Marcel Carné's visually stunning film is restored to its former glory in time for the BFI's Jean Gabin season.
"If we lose the war," stated France's Vichy government, "it will be because of Le Quai des Brumes." Director Marcel Carné and scenarist Jacques Prévert were responsible for two of the finest French films of the '30s and '40s, but both of these great masterpieces almost failed to see the light of day.
In 1945, they somehow managed to produce the glorious Les Enfants du Paradis under Nazi occupation. Seven years earlier than that, the pair incurred the wrath of the French authorities with their downbeat drama, Le Quai de Brumes, which was banned for being "immoral, depressing and detrimental to young people." Even Goebbels rejected the film when Carné tried to produce it at UFA because of the script's various unpleasant elements.
Viewed today – as part of a career retrospective of iconic actor Jean Gabin at London's BFI Southbank – the picture has long lost its ability to scandalise, but it's easy to see why such damning adjectives were flung at it way back when.
A haunting sense of fatalism shrouds Le Quai de Brumes like a thick fog, with characters running from their past and hoping that their luck will change with the dawning of a new day. This notion of fate conspiring against people is expressed through Prévert's marvellous dialogue: "To me, a swimmer is already a drowned man," a depressed artist observes. Later, when a character decides to kill himself, he does so with a nonchalant shrug: "The sea's rough and foggy, and I swim pretty badly, and that's fine by me."
And yet there's room for romance and beauty in this harsh world. Army deserter Jean (Jean Gabin) is a rough-hewn, taciturn character who resembles Casablanca's Rick Blaine in the way he keeps his emotions in check and refuses to stick his neck out for anybody; that is, until his head is turned by Nelly (Michèle Morgan).
Both Gabin and Morgan give tremendous 'movie star' performances here. Morgan was just 17 when she made the film but exudes old-school cinematic glamour, with her devastating beauty complemented by a raincoat and beret combination designed by Coco Chanel.
Gabin's world-weary demeanour disguises a compassion and emotional complexity that gradually reveals itself as he gets drawn into Nelly's troubled life. As the chief source of her woes, Michel Simon delivers a typically crafty and memorable supporting turn as her protector.
Le Quai des Brumes was shot almost entirely on a studio set, but through Carné's direction and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan's careful employment of shadows, it creates a sense of place and an atmosphere that's both evocative and distinctive.
The locations are vivid, notably Panama's ramshackle bar, situated on a bleak strip of land, while the silhouettes of ships moored in the distance suggest a means of escape or hope for characters who are trapped on the dockside.
Years before the term came into common usage, this poetic, moody, broken-hearted classic set the tone for the emergence of film noir. And for that reason among many, you really shouldn't miss it on the big screen.
An iconic French picture is restored to its former glory as the centrepiece of the BFI's Jean Gabin season.
Visually stunning and effortlessly mesmerising, it's a constant pleasure.
Marcel Carné's film has fully earned its status as a classic of French poetic realism.