“Port of Shadows” – Chris Luedtke

Port of Shadows is a film that slices through the crusty fog of ironic melancholy. Marcel Carné vividly brings to life a very dreary story in which not a soul is to be trusted, as the darkness that overruns it shifts constantly and remains uncompromising to the end. This is not your run-of-the-mill moral fable; Port of Shadows is where failures reside in an uncertain gloom.

Jean (Jean Gabin) has recently ditched the military and just wants a new start in life. But being a wanted man, he has to keep a low profile, and his travels lead him to a rundown shack known as the Port of Shadows, run by the hospitable Quart Vittel (Raymond Aimos). During his stay, Jean meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan) as a firefight breaks out in front of the establishment. The culprit is Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), a local gangster who’s after Zabel (Michel Simon), Nelly’s own foster father. Each character’s destiny entwines with one another, enduring every turn on a rollercoaster ride of happiness and despair.

I’m pleased that Port of Shadows isn’t a preachy story, though it seemed like one from its description. In fact, nearly everything about the film came as a surprise. The beauty of the film is that everyone is carefully characterized. Sure, Jean has a short fuse, but, much like the film, he grows on you. There’s one notable scene in which Jean hitches a ride with a truck driver, nearly coming to blows after the latter almost hit’s a dog. It’s from this situation that Gabin puts both of his character’s faces on display; he may have a mean streak, but he’s also got an appetite for life — and in Port of Shadows, life has become bleak.

The curiosity generated by the story keeps us committed to the film. The way its players’ lives intersect with one another has us utterly fascinated. Some encounters are pure chance, and other come after careful planning. From Lucien’s association with Zabel to Jean’s involvement with both, we witness a jigsaw puzzle slowly being put together before our eyes. Port of Shadows does a good job of keeping viewers in the dark throughout, and not just because the picture itself is steeped in noir. The city seems dim and practically nonexistent without a closer look, though there’s no need to associate with it. As the city is unaware of the deserter Jean, we’re also unaware of its own inhabitants, outside of those who swing by the Port of Shadows.

It’s hard to say much else about Port of Shadows; it’s involving enough on its own merits. Once we near the end, we can pretty much guess the taste we’ll be left with. It’s not a disappointing conclusion, and the film never wears out its welcome, though I can’t help but deem it a bit on the “blah” side. Ending aside, Port of Shadows is worth your time. It’s not fast-paced, but it’s very absorbing and allows us to peek into a realm of cinema so often left in the fog.

Rating: ★★★½

-Chris Luedtke

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