March 15, 2011  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows

Port of Shadows. 1938. France. Directed by Marcel Carné

Port of Shadows. 1938. France. Directed by Marcel Carné

These notes accompany the screenings of Marcel Carné’s </i>Port of Shadows</a> on March 16, 17, and 18 in Theater 3.</p>

Last week, in writing about Walt Disney and Snow White</a>, I suggested a seeming disconnect between Disney’s entrepreneurial values and the sunlit, romantic fairyland of his films. This pointed up a possible imperfection in the auteur theory that suggests great filmmakers find a way to make a collaborative effort into a means of personal expression. A good cop-out here would be to say this resulted from Disney’s role as studio head and producer, but that is too easy. I hope to explore this further when we show Pinocchio in a few weeks. Meanwhile, Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) raises other interesting questions.</p>

Marcel Carné (1909–1996) shared the fate of René Clair (whom he assisted on Sous les toits de Paris [Under the Roofs of Paris]), peaking early in his career and then spending several decades in evident decline. In Carné’s case, there was a cogent argument that his best films were all written by Jacques Prévert (1900–1977), the distinguished poet and songwriter. (Prévert’s “Autumn Leaves” was made famous by Yves Montand and Edith Piaf, and in English by Johnny Mercer.) Both Clair (a less accomplished poet) and Prévert shared a background in the French surrealist movement of the 1920s, and both Under the Roofs of Paris and Port of Shadows are examples of “poetic realism.” Prévert’s role in Carné’s career opens up a fundamental controversy that auteurists have had to squabble over for more than half a century.

Long, long ago in a universe far, far away (The Hamptons), I was an eyewitness to two successive incidents wherein famous screenwriters lay in wait to ambush auteurist critic Andrew Sarris at an intimate dinner party. These guys had years of pent-up resentment at Andy’s apparently cavalier underestimation of their craft. It was not a pretty sight. What needs to be said, I think, is that a really good screenwriter works in close collaboration with a really good director. This closeness and mutual respect allows the writer to anticipate and articulate what the director visualizes. I think of teams like Jules Furthman and Josef von Sternberg; Furthman, again, and Howard Hawks; Frank Nugent and John Ford; or Samson Raphaelson and Ernst Lubitsch. There are significant cases of writers who ultimately are most comfortable in directing their own scripts: Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Blake Edwards, to name a few. Then there are director/writers too idiosyncratically obsessed (Charles Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman) to provide much guidance on where the boundary lies between the two functions.

In the case of Prévert and Carné, there may be some clue in the two films Prévert wrote for Jean Renoir in the mid 1930s, essentially before his stint with Carné: Le crime de Monsieur Lange and Une partie de champagne. These are among Renoir’s best films, both funny and romantic, and they are extremely unlike the great somber, atmospheric Carné/Prévert tragedies of the late 1930s, such as Port of Shadows and Le jour se leve (Daybreak). Prévert gave each director what that director needed, and he was talented enough allow his persona to be subsumed in deference to his craft. So, in a sense, this is an unresolvable chicken-and-egg conundrum. The team went on to make Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise) in 1945. It is arguably the most French of all movies, and although it was made under the German occupation, its premiere (66 years ago last week), just after the liberation of Paris, seemed to trumpet a new liberation for French cinema. Regrettably, Carné and Prévert never regained their prewar magic.

I would be remiss in not giving credit to the great actor Jean Gabin (1904–1976), especially since we were not able to show La grande illusion. Gabin was like Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, and John Wayne rolled into one. He had the face of the construction worker and auto mechanic he had been, and he projected a sexuality (just ask Marlene Dietrich) that anticipated the equally homely Jean-Paul Belmondo. He worked with nearly all the great French directors, from Maurice Tourneur to Max Ophuls. Without Gabin, Port of Shadows might have been just another potboiler. With him, it’s an existential text evoking the mystery of the cosmos—and a damn good movie, too.