If you follow a deserting soldier as he hitchhikes down the road to a foggy port town named Le Havre, you might expect him to lay low and attempt to stay out of trouble until he can make his nifty escape on a departing ship. However, in Marcel Carné’s “Le Quai des Brumes,” or “Port of Shadows” in English, the soldier actively looks for trouble, remains surly and uncooperative, and finds the love of his life.
Carné’s 1938 French language film stars Jean Gabin as Jean, who flags down a passing truck for a ride to Le Havre. The driver notices his uniform, and attempts some small talk, but Jean barks at him and then grabs and turns the wheel to avoid hitting a dog. The two almost get into a fight, and then the dog follows Jean for the rest of the film. He’d be wise to stay in hiding until his ship departs for Venezuela, but a slimy shopkeeper named Zabel (Michel Simon) and a trio of gangsters conspire to thwart his quest for freedom and happiness.
Jean flees to a house on the docks, where he meets a beautiful 17-year-old named Nelly, played by Michèle Morgan. She appears to be the most desired woman in town, as she’s pursued by one of the gangsters, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), Zabel, and another man named Maurice. But Jean and Nelly instantly connect, which exposes Jean to danger. Lucien is the kind of weak and insipid character who turns out to be quite dangerous when pushed too hard. Jean pushes him more than once, and he begins to seethe at the humiliation. Zabel, on the other hand, is a conniving classical music lover who happens to be Nelly’s godfather. He’s not about to allow a rat like Lucien to gain her favor. Luckily, Nelly falls in love with Jean.
The film breaks ground in its portrayal of Jean, a man unflinching in the face of danger despite the obvious dangers lurking in a shadowy port town. As part of his “disguise,” Jean takes the identity of a dead artist, a role he must presumably fake all the way to Venezuela. But since he’s a deserter who isn’t suited for war and the army, and never reveals an aptitude for anything in this film except wanderlust, the viewer might find it hard to root for him at all. Mostly, I rooted for the opportunity for Jean and Nelly’s love to be successful, and for the couple to finally get away from Zabel and the gangsters.