PORT of SHADOWS 1938
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(Sep 28, 2016)
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PORT OF SHADOWS (Le Quai des Brumes) (1938) is one of the truly great classics of French cinema. Directed by Marcel Carne and written by Jacques Prevert (both of whom would later collaborate on CHILDREN OF PARADISE) the film was an early influence on what was to soon become "film noir". The incomparable Jean Gabin (PEPE LE MOKO, GRAND ILLUSION) stars as a world-weary soldier-deserter seeking passage. Shortly after being befriended by a stray dog, his wanderings find him in a port town where a chance-encounter with a kindly drunk leads him to an isolated bar on the outskirts - a place which clearly offers sanctuary to lost souls such as him. There he meets a sad and troubled young girl (Michele Morgan) and becomes entangled in her woes which involve her enigmatic guardian (Michel Simon) and a hotheaded gangster (Pierre Brasseur). It soon becomes painfully clear to both of them that they are in love, but their respective dilemmas - now intertwined - have them on a collision course with fate. At times both haunting and poetic, (with low-key photography and melancholy scoring to match) this is a masterful film which is hard to shake once experienced and will likely stay with you for a lifetime. In French with English subtitles.
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A success in 1938 but decried in 1940 as `immoral, depressing and distressing for young people, Le Quai des Brumes has been censored and cut so many times over the years that the original negative is incomplete and some footage is still missing even on StudioCanal's recent and sadly unsatisfying restoration of the film. Marcel Carne's downbeat drama is still one of the high water marks of the strain of doomed romanticism that was so influential in pre-war French cinema, providing Jean Gabin with another of his luckless disillusioned romantics who finds love and his own destruction at the same time, in this case as a deserter who falls for Michele Morgan's abused shop assistant and crosses some gangsters who are looking for incriminating documents held by her former lover who may have been murdered by her creepy guardian Michel Simon. For once Gabin is overshadowed by his supporting players, with Morgan the kind of luminous presence who can even make a plastic mac look good and Simon's overtly pious and loquacious but quietly seedy bearded and rabbit-toothed hypocrite rank with decayed morality creating the most memorable characters in the veritable rogues gallery Carne and screenwriter Jacques Prevert conjure up. The film simply oozes atmosphere even in the compromised versions that have been seen over the years - just as well, because StudioCanal's release of the Cinematheque Francaise's restoration of the film is quite a disappointment.
Because part of the film had to be reconstructed from prints (which were used as guides for grading even though old black and white prints don't always look the same as when they were new), picture quality is variable, with the blacks in the opening sequence looking a particularly milky grey even though the definition is improved. While they did go back to the original but incomplete negative and an old damaged nitrate print, the result in many of the exteriors is the kind of flat contrast and boosted brightness that's more often a feature of being sourced from a dupe print even though the image is considerably sharper: in the absence of the original grading information, it does seem as if they've taken the condition of the deteriorated print today as the way it looked several decades earlier, which is a contentious decision at the best of times. By contrast, Criterion's deleted DVD had much more convincing grading in the night scenes, with truer blacks and, for the most part, a much more satisfying translation that was slightly Americanised but still retained a pulp poetry that's often lacking in StudioCanal's at times rather blander English subtitles, losing some of the all important atmosphere. It doesn't help that, as is their irritating habit on their Blu-ray titles, the subtitles are absurdly small: the opening scrawl about the cutting and restoration of the print is so tiny it's hard to read even on a 40inch screen
On the plus side, despite losing the opening logo and having a slightly different opening credits sequence, StudioCanal's Blu-ray is slightly longer than the version Criterion released, with a bit more of the suicidal poet's self-pitying in his first scene. The sound quality has also seen considerable improvement, with Maurice Jaubert's terrific and vividly emotional score as much a beneficiary as the dialogue.
Although the original trailer (the only extra on the Criterion edition) is missing from StudioCanal's Region B-locked Blu-ray, it fares better on the extras, with an introduction by Ginette Vincendeau, a self-justifying featurette on the decisions behind the restoration and a 45-minute documentary on the making of the film, with the initial copies coming in a hardback digibook with English-language booklet. But it still feels like a missed opportunity.