THE LOWER DEPTHS (Les Bas-fonds)
PORT OF SHADOWS (Le Quai des brumes)
(THE CRITERION COLLECTION)
It's probably just a happy coincidence, but a few years ago I sent the Criterion Collection people an impassioned e-mail practically begging them to release films that starred the great French (and subsequently international) cinema icon Jean Gabin (1904 -1976) on dvd, and, lo and behold, within short order that Rolls Royce of dvd releasing outfits richly rewarded Gabin fans with not only a supernaturally pristine transfer of Jean Renoir's 1937 master-work LA GRANDE ILLUSION but an almost equally fine transfer of Julien Duvivier's 1936 deliriously romantic PEPE le MOKO (which is, in my opinion, the very first true film noir ), and this year the recent release of Marcel Carne's PORT OF SHADOWS as well as Renoir's THE LOWER DEPTHS and FRENCH CAN-CAN (which is included in the delightful new Renoir collection which also houses the non-Gabin features THE GOLDEN COACH and ELENA AND HER MEN) is further cause for celebration.
It may be called THE LOWER DEPTHS, but Renoir's rendition of Gorky's relentlessly depressing depiction of the "bottom of life" inhabitants of a dingy and sordid flophouse changes the hopelessly down-beat stance of its original source material to a far more positive and hopeful tone to such a fantastic extent that a more fitting title might be THE UPPER DEPTHS, the alteration of which, as far as I'm concerned, is a very good thing. (The far less entertaining but more faithful Kurosawa version is thoughtfully included as a second disc in this set.)
The fact that Renoir made a conscious choice, for then current social and political reasons, to never let his derelicts sink quite to the depths, offering them (and us!) the possibility of hope, transforms what might have been a dirge of a film into a continuously entertaining and stimulating experience , which is enhanced by the luminous performances of Gabin (his initial collaboration with Renoir) as the thief, and the wonderful Louis Jouvet as the Count, and an excellent supporting cast. (If the scenes depicting the unexpectedly close friendship of the thief and the Count don't leave you with a smile on your face, you're made of stone!)
Marcel Carne's PORT OF SHADOWS is justifiably regarded as a classic of the French cinematic golden age as well as a typical example of the kind of poetic realism that a French director at the height of his powers could achieve. Only an actor of the rarified ilk of Jean Gabin could portray an Army deserter looking for just one more chance to make good on life with such incredible empathy that he instantly establishes a bond between character and audience in a unique manner that very few other actors could accomplish or equal. Indeed, this is the quintessential Gabin role - an earthy, courageous, independently minded loner and outsider who is a member of the bourgeois or working class. No film that I've ever seen is capable of conjuring up bittersweet emotions with more delicacy and taste than PORT OF SHADOWS, one of the greatest cinematic treasures that I've ever experienced.
FRENCH CAN-CAN, on the other hand, is a light, joyous, brightly colored and completely delectable bon-bon of a motion picture which uses the cancan as an exuberant metaphor for all artistic endeavors and showcases a degree of affinity for color photography that only a Renoir could engender, and while some persnickety viewers might comment negatively on the comparatively languid pacing and insubstantial story-line, there's no getting around the fact that, if you're in the proper frame of mind, this featherweight concoction can be a very relaxing and enjoyable affair, aided to an enormous extent by the prodigious charisma of the middle-aged Gabin, whose peformance in a comparatively non-taxing role gives this featherweight trifle the strong foundation which it so sorely needs.
In true Criterion tradition the full-screen (1.33:1 ) transfers of the black and white THE LOWER DEPTHS and especially PORT OF SHADOWS are very good indeed, with a sharpness, black level and gray scale that do complete justice to the consistently superb and moody photography, and words cannot convey the level of variety and richness of color inherent in every scene of the full-screen FRENCH CAN-CAN, that this eye-poppingly luminous transfer renders with such painstakingly accurate precision.
And now, dear Criterion folk, may we be so bold as to make further suggestions regarding some memorable Gabin films that have yet to see the dvd light of day: Renoir's LA BETE HUMAINE (How about combining it with Fritz Lang's inferior but watchable Columbia remake HUMAN DESIRE?), Max Ophuls' LE PLAISIR, FOUR BAGS FULL with Fernandel, THE CASE OF DR LAURENT which was severely cut stateside because of an authentic birth scene, INSPECTOR MAIGRET, LOVE IS MY PROFESSION which costarred Brigitte Bardot under the direction of Henri-Georges Clouzot and was severely cut in its U.S. release, MONKEY IN WINTER with Jean-Paul Belmondo, THE SICILIAN CLAN , which 20th Century Fox released in the U.S. only in an atrociously dubbed version , DEADLIER THAN THE MALE, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, and LE CHAT (with Simone Signoret). (Of course, Gabin starred in scores of other fine films not mentioned here which we'd be delighted to see ------- are you still listening, Criterion? )