Port of Shadows (1938) and The Face of Jean Gabin

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“Like the movies. I see you. I like you. Love at first sight.” – Jean Gabin

Jean Gabin has one of the great visages of the cinema. But in making such a statement you immediately run the risk of giving the wrong impression. To actually see him on the big screen is to know what I mean. He is not classically handsome in the Hollywood sense, fitting somewhere in between Spencer Tracy, Bogart, and Fonda when Hank had a chip on his shoulder. And yet set off in black and white as Gabin always was during his most prolific periods, there is something unmistakable about his face.

It is worn with the grooves, contours, and the residual sadness that come with life. He gives the impression of seeing the world, having his heart ripped out, being battered and bruised, while still choosing to press on anyway. You could say he has the entire French experience of the early 20th century on his brow. He’s simultaneously a projection of their best self in the face of hardship.

Historically, the cultural mood and the looming world war to come were ill-omens, as far as the release of the film was concerned. It was far too portentous to be met without some amount of resistance

In Port of Shadows, Gabin fittingly plays a jaded soldier who catches a lift to the nearby port town of Le Havre. In an opening act of clemency, he keeps his truck-driving benefactor from quashing a mutt masked by the billows of fog. It’s an instant flag. We know this man. His emotions are not obvious, but they are there; he concerns himself with the well-being of others. There is a heart under there somewhere. Scene after scene his constant companion is the runty little dog, a continual reminder of who he is as a man.

Along with setting up its star, we soon learn director Marcel Carne cares about his characters and takes care of them. Not that the environments are unimportant. Between the pitch darkness of the highway or the smoky and garish interiors of the club, there’s atmosphere aplenty. But Carne is focused on his players; their faces and distinct movements, allowing them to be focal points of scenes in a generally clean, uninterrupted fashion.

Between the instantly palpable world and the menagerie of players cycling in and out, Port of Shadows cannot help but feel like a prototype for everything from Casablanca to the entire film noir movement with its smoky brand of realism.

I don’t know much about the time frame of when the picture takes place. In all honesty, I’m not all that concerned with that so much because instantly you are pulled into a world’s depth of field with its shadow and fascinating figures. There’s a compulsion to fall into the story and be as fully involved as possible.

He’s in town, flat broke, and there’s an unspoken understanding he’s not looking to get noticed by the local gendarmerie — most obviously a deserter. This is one of those picturesque places where you can fall in with drunken vagabonds and find yourself on the receiving end of neighborliness.

As is, everyone who is down-and-out or in trouble seems to go to Panama’s, though it serves as little more than an old shack with a couple of rooms.  A sorry excuse for a hangout and yet it has far more life than the fancy club in town. It’s the people there who truly make it worthwhile.

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Jean (Gabin) is given a meal by the ragged proprietor, gets some fancy talk from an amiable artist, before meeting the most important person: Nelly (Michele Morgan). She’s young but precocious, mature beyond her years. The same might be said of Morgan who assuredly holds her own against all her male costars. She’s thoroughly outnumbered yet she handles it poise.

It’s a testament to the strength and varied colorfulness of the characters that the illustrious Michel Simon almost becomes of less interest as Nelly’s despicable godfather, especially compared to the peculiar sots he was tasked with portraying in Boudu and L’Atalante. His big scenes come near the end of the picture anyway.

Mostly this is a love story. In a rare moment of self-reflexity, Jean mentions how theirs is a movie romance. It’s this heightened sense of romantic reality. If we put it up against anything we experientially know to be true, it’s poppycock, but between the eyes and embraces of Morgan and Gabin, it just feels right.

We also learn more about Jean. Not only is he capable of deep measures of love, but he has no tolerance for lowlifes and scum — those lacking a sense of honor or principle. You have it out with a man face-to-face with fists, not from behind. One of his main targets is the local gangster Lucien who is nothing more than an arrogant rich kid with too much time on his hands. He wants his hands on Nelly. Jean is having none of it. He cuts directly through the artifice, slapping him around for his impudence.

The story comes to a head on the docks and again, of all places, at the bumper cars in the middle of a carnival. You do not mess around with Jean Gabin when a girl is involved. This could be the movie’s ending; the romance would be the euphoric and the hero would remain triumphant. However, it is a movie and so a greater, darker, more wistful avenue of drama is in order.

Because Jean knows he is not safe, though he has gratefully taken another man’s identity. It is better for him to leave on the latest vessel shipping out to Venezuela the following day. His love for Nelly is great, but there is a need to move on, to let her be while also keeping her away from the trouble that would come from knowing him. He does the selfish or heroic thing (depending on how you look at it), in cinematic terms, and he doesn’t tell her. He holds off as long as possible.

One fine sequence is at the waterfront bar with kegs of alcohol lodged right outside the door. There’s a conversation at the bar between the bartender and an old acquaintance we’ve already met. At a distant table, our protagonist, with his new identity bequeathed him by the philosophizing painter, charts his course for Venezuela aboard the freighter now sitting in the harbor.

These seem like mundane enough scenarios, but instead of a normal cut, Carne rides an extra with his camera, acting like the seamless segue between the two conversations. It’s a classy and efficient way to keep the scenarios fluid even in a seemingly sedentary state.

These lulls lead up to what can only be seen as the film’s inevitable tragedy. Like the most sublime expressions of cinema, Port of Shadows is a visceral, emotive experience capable of so many things. It’s a piece of art: humorous, tragic, brooding, and searingly romantic. In short, a sheer pleasure to take part in.

4.5/5 Stars

Grand Illusion (1937)

GrandeIllusionI’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been bred on a certain brand of war movie, but I naively went into Grand Illusion expecting a typical P.O.W. drama. In the back of my mind, I was even ready to compare this title to later works like Stalag 17 (1953) or The Great Escape (1963). Honestly, what was I thinking? With a Jean Renoir film no less.

But that’s the marvelous quality of this film. On the surface level, it looks like an archetype that we are used to. War is being waged. Soldiers are captured. Soldiers are trying to escape. In this case, the particulars are a group of French P.O.W.s in a German camp during WWI. You have the basic idea certainly, but you will not understand the power of this film with such a description. With such a set-up you expect Germans to be the craven villains and the French to be the courageous boys making their nation proud. But that’s not quite the case. It’s more complicated than that.

It’s no surprise that this film was banned by Mussolini, confiscated by Goebbels after the invasion of France, and shown in a private screening to FDR. Certainly, WWII had not started yet, but in 1937 Hitler was on the rise and a wave of fascism mixed with patriotism was flooding Europe. In the midst of such a climate, Jean Renoir, a master of so-called poetic realism, lays down a film like this. It has war, it has patriotism, and it even has enemy factions, but the difference is that Renoir gives them humanity. He casts even his “enemy” in a sympathetic light and suggests that there is a humanity that lies inside of human beings of all different classes, creeds, and nationalities (but he also acknowledges racial discrimination still exists).

Early on in the film von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) shoots down two enemy flyers in Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Marechal (Jean Gabin). However, instead of sending them away to the prisoner of war camp, he shows them the ultimate form of hospitality by inviting them to dine at his table. The cynic inside of me thought, “this must be a trap, a gimmick of some kind because he is a German after all, and they’re supposed to be the villains.” Pretty narrow-minded of me, and of course nothing happens. They share a meal and even find some common ground before going off to the camp.

This next part of the film reminds me the most of a film like Stalag 17 because there is the camaraderie, the mixing of all sorts of different people, but they are all fighting against a common enemy so there is a solidarity between them. For instance, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) shares his lavish care packages from back home, Cartier keeps things lively as a former vaudeville performer who is constantly cracking jokes, and even Boledieu, who is of an aristocratic background is generally well liked by everyone. Together they undertake the project of escaping the camp.

Of course, there’s still time for musical performances with song and drag and impromptu renditions of “La Marseillaise.” For such a disturbance Marechal (Gabin) gets solitary confinement, but there never seems to be any malice behind it. It feels more like the protocol of war, and he is let out soon enough. The way things work out the gang is transferred all to different camps and their tunnel is utterly wasted.

De Boldieu and Marechal’s final stop is literally a fortress that is run by their old acquaintance, the now badly maimed Von Rauffenstein. He is as civil as he has ever was but still advises them not to try escape. All the same, he regrets his reassignment and seems generally wistful about the whole situation. Meanwhile, the two officers once again come in contact with Rosenthal. The trio puts together a planned diversion led by De Boldieu which will let the other two escape. It puts von Rauffenstein in another regrettable position, but Rosenthal and Marechal do get away.

As fugitives, their dispositions fluctuate from positivity to loathing, and finally a contented state of comfort when they stay at the farmhouse of a young German woman named Elsa (Dita Parlo from L’Atalante). This is another section of the film that highlights human relationships in an extraordinary way. We expect her to be totally poisoned against “the enemy” and yet she is not. Elsa seems to see the human beings behind the French uniforms and comes to trust and almost rely on their companionship. As Rosenthal recovers from a leg injury, Marechal and Elsa get closer and closer. The time comes for the two men to leave and it is an absolutely heart-wrenching goodbye. It’s so different than our initial preconceptions.

And soon after the film ends, not with some dramatic capturing or even really a chase. But the two men get across the border to snowy Switzerland and that’s where we leave them. Except not with the usual jadedness or even the adrenaline rush of a run-of-the-mill war thriller. Grand Illusion is more piercing than that, speaking to the relationships that can cross war zones if we are only willing to see them.

Jean Gabin is a wonderfully honest-faced actor and the closest description I can give is a man with a Spencer Tracy-like visage except more imposing. Marcell Dalio did some wonderful work with Renoir, and it is unfortunate that he was relegated to such small roles in films like Casablanca, but he is nevertheless even memorable in that. Erich von Stroheim was a titan in his own right as a director and actor, but he was somewhat of a fading star by this point. However, he plays his character with a civility and sense of honor which I have never quite seen equaled before. It was a special performance that reflects a dying breed. The aristocratic soldier of the highest order in all circumstances.

Renoir himself summed up the film years later as being about human relationships and fittingly said the following: “I am confident that such a question is so important today that if we don’t solve it, we will just have to say ‘goodbye’ to our beautiful world.” Here is a master recognizing such a vital key to our very humanity — our personal interactions with one another.

5/5 Stars