The Wellspring of Noir: Marcel Carné’s Le Quai Des Brumes (1938) – Blu-ray review
Le Quai Des Brumes isn’t the reason that ‘film noir’ has a French name, but it may as well be.
Le Quai des Brumes
(Marcel Carne, 1938)
The first thing that strikes you about Le Quai Des Brumes is how many times you’ve seen it before. The troubled drifter walking into town. The trenchcoated girl you just know is going to be trouble. The local gangsters itching for a fight. This is film noir as painted in countless American movies of the 1940s – but check the date: 1938. Le Quai Des Brumes predates them all.
There’s a good reason for this. While it was easy enough for Hollywood to get gloomy after Pearl Harbour changed the rules of engagement, in France, looking nervously across the border towards Germany, that kind of fatalism came much earlier. What kind of future was possible? Here, a soldier sees war as a lost cause and does a runner, while a painter can’t help but see pain in everyday life and so chooses to take his own life to escape it. Meanwhile, the weak minded play-act as criminals or are emotionally crippled by quasi-incestuous feelings. Le Quai Des Brumes – like the following year’s La Règle Du Jeu – that got the authorities hot under the collar. Marcel Carné and his screenwriter Jacques Prévert originally wanted to set the story in Hamburg, until Josef Goebbels realised what the story’s pessimism was getting at.
It’s hard to distance Le Quai Des Brumes from its history, because viewed objectively it is the slightest of stories – a wisp of a melodrama whose resolution is apparent early on. Whatever was once innovative or imaginative about this film at the narrative level has long been strip-mined by magpie talents across the Atlantic; worse, as a prototype for a whole mood of filmmaking, much of this looks timid now, especially in the indecision over how ‘bad’ to make Michel Simon’s villain.
Yet look at how this now over-familiar story is told. It could have been hot air; instead it’s a cold draught, as fresh and bracing as ever. Carné and Prévert called their approach to filmmaking ‘poetic realism,’ and it’s still a great name for a style that is so simple and yet so slippery. Carné’s direction hinges on filming the vast majority of the story (even exteriors) in the studio, to create a self-contained world that is recognisable but just off-kilter from reality. It’s never as extreme as the German Expressionism which influenced Carné, but the shadows are still there.
Interestingly, the film is set in Le Havre, location for Aki Kaurismaki’s recent deadpan comedy of the same name. Judging from Kaurismaki, it’s an eye-catching place in real life, but Carné’s recreation of it is something else – an uncanny refuge of the mind, a dreamlike fugue. This isn’t neo-realism but a fantasia of gloom in which the marginalised inhabitants are drawn towards escape but trapped by psychological inertia, holed up in a seaside shack for shelter and drink. ‘Panama’s bar’ is the kind of place that the gregarious Howard Hawks would make friendly and hospitable in Only Angels Have Wings or To Have And Have Not, but Carné gives it a kind of forlorn helplessness, even in the face of Édouard Delmont’s benevolent owner.
Meanwhile, going head-to-head are the key French actors of the 1930s, Jean Gabin and Michel Simon, stamping their authority so hard on the fragile material it bends to their will. Don’t doubt the part Gabin and Simon play in subverting the story’s clichés; Le Quai Des Brumes is to its era what Heat’s tussle between De Niro and Pacino was to the 1990s. Both are brusque and brutal-looking figures, lacking the comfort of matinee idol stars. Gabin is a terse refugee from society; Simon an impish devil refusing to play by the rules. The film keeps them apart as long as it can, but there’s clearly going to be a reckoning – and even now, the sense of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object is palpable.