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The Criterion Collection presents

Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes) (1938)

"Using a gun looks easy. Like shooting wooden ducks at a fair. You shoot, and then some guy screams. He holds his stomach and makes a face like a kid with a bellyache. His hands turn red, and then he drops. You're left standing there. You don't understand a thing. Like everything around you has disappeared."- Jean (Jean Gabin)

Stars: Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan
Director: Marcel Carné

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some scenes of mild violence)
Run Time: 01h:31m:02s
Release Date: 2004-07-20
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-BB+ B-


DVD Review

Throughout the 1930s, French cinema mainly focused on light romantic comedies and frothy musicals. Toward the end of the decade, however, director Marcel Carné pioneered a revolutionary form that came to be known as poetic realism, and Port of Shadows was the first film to employ the stark imagery and fatalism that would define the style. Industry executives doubted the appeal of Carné's dark, depressing story and emotionally complex characters, but audiences responded to the film's depth and power, paving the way for the creation of a new—albeit brief—genre.

Set in the dreary seaside town of Le Havre during World War I, Port of Shadows chronicles the journey of Jean (Jean Gabin), an army deserter adrift in a world of violence and corruption. Jean seeks a fresh start and meaningful experiences to heal his battle scars, and two serendipitous events give him reason for hope. The convenient suicide of a disillusioned poet provides Jean with civilian clothes so he can better evade police, and a chance meeting with the beautiful but entangled Nelly (Michèle Morgan) in a dilapidated hideout shows him pure love can blossom in the most squalid settings. Like Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, Jean bides his time in Le Havre, waiting for a cargo ship to provide safe passage to America, and he intends to take the 17-year-old Nelly with him.

Yet Nelly's domineering guardian, Zabel (Michel Simon), won't let that happen. Pursued by a band of local thugs—led by the slick Lucien (Pierre Brasseur)—Zabel drags Nelly and Jean into the fray. And Jean, who abandoned the French army, ironically must now fight an urban war, with his freedom and his love on the line.

In its day, Port of Shadows was a landmark film. Forget the pedestrian plot; it's Carné's visual style that impressed contemporary critics and earned the movie numerous awards. Today, however, Carné's use of dense fog, gritty settings, and enveloping shadows too closely resembles film noir, and thus dulls the imagery's impact. Indeed, poetic realism would soon evolve into noir (with the fog replaced by cigarette smoke), but where noir's romantic relationships spring from wisecracks, danger, and overt sexuality, a more soulful passion and sense of impending doom distinguishes the love between Jean and Nelly. From the moment they meet, it's impossible to envision a happy ending for the couple, yet we get swept up in their affair nonetheless. And this lush romanticism, set against the bleak backdrop of Le Havre and an array of seedy supporting characters, forms the basis of poetic realism.

Still, Port of Shadows didn't move me like I expected (and hoped). It's easy to appreciate Carné's flair, but the slow pacing and brooding atmosphere allows an air of ennui to settle over the film that, like the ever present fog, never really lifts. Gabin (often referred to as the French Bogart) commands the screen with his tough-tender presence, and enjoys a sultry chemistry with the radiant Morgan, who also impresses in her first major role. Both file natural, affecting portrayals that temper the more histrionic performances of the other actors, and their frank love scenes make us doubly rue the stringent decency code that censored American movies of the same period.

But despite these flashes of brilliance, Port of Shadows ultimately disappoints. Many highly regarded movies struggle to meet or exceed expectations, and Port of Shadows winds up a victim of its lofty reputation. One can't deny the film's meticulous craftmanship, but neither can one shake the feeling that subsequent directors more successfully refined Carné's style.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Substantial restoration and remastering has been performed on Port of Shadows, but the final full-frame transfer remains a mixed bag. Some scenes (especially during the film's opening minutes) suffer from a thick grain and overall muddiness, lending them an unpleasant gauzy quality. Others, however, sparkle with razor sharp clarity, rich contrast, solid black levels, and excellent detail. The source print seems of questionable quality, and although a fair amount of scratches and debris remain, one can only imagine the thousands of marks Criterion technicians removed. Still, the transfer accurately reflects Carnés lush yet realistic style, and should please the movie's admirers.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The DD 1.0 track has been substantially scrubbed, erasing almost all noticeable defects. Although the French dialogue will be superfluous to most American viewers, it nevertheless enjoys good clarity, and Maurice Jaubert's somber score sounds strong and full. Still, there's no denying this is a 66-year-old track; Criterion, however, has done its best to mask the obvious imperfections.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. 32-page illustrated booklet
  2. Still and poster gallery
Extras Review: In addition to the original French theatrical trailer, Criterion includes a classy gallery featuring seven posters and more than two dozen black-and-white stills from the film—behind-the-scenes candids, studio portraits of the actors, and shots of technical personnel. The gallery also includes captions for each photo, so one can identify all the subjects. (A nice touch other studios should certainly duplicate in their DVD photo galleries.)

The only other extra is a beautifully designed 32-page booklet, which includes impeccably reproduced stills from the film, an analysis of Port of Shadows by Luc Sante, and an excerpt from director Marcel Carné's autobiography chronicling the film's production. If only all classic DVDs could contain such stylish inserts.

Extras Grade: B-

Final Comments

Film students and French cinema aficionados will revel in Port of Shadows, but casual viewers will find Marcel Carné's somber saga self-conscious and a little dull. Its highly lauded visual style has lost much of its impact over the years, yet even a spotty transfer can't tarnish Criterion's impeccable DVD package. Collectors seeking an example of poetic realism should consider a purchase, but a rental will certainly satisfy the average movie fan.

David Krauss 2004-09-16