Port of Shadows (1938)

Poetic existence | 91 minutes

Movie Info


This is one of the finest French films ever I had watched, and true to be called the first ever ‘film noire’. Besides rendered as the classic poetic-realism genre. Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes) is a 1938 French film directed by Marcel Carne, starring Jean Gabin, Michel Simon and Michele Morgan.

Acclaimed as one of Marcel Carne greatest achievements and a highpoint of French poetic realism, this movie is an exploration of the ambiguous zone between past and future, life and death, and the impossibility of escaping the past, al quintessential themes of film noir as a distinct genre. Adding to this distinct- Jacques Prevert’s script about the lives of outcasts is by turns tough, poetic, lyrical, navigating smoothly between these divergent tones, and so does Carne’s spectacular direction, which at the time was innovative and even revolutionary

In its most accurate tittle- Port of Shadows was made just before WWII and a year before Jean Renoir’s classic ‘Rules of the Game,’ and this too represents one of the greatest classic, not just for French but also in world cinema. It’s no wonder that in the France of 1938, when this film first released faced as it was with complete social betrayal and cultural annihilation, and was widely criticized for being too adverse about the State and moral character of the French, in the strange run-in and disillusionment of pre-war Europe.

If you ought to introduce Jean Gabin, he is the earliest cult French star and what Bogart to American audience, same score go to Gabin in France. To me along with ‘Pepe Le Moko’ and ‘La Bete Humaine’ has a note perfect Jean Gabin performance. No actor better embodied the spirit of this poetic realist cinema than Jean Gabin. Battered, yet handsome, rough yet vulnerable, self-sufficient yet always reaching out, pitiable, yet refusing pity; this is the Gabin of Port of Shadows. From the beginning as it hangs like the fog that we see in the opening shot, a weary and haunted Gabin is on the way to somewhere, wherever, we are along for the ride, in the sombre mood, situation is inconspicuous, each of the character in the movie seem destined to reach for something in anticipation and in their world of chances, thou’ looks so vexing in their eyes and melancholy dominate downright.

Jean (Gabin) gets to know the town and enticing the courtesies of a tenacious mutt, other characters are meeting at a local night spot. It soon becomes clear that Jean has deserted the army and is looking for a way to flee the country. He finds refuge for a night in a rundown shack called Chez Panama, where he meets fellow members of the brotherhood of the powerless and dispossessed. In Chez Panama’s back room, Jean comes across Nelly (Morgan), a 17-year-old runaway who looks stunning in a beret and plastic raincoat. He is brightened by this young woman in the midst of criminals and circumstances of her escape and might just be her ticket. Thou’ Jean mistakes her for a prostitute and mocks the very notion of romantic, things change soon enough.

A night of bliss follows. Jean and Nelly spend time together over the following days and against all odds these two immediately and passionately fall for each other.  ‘This must be what love feels like,’ Nelly says in one of the film’s mesmerizing close-ups. Their happiness is real and shared, but in this film’s austere world it is inevitably going to be dearly bought. It looks so uncompromising and so untainted, she lights up the screen with a firm presence and striking look and her chemistry with Gabin is transcendent, as it knocks the romantic fatalism so dear and in fact charmed even over seventy years later in the minds of audience

Conversely they are often interrupted by Zabel (Michael Simon, another splendid French actor) who is also in love with her. The bizarre Zabel, as a petit conservative shopkeeper finds the club’s jazz music very degrading. Watching his towering performance, whose true dimensions are solitary and gradually revealed taking us to the new high. Here we see the entry of the petty gangster Lucien, eyeing to get some information about Nelly’s ex-boyfriend Maurice, who goes missing. He speaks to Zabel on his look out.

When Nelly finds out that her godfather killed Maurice out of jealousy, she uses the information to blackmail and prevent Zabel from telling the police that Jean is a deserter. While the two are in love, Jean plans to leave on a ship for Venezuela. At the last minute Jean leaves the ship to say goodbye to Nelly; he saves her from the hands of Zabel, whom he kills, but when they go out on to the street he is shot in the back by Lucien and dies in her arms.

Inevitably, though, Michael Carne follows through the grim reality of his worldview, revealing the true heart of darkness and real whisperers of immorality. Carne’s thrilling film is significant and undervalued influence on the post-war American noirs of the 1940s. Cheerful! Well, certainly no less than the allegories, like a song to which you know the words and the ending- The fog of war as it is put, is not only the opening sequence, the entire film is inspired with dark, mysterious, and seductive images that linger in memory long after the viewing experience is over and it is as powerful, entertaining and thought-provoking one, even over 70 years later.

I loved the classic one-liners that are thrown in over and over… “Buddy, we’re all just passing through.” “Big decisions call for little bottles.”You’re skinny, but I like you.” “The world’s a strange place in the wee hours for those with eyes to see.”- Brilliant! Once again I’m blown away by a French film from the 1930’s. Of course, was exciting to watch Port of Shadows again and again. True to the life in Le Havre, in its rough, those ships floating through the mist, the cities dark back alleys and the hopelessness of the characters that live in Le Havre. Add in the perfect cast, a witty, classic script, so flawless, solicitous, but find yourself humming over and again, nostalgic as Nelly looks for solace and Jean looks for a way out. That movement was called film noir….. A definite can’t miss.

Film Crew

  • Directed by Marcel Carne
  • Produced by Gregor Rabinovitch
  • Written by Jacques Prevert (scenario and dialogue)
  • Based on the novel by Pierre Mac Orlan
  • Casting: Jean Gabin; Michel Simon; Michele Morgan & Pierre Brasseur
  • Music by Maurice Jaubert
  • Cinematography: Eugen Schufftan
  • Edited by Rene Le Henaff
  • Production company: Franco London Films
  • Distributed by Osso Films (France)
  • Film Alliance of the United States Inc
  • Release dates: 18 May 1938 (France)
  • Run time of 91 minutes
  • Country: France
  • Language: French

Trailers & Videos


Port of Shadows (1938) trailer

Poetic existence

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