Wednesday, 2 May 2012
The fog: "Le Quai des Brumes"
The legendary screen tough guy Jean Gabin spent the best part of his career holing up in collaborations between the director Marcel Carné and the playwright/screenwriter Jacques Prévert. 1939's Le Jour se lève remains one of the greatest of all French films; the preceding year, however, had seen Gabin, Carné and Prévert teaming up to make Le Quai des Brumes, a more-than-useful warm-up for greatness that returns to UK cinemas this week. Here, Gabin plays a deserting legionnaire who gets off the streets of Le Havre by secreting himself away among the desperate and the drunk in the last-chance saloon known as Le Panama. He's trying to avoid trouble; naturally, he finds himself up to his thick neck in it, courtesy of a missing gangster and the very sexy beret-and-cheekbones combo of Michèle Morgan.
Hollywood would come to dress up this idea of noir: what is Le Panama, if not a shabbier, shackier version of the lonely-hearts club Rick's Bar in Casablanca, and what's the incestuous intrigue Gabin gets himself into, involving Morgan's meddling guardian Michel Simon, if not a seaside gift-shop version of The Big Sleep? (The film's final words are "kiss me, quick".) We'd have to wait until In a Lonely Place, though, for a definition of fatalism better phrased than Gabin's gloomy realisation "if it wasn't this, it'd have been something else". Even with the presence of the dumbly loyal mutt who follows the soldier everywhere he goes, Quai des Brumes knows it doesn't have to contrive an up ending for itself, because it's overwhelmingly apparent that happiness can only ever be fleeting in this universe: one promenade around a funfair with your gal before it all heads south again.
The card of its vividly excellent ensemble is only blotted by Pierre Brasseur as the primmest-looking mobster ever seen in the movies: his Lucien would surely be more at home touting hats in ladies' department stores, very nearly coming to make Jack Whitehall seem butch. Otherwise, Carné manages to transcend any latent theatricality in the material by using Le Panama as a rough-hewn base camp from which to explore, among other subjects, the outskirts of a port town in the early hours of the morning, a succession of noble suicides and squalid murders, and lives that forever appear to drift in and out with the fog. As Gabin puts it, in a moment of lucidity as the mist around him finally lifts and clears: "Buddy, we're all just passing through."
Le Quai des Brumes returns to selected cinemas from Friday.