Arguably the jewel in the crown of the BFI’s recently launched Jean Gabin: Working Class Hero to Godfather season, a new StudioCanal/Cinémathèque français restoration of Marcel Carné’s noirish 1938 film Le Quai des Brumes reaches selected cinemas this week, showcasing the talents of not only its director but also its iconic 34-year-old leading man, already at this point in time France’s most bankable screen actor.
Gabin plays Jean, an AWOL army deserter who finds shelter in the form of Panama’s bar, an isolated shack on the edge of the French port town of Le Havre. In this hideout of drifters and down-and-outs, Jean meets the mysterious, alluring Nelly (Michèle Morgan), with whom he falls instantly in love with. It soon transpires that Nelly is also seeking solace from the perverted jealousy of her guardian (Michel Simon) and the unwanted attentions of petty local hood Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), who is investigating the disappearance of his gang-members, who was also Nelly’s former lover. Jean thus vows to protect this fragile young woman, with tragic consequences.
Adapted from a novel by Pierre Marc Orlan and originally set in the German city of Hamburg (before meeting opposition from Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda), Le Quai des Brumes opened to significant critical and commercial acclaim in its home market of France (winning both the Grand Prix National du Cinéma and the Prix Louis Delluc in 1938). However, despite such success, in 1939 Carné’s film was once again banned – this time by the ruling French government – on grounds that it was far too ‘depressing’ and ‘immoral’ for a nation poised to enter yet another world war.
Whilst it’s hard to condone such a ludicrous censorship decision, Carné’s dark and melancholic Le Havre-set drama certainly doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the drudgery of being one of life’s also-rans. Gabin’s deserter is a quintessential anti-hero, traumatised by his past and seemingly unable to look ahead to his future until he meets the enigmatic Nelly. The violence within Le Quai des Brumes is suitably sporadic, ugly and graphic for the period, with Brasseur’s slimy, lecherous gangster Lucien (one of the film’s main exponents of deplorable acts) standing proudly amongst the most unlikeable antagonists in film history.
Carné went on to direct such future classics as Le Jour Se Lève (1939) and Children of Paradise (1945), whilst Gabin’s towering performance in Le Quai des Brumes is yet another shining example of the supreme talent possessed by the French star. Now, thanks to a stunning restoration featuring a painstakingly reconstituted original negative, a new generation of cineastes will have the pleasure of watching two magnificent artists at work.
Jean Gabin: Working Class Hero to Godfather, a BFI career overview of one of the renowned stars of French cinema, takes place from 2 to 31 May. For more info, visit .bfi.org.uk.