Tag Archives: Port of Shadows

Jean Gabin (Quai des brumes) – Best Actor of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances: James Cagney (Angels with Dirty Faces), Robert Donat (The Citadel), Errol Flynn (The Dawn Patrol), Jean Gabin (La bête humaine), Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby), Cary Grant (Holiday), Leslie Howard (Pygmalion),  Charles Laughton (St. Martin’s Lane), Aleksei Lyarsky (The Childhood of Maxim Gorky), Reginald Owen (A Christmas Carol), Edward G. Robinson (A Slight Case of Murder)

Jean Gabin commiserates with Michele Morgan in "Quai des brumes"

With Jean Gabin as best actor, 1938 is the first year that I have chosen four foreign language performances. I suspect it will, unfortunately, be the last for quite some time as war will erupt in Europe and Asia slowing the film production in those places to a trickle and its artists fleeing for safety. I’ve already written about Quai des brumes as one of the best pictures of 1938 and when I chose Michel Simon as best supporting actor so I won’t go into the specifics of the film. The focus will be on Jean Gabin and his character, Jean.

Gabin possessed a naturally intense screen presence out of which a mediocre actor could have milked a decent career. But Gabin was much more than a mediocre actor – he was a very good one. He exploited his talent and his ability well in a string of artistically successful movies in the 1930s: High and Low (1933), The Lower Depths (1936), Pépé le Moko (1937), Grand Illusion (1937), La bête humaine (1938), and Le jour se lève (1939). Taking these (and other) movies into consideration, I’m not sure if his performance in Quai des brumes is his best (next years Le jour se lève will rival it), but it is one of his most intense and the best performance by an actor in 1938.

Gabin’s Jean is a man resigned to his fate. Having deserted from the army, he knows his time is limited. He could be arrested at any moment, but Jean’s resignation is more philosophical than considerations of physical imprisonment. He recognizes that everything is temporary, everything will come to an end – and sooner than we think. He has given up hope even though he makes vague plans to escape the country, but little beyond that. Why would he need to plan for a life beyond the shores of France when he has given up, resigned himself to an existential fate.

That Jean’s journey mirrors the attitudes of many French citizens at the time makes Gabin’s performance all the more relevant. He captured their frustration, anger, and sense of betrayal with a subtle sneer or narrowed look. And not even the love of beautiful young Nelly (Michèle Morgan) can reclaim him from the depths of a corrosive apathy.

Like Jean, nothing Nelly does improves their situations – there is nothing they can do. Their bleak world is immune to love or hope. The biggest mistake they make is recognizing a connection in one another and mistaking their feelings for a faint glimmer of hope that they can escape. Escape is impossible. It’s a bleak vision of the world, but one with which too many identified in 1938 – and one in which Jean Gabin fit perfectly.

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Michel Simon (Quai des brumes) – Best Supporting Actor of 1938

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.

Michel Simon as Zabel directing his unwanted attentions to Nelly (Michele Morgan)

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.

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Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) – Best Pictures of 1938 (#3)

Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan

There’s an almost prescient fatalism in many French movies of the late 1930s. Dark themes, shadowy aesthetics, and shady characters articulate a cynical outlook for France’s future and none embodied that trend more than Michel Carné’s Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). Carné succeeded in capturing the festering pessimism and ennui of French culture and society in this film so well that it supposedly prompted one French government official to blame the fall of France to Nazi Germany on Quai des brumes. Carné is said to have responded to the charge by saying one doesn’t blame a barometer for a storm. Whether this story is apocryphal or not, it is worth noting that Carné viewed his film as a barometer of sorts for the unease and discontent of the French people that would, in a matter of months, prove founded.

The movie follows a fateful day in the life of Jean (Jean Gabin), a deserter from the French Foreign Legion as he arrives in the port of Le Havre, on the look out for a ship to get him out of the country before the authorities apprehend him. He finds refuge at a seedy bar on the outskirts of town where other outcasts and runaways gather and it is there that he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Nelly (Michèle Morgan). She has also run away, but from her lecherous step-father Zabel (Michel Simon). Their relationship pits Jean against Zabel and Nelly’s wanna-be tough guy boyfriend, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur). Jean gives Nelly the courage to finally stand up to Zabel’s unwanted advances and envision a life away from the drudgery, but Jean is trapped between his new love and the need to get out of the country.

Nelly (Morgan) struggles against Zabel (Michel Simon)

The genius of Carné’s film is, like most people, no one in the movie is particularly noble. Our protagonist is Jean, but he isn’t a paragon of virtue. And on the flip side, the villains aren’t particularly evil. Simon and Brasseur play them more as weak, scared little boys, unable to chart any other course for their lives. Like Jean, they are trapped by their own misdeeds and flail around in an attempt to appear in control. Zabel clings to a thin veneer of respectability, covering his dabbling in crime, and Lucien pretends to be a tough guy, mimicking the movies of James Cagney or Paul Muni., when he’s really a cowardly little boy.

Carné is unsparingly brutal in his condemnation of French society. Jean and Nelly have to flee from two institutions meant to protect its citizens (the military) and nurture new ones (the family). They don’t find safety anywhere except for a dingy bar that, since we have the virtue of hindsight, eerily feels like a hideout for the French Underground. Carné populates the bar with anyone who might feel left behind by the collapse of the Popular Front and the rise of fascism throughout Europe, including a disillusioned young poet who takes his life early in the picture, leaving his clothes for Jean.

Quai des brumes is a melancholy portrait of a specific time and place. Everyone knew they were headed for disaster, but no one knew what they could do to prevent it. Some retreated and escaped, like Jean and Nelly, while others tried to make the best out of it for themselves with little regard for who they might wrong, like Zabel and Lucien. And still others took their lives, unable to face the world without the France in which they grew up.

In some ways the (apocryphal?) French official who claimed they fell to Nazi Germany because of this movie is correct. Carné gave voice to the unchannelled discontent and frustration with the direction of their country without suggesting solutions. The tragic ending of the film told its audience there was nothing they could do, the end for them and their country is coming. All they could do was sit back and wait.

 

 

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