Watching Port of Shadows at the Castro last Friday, it was hard not to think of its writer, Jacques Prevert, having been spared Truffaut’s wrath in 1954 (A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema.) Prevert wrote with his eyes on the horizon. I think some people forget how progressive that string of poetic realist hits (La Grande Illusion, L’Atalante) were, because the writing was often so, well, poetic.

But it’s all at the forefront of Port of Shadows, where, semi-spoiler alert, the villain is a lecherous Michel Simon. This is revealed semi-slowly, probably so as to savor the very irony of the villain’s refinement, embodied by a love of classical music and fine art. I say ironic because it was new, an assertion of the radical: the suspicion that behind the frills of the old, and, let’s face it, essentially bourgeoisie order– there was a rotten heart. A mean streak. A chain of repressed desires that should have been dealt with head-on long ago.

Certainly hard to imagine Jean Gabin keeping anything locked up. He’s ready to beat up a friendly truck-driver over a turn of phrase. Most markedly, when he likes a woman he tells her so. That’s why we like him.

There’s also an interesting paradox to Gabin’s willingness to slide into violence. He slaps one of the most ineffectual movie gangsters (ever) around to protect Michelle Morgan. Protecting your girl does seems keyed into an older chivalric sensibility, but I guess Gabin is sort of a wandering knight (he plays a deserting soldier.)

Violent action is, here, framed as refreshing when compared to an affluent, contextual order. The normal world of normal people is stuffy and bourgeoisie, and it’s preferable to wander it as Jean Gabin- a poor dude who knows what he wants, and who can- sort of- take care of himself.

Interesting then that, besides the bourgeoise Michel Simon, there’s another villain in that gangster I mentioned earlier. Actually, gangsters (gangsters never travel alone.)

Besides the conventional, that ineffectual gangster seems to operate as a counterpoint to Gabin’s coolness. Just in case we thought it was his willingness to violence that made him tough, or his disregard for the law that made him cool, we have the least cool gangster conceivable (he ruthlessly cuts in line for the bumper cars.)

Gabin’s coolness, instead, derives from his willingness to be his own man, and follow his own morality, rather than accept one that has been handed down. He’s not out to make a quick buck (he first lashes out at Michel Simon’s lech when Simon tries to use him as a hit man) and he’s not just going to take what he wants (he defends Michelle Morgan from the gangster’s unwanted advances.)

Gabin is interested in making his own way in the world, and that happens totally outside the mountain of established French culture. It happens in the shadows. 

-Max Berwald


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