Friday 24 May 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 44. Port of Shadows

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Port of Shadows
Director - Marcel Carne
Country - France
Year 1938
Runtime - 92 minutes

Les Enfants Du Paradis is undoubtedly Marcel Carne's masterpiece, and an underseen one at that, but his earlier films get even more short thrift, with Port of Shadows coming close to the brilliance of his three hour opus in only half the running time. Carne's penchant for doomed romances is in full swing in this atmospheric noir and Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan are perfectly cast as Jean, a deserting soldier escaping his duty, and Nelly, the reluctant mistress of a local gang who longs to distance herself from their cruel ways. Their paths cross amidst a host of shady players who dwell in the ports dingy bars - the kind of characters who wouldn't feel out of place in a Tarantino film - all of whom would be fascinating enough to feature in a film of their own. However, it is Jean and Nelly who steal the limelight as they try to put their troubled pasts behind them and kindle a blossoming romance that only serves to invite danger for both parties.

This enthralling film-noir was deemed too risque by its producer who cut a number of scenes he considered 'dirty' and it was later banned for being considered immoral and distressing to young people when war broke out in 1939. Its once outlandish subject matter may seem tame when viewed through a modern lens but, even if the societal implications of its story line have diminished over the years, Port of Shadows retains its potency to stir up an emotional resonance with a well crafted tale that harbours many surprises. Carne is a masterful Director and the wonderful script from Jacques Prevert, who adapted Pierre Dumarchais' novel, provided him with a taut and efficient screenplay that moves along at a brisk yet measured pace. Each of the character's story arcs weave together seamlessly and every action or utterance has a consequence or a purpose, leaving the audience completely captivated with the beguiling and unpredictable plot that plays out.

Early on in the proceedings Jean encounters a stray dog whom he adopts and this is a delightful reflection of his loneliness and desire for companionship. A desire that is hidden behind Jean's frank and hostile demeanor owing to his hunger and run of bad luck. This encounter pales in comparison to his chance meeting with Nelly, and the change in Jean's persona as he eats his first meal in two days and begins to flirt with this beautiful and intriguing young lady invites the audience to finally connect with Gabin's strong and charismatic soldier. Morgan's portrayal of Nelly as the mysterious femme fatale is an alluring performance and the instant connection between the two downtrodden individuals provides a saccharine hook that permeates the dankness of the port's overbearing misery.

The gloomy port side bars allow Carne to cultivate a sombre mood and he utilises shadows and cigarette smoke to create a striking atmosphere befitting of the brooding tale he presents. A funfair that lights up the seafront at night offers a welcome respite from the dreary establishments our protagonists frequent, whilst serving to bring certain characters closer together in a memorable turn of events that gives us hope amidst the darkness. This is a film full of sadness where even the minor players have a tough time. The spark of love and the dreams of a new life take root in your soul only to come crushing down as the heartbreaking story unfolds and leaves devastation in its wake.

In the space of a few days this unassuming port town bears witness to gunfights, suicide and murder, with the dark tide of incidents stemming from the death of Nelly's criminal lover who we learn passed away in suspected foul play, shortly before Jean makes his entrance and becomes unintentionally embroiled in the commotion. The subsequent fallout has a profound impact on both of their lives and delivers a truly unforgettable resolution that showcases Carne's unbridled talent for the cinematic medium.

This is an incredibly involving film that transports you to another time and place that feels so real you could almost stride up to one of the grimy bars and order a drink, whilst watching the entrancing denizens and listening intently to their deep and engrossing monologues. Being lost like this in a Marcel Carne film is a sublime experience and one that should be treasured by anyone intrepid enough to seek out this classic French crime film. It encapsulates the era it depicts with a flair and style like no other and deserves to be considered alongside the all time greats of 1930s cinema.

If you take the time to watch Port of Shadows then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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