Port of Shadows

June 22, 2009 at 3:44 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , )

Port of Shadows is a French film that has been classified in many different ways. It doesn’t necessarily belong in any one category (as many films do not) but it certainly is ripe with many noir elements. You couldn’t find a title more suited to the noir genre than Port of Shadows. Shadows was released in 1939, so it predates only slightly the noir era, but you can’t watch the film and not see the same type of characters, images and themes that will begin to come into play in American films only a year or two later.

 Most often it is classified as “French poetic realism” and if you completely understand that term, then you are one step ahead of me. There are certainly realist moments and images in the film, but they are all tainted to one degree or another with stylist expression that I suppose you could say adds poetry to the realism. However, since this is a film noir blog, I will focus mostly on the noir elements of Port of Shadows

Port of Shadows has a very noirish opening shot which includes a truck driving at night down a deserted road that suddenly comes upon a hitchhiker. Noir lovers will quickly notice Jean’s introspective demeanor, the dark, lonely night, and the low-angle shots on the front of the truck. The feeling of isolation and loneliness is further introduced when Jean is walking the streets of the city after being dropped off. He is the only one out in the street with the exception of a stray dog that he has to shoo away. 

Fatalism and loneliness are two pervasive themes in this film. Quotes such as “A swimmer is already a drowned man,” and “I’d see a crime in a rose,” are just a couple of examples of the fatalism running throughout the film. For the bleak picture it paints, Port of Shadows was a controversial film at the time and the French authorities worked hard to keep it from being exported to other countries, though to no avail. 

Jean is a definite anti-hero. He is not all good, nor is he all bad. He says to Nelly “the big bad wolf’s a good guy.” And Jean kicks the stray dog away on several occasions but eventually gives in and takes the dog as his own. Jean is the quintessential tortured soul and it takes a lot of work for someone to crack his veneer initially. However, he does give in rather quickly to the beautiful Nelly (Michele Morgan) and becomes her protector from a whimpering gangster and her incestuous uncle Zabel (Michel Simon). 

Though this film doesn’t have the starkly contrasting visual style with heavy use of shadows like many noirs, the majority of the shots are at night and the entire film has this grayish darkness in virtually every scene that helps to further the mood. Marcel Carne directed this classic film and it is one of the many films of his that is known by it poetic realism. 

Noir lovers should have no problems getting into this film. Gabin is great as always, Michel Simone and Michele Morgan sandwich him wonderfully and there are a few other memorable characters that add to the film and help to move the plot forward. There are several monologues that slow the picture a little, but overall the pacing is good and the dialogue not too heavy handed. The performances, the settings (such as Panama’s shack), and the fact that this film pulls no punches make Port of Shadows well worth a viewing for any movie fan.


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