- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

It’s hard not to think of Marcel Carne’s “Quai des Brumes” (“Port of Shadows”), newly available on DVD, in tandem with its more accomplished companion piece, “Le Jour se leve” (“Daybreak”).

“Quai” premiered in Paris in May 1938; “Le Jour” opened in June 1939. Both movies starred Jean Gabin as doomed protagonists: an army deserter named Jean who falls in love with a wayward ingenue named Nelly (Michele Morgan, age 17) while seeking refuge in le Havre; and a factory worker named Francois who resides in an unspecified provincial town and murders a suicidal romantic rival and tormentor, Valentin (Jules Berry), a music-hall performer.

Both of these classic, fatalistic French romantic melodramas were directed by Mr. Carne from screenplays by Jacques Prevert. The two remained collaborators for another decade. During the years of the German occupation, they realized an improbably sumptuous masterpiece, “Les Enfants du Paradis,” or “Children of Paradise,” a costume epic about actors and criminals in the Paris of the 1830s.

Mr. Carne also drew on the distinctive talents of set designer Alexander Trauner (indispensable to Billy Wilder in the 1960s) and composer Maurice Jaubert. The subtly haunting, understated score for “Le Jour se leve” was Mr. Jaubert’s last: He was killed while serving with the French army in the early weeks of the German offensive in fall 1939. Coco Chanel contributed a famous costuming brainstorm to “Port of Shadows,” Miss Morgan’s foggy night-traveling ensemble of beret and transparent raincoat.

The 1938 film was mounted because Mr. Gabin was enthusiastic about its source material, a popular 1927 novel by Pierre Mac Orlan, also the author of a previous Gabin hit, “La Bandera.” When new, “Port of Shadows” enjoyed greater esteem and popularity than “Le Jour se leve.” Today, the latter commands far more respect, in part because it’s an enduring structural marvel.

“Le Jour” begins with a fatality, Francois’ shooting of Valentin, and then compresses the events leading to the crime, a lamentably impulsive act, into a trio of flashbacks. The filmmakers require just eight episodes to resolve the mystery.

There are numerous self-conscious carry-overs from “Port of Shadows” to “Le Jour.” Within moments, the latter alerts us to gunfire and depicts a mortally wounded Valentin emerging from the murder site, the top-floor apartment occupied by Francois. The victim clutches his stomach while tumbling down a flight of stairs. A year earlier, “Port of Shadows” had ended with Mr. Gabin’s character gunned down by a bullet to the stomach, fired from seclusion by Pierre Brasseur as a gangster named Lucien, a crybaby killer if there ever was one.

All the famous Carne-Prevert movies involve overlapping romantic triangles and failures of trust. In “Port of Shadows,” the instant infatuation of Jean and Nelly, who meet in a run-down land’s-end tavern bordered by the harbor, is jeopardized by both Lucien, a fuming punk, and the heroine’s unsavory guardian, Zabel.

Portrayed by Michel Simon, this depraved father figure is a prattling, hypocritical shopkeeper with a murder on his conscience. It’s implied that his obsession with Nelly must have been expressed in some degree of molestation while they lived together; we learn she’s a compulsive runaway and ended up as the consort of one of Lucien’s gangster cronies during a previous truancy.

One of the major conceptual improvements from “Quai” to “Le Jour” is that Jules Berry’s Valentin is a far more efficient focus of depravity than Lucien and Zabel put together. In addition, the Gabin character is a sounder focus of sympathy and pathos: not a thuggish outcast, but a reliable working stiff with ordinary aspirations and susceptibilities.

The exclusion of a gangster milieu gives “Le Jour” more emotional sting and resonance. Valentin the self-loathing tormentor locates a chink in Francois’ armor — sexual jealousy — and keeps probing until he provokes his own murder. A mercy killing from the point of view of the victim — and society at large — proves an unbearable psychological burden for the basically decent man who pulled the trigger. Nothing this morally complicated and disturbing reinforces the conflicts in “Port of Shadows.”

“Le Jour se leve” was banned and withdrawn from release soon after the French went to war with the Germans. Both movies were banned during the occupation. They also became sitting targets for recrimination by those who singled them out as contributors to a climate of despair and defeatism that left the country vulnerable to conquest.

Not that the co-stars of “Port of Shadows” succumbed to the mood of the movie itself. Mr. Gabin and Miss Morgan began a love affair during the production and contrived to sustain it by making discreet arrangements to leave France soon after the German victory.

In retrospect, the most authentic aspect of the film probably is the impression of a genuine attraction between hero and ingenue. Moviegoers once regarded Jean and Nelly as worthy rivals to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa in “Casa- blanca.”

TITLE: “Port of Shadows” (“Quai des Brumes”)

RATING: No MPAA rating. (Released in 1938, decades before the advent of a rating system; adult subject matter with violent episodes and morbid story elements)

CREDITS: Directed by Marcel Carne. Screenplay by Jacques Prevert, based on a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan. Cinematography by Eugen Schufftan. Production design by Alexander Trauner. Costumes by Coco Chanel. Music by Maurice Jaubert. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

TITLE: “Daybreak” (“Le Jour se leve”)

RATING: No MPAA rating. (Released in 1939; adult subject matter, with violent episodes and occasional sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Marcel Carne. Screenplay by Jacques Viot and Jacques Prevert. Cinematography by Curt Courant. Production design by Alexander Trauner. Costumes by Boris Bilinsky. Music by Maurice Jaubert. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

VHS EDITION: Home Vision Cinema


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