Le Quai des Brumes (1938)

Film noir may be associated with Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s but it didn't start there.  It came from Europe, and if you need evidence of this then look no further than Le Quai des Brumes, directed by Marcel CarnĂ© and released in 1938.

In terms of European influence on film noir, we often hear about the German expressionist style which took off in the 1920s, but also of note is a school of film-making which is exemplified in Le Quai des Brumes, that of Poetic Realism.

What that means is that the crummy back-alley feel of film noir, and the often impoverished urban settings and doomed romances of film noir, evolved in part from films like Le Quai des Brumes

There is also even poetry in Poetic Realism, quite often in the fanciful speeches made by the characters.  In Le Quai des Brumes, there are a few of these speeches, but the most notable are made by the actor Robert le Vigan, who plays a painter who muses for a good few minutes on art and existential angst.

Robert le Vigan, famous collabo and fascist sympathiser, musing on art and life in Le Quai des Brumes

But Le Quai des Brumes has more going for it than just that, in terms of good old film noir credentials.  If you consider its cynical, tough hero (played by French cinema legend Jean Gabin) and thr profound sense of dread and uncertainty which permeates the film, you begin to get a feel for how it (and films like it) came to inspire the noir canon.  That's even before you've looked at the stark shadows featured in many scenes and the complexities and anxieties of the mid-century urban experience that are revealed as the action tours the underbelly of the city.

Shot / Countershot and Shadow / Countershadow
Like many film noirs, Le Quai des Brumes opens with a place name - in this case Le HavreThe Maltese Falcon, City on a Hunt, Chinatown at Midnight, Shadow of a Woman and Nora Prentiss all open with the words San Fancisco printed or said, but if these films are tour guides, then like Le Quai des Brumes, they are of a demented and dangerous kind.

As in film noir, the characters of Le Quai des Brumes are misfits and double-crossers, and although we see many familiar public spaces, like a main street, or the fair, or the docks, these are places of violence and murder.

It appeared that the world wasn't quite ready for this level of noir in 1938, and while Le Quai des Brumes was widely enjoyed, the moral arbiters of the world were not ready for something that was so deparved that it focused not only on crime, but on a man who lies his way into bed with a woman, and a woman that is happy to be lied to for this end.  It is also a tragic tale, which makes a hero of an army deserter, something that was not popular when the war began, and so it was pulled from the cinemas for a while, despite winning a major French award.

Jean Gabin's character in Le Quai des Brumes is not an innocent man, but he is a moral hero, always standing up for what is right, despite his murky past.  And of course, in classic noir mode, it is this moral stance against the criminals of society that gets him into trouble.

Le Quai des Brumes was certainly well-made however.  The camera work, acting, direction and scene-setting are all top drawer and make it well worth watching today, as does the music, which is perfectly evocative of the hope, romance, hopelessness and menace the film presents.  

There is something else, and that is the fact that in Le Quai des Brumes there is a full on, genuine, wonderful, heartstring-tugging love story, showing two pure-hearted people loving each other with no malice or ulterior motives.  You don't often see that in film noir, but it is a great aspect of Le Quai des Brumes, the amazing hope expressed in the love story.

Perhaps that is down to the so-called Poetic Realism of the movie.  Either way, you can grab a sense of what that music is like by watching this trailer for Le Quai des Brumes:

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