Port of Shadows (1938)

29 03 2008

The first Jean Gabin-Marcel Carne, and just as great as Daybreak, the only other one I’ve seen so far. Again, there’s a certain set of inherent flaws that just goes along with the style of filmmaking at that time period. The fades and dissolves, along with that “glowing” look, remain, but so does Carné and Prévert’s exceptionally deep characterization. The writing still seems insightful 70 years later and at the same time, it is cleverly worked in to a conventional “noir” plot, which explains why it was still somewhat accessible to moviegoers in the thirties.

Jean runs away from his Army life, and finds himself in Panama’s, a shack located in the middle of nowhere. There, he plans to begin a new life but the conditions aren’t so ideal. Almost immediately, he meets Nelly and falls in love. She has retreated to Panama’s to get away from her overbearing guardian, Zabel. Jean and Nelly (and a dog) have another obstacle, though: Lucien, a gangster and friend of Nelly’s missing ex-lover Maurice. Ultimately, Jean is forced to leave town and head towards Venezula, without Nelly, but this plan is prevented by Zabel and Lucien, as well as by the lovers’ own feelings for each other.

From the start, the film casts a perfectly fit sense of dread. The moments of happiness are plenty, but still seem to be missing something, but this is intentional as the film is essentially a would-be romance, not unlike David Lean’s Brief Encounter or Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together. Much of the film’s emotional thrust comes from the short time Jean and Nelly spend together, doomed for sure, but engaging as hell to watch unfold. Their seems to be a reoccurring “predictability” criticism that this film is tagged with, but that makes no sense. To assess this film for it’s narrative is to completely miss the point. If it were merely a plot-driven film, then what would be Carné’s point in making what is essentially a pulpy film noir? The thing is, he wouldn’t and the film isn’t. The characters are exaggerated, sure, but that doesn’t make their feelings untrue, or their trials any less painful. It is actually quite an accomplishment that Carné and Prévert could work in so much substance into a genre that relies so little on it. Really, this is only film noir from a completely superficial viewpoint, beneath it is one of those lost souls finding each other-type films that I love so much.

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