the luminous Michele Morgan), whom he immediately tells he loves, though he thinks she's a prostitute. But like everyone at Panama's, she's hiding too. In this case it's from Zabel (Michel Simon), who is being pursued by would-be gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) and his men. Zabel also hopes to hide at Panama's, but when it's revealed the blood on his hands isn't his, he's asked to leave. After a night together things become clear for Jean: Nelly is the ward of Zabel, and he lords over her, so much to the point that her last boyfriend has disappeared. Lucien also likes Nelly, but he's is too cowardly to do anything besides bully her. It's something Jean witnesses in the morning, and he slaps Lucien around for it — sealing his fate by becoming involved in the missing man's mystery. Oozing atmosphere, and a very French noir feel, Port of Shadows seems like the quintessential testament to a certain kind of French romantic fatalism. Though accused at the time of release for having fascistic overtones (Lucien is a spoiled, sadistic rich kid who looks Jewish, while the leads are almost impossibly handsome), it's a genre piece through and through. But it works because of the strength of its leads. Gabin is in an archetypal role — grouchy, romantic, forthright, and lovable, he's the perfect fit down to his character's name, while Michele Morgan (17 at the time) is one of the screen's great beauties. Making her entrance in a transparent trenchcoat — like Gabin's character does — it's hard not to fall for her immediately. They are matched well by Michel Simon (best known as the titular character in Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning), whose character is detestable, yet has enough pathos to make him oddly endearing. Working with frequent collaborator Jacques Prevert (who also wrote the Carne-helmed Children of Paradise), this is the sort of obscure treasure that one counts on The Criterion Collection to unearth. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in French mono (1.0) with optional English subtitles. Extras consist of a still gallery, the French theatrical trailer, and (in the accompanying booklet) an essay by Luc Sante and excerpts from Carne's autobiography. Keep-case.
—DSH



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