Other Noteworthy Performances:
Basil Rathbone (The Dawn Patrol)
Lionel Barrymore (You Can’t Take It with You)
Claude Rains (The Adventures of Robin Hood)
Basil Rathbone (If I Were King)
Robert Morley (Marie Antoinette)
Edward Arnold (You Can’t Take It with You)
Pierre Renoir (La Marseillaise)
Roland Young (The Young in Heart)
Charles Ruggles (Bringing Up Baby)
Edward Everett Horton (Holiday)
Humphrey Bogart (The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse)
Sabu (The Drum)
There are several good choices for best supporting actor of 1938, most notably Basil Rathbone in The Dawn Patrol as a conflicted officer sending untrained pilots to their almost certain deaths or in If I Were King as the gleefully clever king of France trying to save his kingdom from foreign and domestic threats. Other good choices (listed above) include Lionel Barrymore doing what he does best in You Can’t Take It with You and Claude Rains as dastardly Price John in The Adventures of Robin Hood. In the end though only Michel Simon truly stands out as the complex villain Zabel in Quai des brumes.
Simon’s Zabel is a mess of contradictions without ever coming off as phony or contrived. He is a quasi-respected member of the harbor community in the film, the dutiful owner of a bric-a-brac shop and noted lover of religious choirs who has admirably raised his stepdaughter Nelly with no complaints. He spends his days minding the shop while the pious harmonies set the wholesome scene. This is Zabel to the rest of the community – an upright citizen just trying to get along honestly like everyone else.
Of course Zabel’s respectable image is a façade that masks darker truths about his character. Zabel supplements his income by dabbling in criminal enterprises and his aboveboard relationship with his stepdaughter hides his lascivious desires for her. Nelly is forced to run away when Zabel’s lust gets the better of him and loses control of himself.
What is clever about Simon’s performance is Zabel never comes off as a pure villain. He truly wants to be the respectable man he pretends to be, but his urges and desires – for money or for Nelly – subvert his positive impulses. He’s a man driven by desires and is too weak to control them. Several times in the film we see him struggle with what he knows is right and what he wants. What he wants usually wins so long as he believes he can maintain his public image and his misdeeds are kept in the dark. Exposure is the only thing that keeps him in check.
Simon recognizes the rarity of pure evil and grounds Zabel in reality. Most people who do bad things are more like Zabel than truly evil people. Perhaps viewers will recognize a little bit of Zabel in themselves making the character all the more chilling. Not only could he live in our own neighborhoods, but he could reflect something dark in ourselves.
That Simon chose a realistic way of depicting Zabel supports director Michel Carné’s critique of French society in the 1930s. Had he been an extraordinary or cartoonish villain, audiences could have detached themselves from his actions, dismissing Carné’s message. But by giving him emotional layers, by expressing his struggle through Simon’s performance, Carné confronts his audience head on about what he believed ailed French society. Zabel represents those who have abandoned their commitment to the nation for their own benefit.
Michel Simon was a prolific actor on the stage and screen from the 1920s to the 1970s. But it was during the 1930s that he gave some of his best performances for France’s best directors. In La Chienne and Boudu Saved from Drowning for Jean Renoir, L’Atalante for Jean Vigo, Drôle de drame and this film for Michel Carné, Simon proved that he was a great actor, intimately in touch with characters shunned, ignored, and forgotten. He forces us to examine those we would pass without comment, without a glance on the street, and recognize ourselves in them. His portrayal of Zabel in Quai des brumes is one of the most skillful of his illustrious career and well deserving of recognition as one of the best performances of 1938.