PORT OF SHADOWS: A French Classic With a Stunning Restoration [Blu Review]

Marcel Carné’s beloved pulp noir gets a 2K uncut transfer on Kino’s new Blu-ray

Although it grew in immense popularity among French filmgoers post-World War II, Port of Shadows had a notably troubled path to the silver screen. Subject to censorship issues on grounds of “decency” and being a “potential detriment to the youth,” Port of Shadows seemed singled out from the start by nervous producers and overzealous officials in both France and pre-war Nazi Germany. Matinée idol Jean Gabin and then-novice director Marcel Carné were the project’s major champions, however, and despite cuts both before, during, and after production, Port of Shadows finally found its way to acclaim both in France and abroad, becoming a major touchstone of French Poetic Realism and an early ancestor of Film Noir.

Following a long out-of-print release by The Criterion Collection, Kino Lorber Studio Classics presents Port of Shadows for the first time on Blu-ray stateside, featuring a 2K uncut restoration of Carne’s seminal film noir.

Draped in dreamlike fog both day and night, Port of Shadows is a wonderfully atmospheric piece of work. The film follows army deserter Jean (Jean Gabin, in a capital-M Movie Star role) as he arrives in port city Le Havre searching for a quick way out of the country. That night, however, he strikes up an unexpected romance with doting teenager Nelly (Michele Morgan). Nelly’s on the run from both her creepy godfather, Zabel (Michel Simon), and the petulant child-like gangsters that he does business with. As Jean’s departure grows near, he finds himself torn between his own escape or helping Nelly escape the clutches of these evil men.

Brought vividly to life by director Carné, screenwriter Jacques Prévert, and German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, Port of Shadows is a satisfying, shadowy piece of pulp, It’s packed with crackling, world-weary dialogue, shifty characters in seedy locales, and passionate romances that are as fiery as they are ill-fated. With little fat on its already slight runtime, Carné and Prévert transform the Le Havre of Port of Shadows into a self-contained dreamworld full of self-conscious and endlessly quotable tropes (“Like in the movies — I see you, I like you.”) that’s too irresistible to not get lost in.

The cast in front of the camera are just as talented as the crew behind it. Grand Illusion and Le Jour se Lève’s Jean Gabin brings his iconic square-jawed, no-nonsense bravado to the film’s lead, creating another textbook case of a downtrodden man matched with the right girl at the wrong time. Michel Simon, in the second film I’ve seen him in since Criterion’s wonderful restoration of Panique last year, is deliciously vile as Zabel. A physically and morally-crooked character, Simon injects Zabel with a curious amount of sympathy — conscious and accepting of his own ugliness, Zabel becomes fearless against the persecution of others. Michele Morgan is the standout as Nelly, though; in what would otherwise be a thankless role of a lovestruck girl, Morgan turns Nelly into a woman swept up in the first relationship that doesn’t try to prey on her vulnerability.

Port of Shadows is presented with a 2K restoration conducted by StudioCanal and Cinémathèque Française in 2011, which was assembled from the censored original camera negative and two uncut master positive prints. The film more than lives up to its title on Blu-ray, with a striking gradient of inky blacks and foggy grays with a sharp amount of detail. Some imperfections are noticeable in what must have been originally-censored portions of the film, as quality dips and the image slightly blurs. Close-ups in the film are especially remarkable given the age of the existing elements — the print dazzlingly captures the hopeful glimmer in the characters’ eyes during the film’s famous funfair kiss sequence.

Port of Shadows’ sound is richly restored, as well, in a 2.0 DTS-HD Master in the original French — the sparse score is vibrant and moving, and dialogue and effects are crisp and clear. There is still a faint flickering noise common to sound films of the era throughout, but this doesn’t detract from the film’s overall presentation.

Port of Shadows is presented with an Introduction by Professor/Film Critic Ginette Vincendeau (English, no subtitles), Port of ShadowsTheatrical Trailer, and the 45-minute documentary On the Port of Shadows (French with English subtitles). Trailers for additional Kino Lorber releases are also included.

Vincendeau’s introduction is an informative, spoiler-free primer on the film’s place in the French film history, as well as positions it as the “missing link” between German Expressionist films of the 1920s and what would become American Film Noir. On the Port of Shadows is ported over from StudioCanal’s French Blu-ray, and is a rigorously in-depth look at the film’s troubled history of censorship from pre-production through its release and restoration. The documentary features an abundance of production stills and interviews with restoration technicians, film historians, contemporary French directors, and the film’s lead actress Michele Morgan.

With a rich restoration after a long absence from physical media in the U.S., Port of Shadows is a welcome addition to the collections of film noir lovers as well as aficionados of classic French cinema.

Port of Shadows will be released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics on August 13th, 2019.

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