Le quai des brumes (1938)
“Nelly…girl of the waterfront…who at seventeen…had lived far beyond her years.”
Le quai des brumes (1938)
Director: Marcel Carné
Cast: Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan
Synopsis: A military deserter finds love and trouble (and a small dog) in a smoky French port city.
Films don’t come any moodier than Marcel Carne’s Le quai des brumes, an acknowledged classic today which was dismissed by the darlings of the French New Wave as all that was wrong with pre-war French film-making. It’s true that the film is largely set-bound and the story somewhat contrived, but the film’s brooding atmosphere and careful, deliberate dismantling of our initial impressions of its lead characters are strengths that have outlived the criticisms of its detractors.
Jean Gabin, a Bogart-like actor who enjoyed a string of critical and commercial successes in the 1930s (including Pepe le Moko, La grande illusion, La bete humaine, and Le jour se leve) plays Jean, an army deserter who hitches a lift to the port of Le Havre in a doomed attempt to escape France on a merchant ship bound for Venezuela. In a rundown bar, the sympathetic owner feeds him and provides him with the clothes left by an artist (Robert Le Vigan) who has recently committed suicide. Jean also meets Nelly (Michele Morgan), a seventeen-year-old woman who arouses the passion of all men who cross her path. These men include Maurice, a small-time gangster who has recently gone missing, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), Maurice’s boss, whose sneering bravado disguises a cowardly streak, and Zabel (Michel Simon – Le passion de Jeanne d’Arc) Nelly’s putative guardian.
Le quai des brumes immerses its characters and audience in a stylised but gloomy setting in which dispirited drifters and misfits spout downbeat philosophical observations about a world which discourages hope and saps strength of will. Everyone is unhappy in one way or another, and each is the victim of their preordained fate. It makes for rather dismal viewing at first, but as the plot takes hold, the ultimately futile efforts of these people to escape that fate makes for compelling viewing. Their world is a closed one, revolving around half-a-dozen characters whose lives intertwine seamlessly – and often without them realising, and the sense of impending doom that pervades that world is palpable.
Although Gabin was the headline act, Le quai des brumes is worth catching for an early performance from screen legend Michele Morgan, who was then just 18-years-old, and a fascinating depiction from Michel Simon of a truly despicable man whose malignant heart slowly becomes apparent as his carefully maintained cloak of respectability is systematically pulled apart.
(Reviewed 14th March 2015)