One scene from Joe Wright's film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement comes close to the heft of McEwan's prose. The disaster of Dunkirk - the shocking "strategic withdrawal" of the British Expeditionary Force from France - is captured in what seems like one long (five minute) take. Somehow, Robbie, the hero of the novel, ends up in a cinema and watches, behind the screen, as Jean Gabin kisses Michele Morgan in a scene from Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes). The choice of the film could have been random, but Port of Shadows, released in 1938, was probably the most popular French film to be released before the war. Of course, the intensely romantic moment between Gabin and Morgan reminds Robbie of Cecilia and the happiness that, he hopes, awaits him back in England.
Port of Shadows is an intensely atmospheric love story about Jean (Gabin), a soldier who arrives in the port of Le Havre trying to escape the Army by booking passage on a cargo ship bound for Venezuela.* By chance, he meets Nelly (Morgan) and falls in love with her. Gabin was expert at playing characters on the downward slope of their fortunes; men who have seen too much to stand on ceremony with women or bother about the quaint niceties of love, the flowers and sweet nothings of a romance. With no illusions of himself, he insists on calling tings like he sees them. When he first meets Michele Morgan, he accuses her of being out "hustling." When she acts insulted, he continues: "Don't tell me you're here to bring Grandma some cake. You're not Little Red Riding Hood. And that's too bad, 'cause I'm the Big Bad Wolf." (In the scene, Morgan is wearing a see-through raincoat, and when she turns to face Gabin, she slides one hand into a see-through pocket - a gesture I found strangely erotic.)
The film was directed by Marcel Carné and the script was written by Jacques Prévert, the same team who would make the monumentally great The Children of Paradise seven years later. Prévert was also a poet, and much of his dialogue in Port of Shadows attains the level of poetry. A painter he meets called Michel asks Jean, "Do you love life?"
Jean: "It has its moments."
Michel: "Does life love you?"
Jean: "She's been rotten to me so far, but maybe she'll change, since I love her."
Jean and Nelly talk about love in one scene:
Jean: "When a girl's young and beautiful and wants to live, it's like a man who wants to be free - everyone gangs up on them. Like a pack of dogs.
Nelly: "Life is hard."
Jean: "Yes, you're all alone, every one of us. But sometimes you meet someone you hardly know, someone you might never see again, and they help you. You don't know why It's funny."
Nelly: "It's because people love each other."
Jean: "No, they don't. They don't have time."
Seventy-five years ago, when he had a chance to see the film in New York, Otis Ferguson was moved to write:
"As a film that neither attempts more than it can do nor is satisfied with the trivial, Port of Shadows is a pleasure.
Port of Shadows is a love story, one of the best. The plot is lively but soon told. In less than forty-eight hours the different forces have got mixed up, and write your own conclusion. The conclusion of the picture is that there is a little kindness in the world — not enough to go around and never where you would expect to find it — too often unrecognized, but genuine, and when felt as such, beautiful to see. The beauty of this picture is partly in this quiet statement of non-spectacular truth, but even more in the steadfast allegiance of each character to his own strength and weakness. When goodness gets to this surface, it has been a pitched battle, and worth it. Because virtue did not triumph by some flick of the wrist in the scenario department, the majority will find the picture depressing — though with the world as it is, you’d think any story proving there is virtue in it at all would be a token of joy and welcome. Times change, as it is only right they should, but I will take this treatment of love as the sudden hope of heaven, between a roughened man and a scared young woman, before any Romeos or Juliets, even at played in double exposure by Orson Welles.
As the girl, Michele Morgan was both lovely and secure in the meaning of the part, a little too old for the given age, but one of the few who could establish the fact that a death for love might not be so fantastic after all. The picture’s mainspring is of course Jean Gabin, who is a true stalwart — indeed, it would be difficult to imagine the effect of this picture if he had not been there through all its minutes with his projection of strength in immobility, his command of the illusion that crossing a room even to get to the men’s room has its meaning and that if he kicks a dog it will be because he loves the mutt. There is something we know no more about than magnets, some inner command, some emanation of qualities that would be destroyed if talked about. There is a feeling of dignity that is more than his own—the dignity of all men—who are after all men and have dignity in some decree whether their surface foibles make fools of them or not. Gabin and all the qualities of the film around him have that perfect eloquence of the thing as perceived, marked down and brought across to all who have an interest in and hope for the processes of life, as lived."
*In a scene from the next film Carne and Prevert made together, the very different Le Jour se Leve, Gabin, holed up in his garrett under police siege, absent-mindedly reads the shipping news: "Ship schedules. Boulogne. the Veendam arrives from New York on the 6th...."