Port of Shadows precedes Marcel Carne’s better-known films Le Jour Se Leve (1939 – which I remember being introduced to as an undergraduate as the very early beginnings of film noir, interestingly enough) and Children of Paradise (1945), but it’s probably my favorite Carne.
Like Le Jour, Port also features the famous Jean Gabin – already a huge star by 1938, out-Bogarting Bogart before Bogart really became Bogart – in a taciturn, angsty role, as the dangerous outsider who falls in love. Though these films have quite a bit in common, Port is closer to Carne’s Emile Zola adaptation Therese Raquin from 1953. Both have the same sort of unstoppable sense of fate, a sense that’s intentionally telegraphed from the beginning.
Of course, like Le Jour, Port also belongs to the “school” of poetic realism where, in this case, the two words are derived from the foggy, desolate streets and existential narrative, and the docks and alleyways that could be pulled from photographs, respectively. Here’s a look at some of the latter, many shots of which combine rear projection with on-site shooting:
I’d be remiss to not mention that fantastic performance by Michele Morgan as Nelly, the object of Gabin’s Jean’s desire, and a sort of precursor to the femme fatale character. It’s amazing that her performance hasn’t dated in over 75 years. She’s fierce and, though not the strongest of female characters, certainly exhibits an independence not commonly seen in 1938 cinema. All of this isn’t to mention the incredible raincoat she spends the first 20 minutes of the film wearing:
Carne’s certainly got technique – it’s no wonder he’s considered a master. Much of his camerawork is pretty fluid and the realist production design is great. Here’s a small moment that I really liked. Jean talks with a doctor (Rene Genin) who offers to get Jean, now passing himself off as an artist, onto a ship. Carne shoots this mostly in 2-shot, occasionally cutting back and forth between the two men:
But as the doctor asks Jean a critical question (“Are you with anyone else?”), the camera dollies and pans. The seemingly logical approach here would be to continue as Carne had been before – just cut to Jean’s reaction. Instead, we get:
It’s a great punctuation to Jean’s answer. The time it takes to move the camera from the doctor to Jean acts not only as suspense for the answer (will he take her or not?), but also as time for Jean himself to decide (will I take her or not?). That it’s also the first time we’ve seen this technique in the conversation it further emphasizes the importance of the moment.