Perhaps because of the combination of title and cover, I expected Port of Shadows to be more of a noir prototype than it actually was. Instead, Port of Shadows is more La Bête Humaine than Touchez pas au grisbi - and not just because Jean Gabin made the two films in the same year (working with Carné and Renoir in one year is kind of a staggering achievement itself). Both films center around a man who is a bit of a loner, hurtling towards his personal fate through passion and principle. They are also both fairly melodramatic and aimed squarely at "the people," those huddled masses that - in the 30s especially - wanted to see their own lives on screen, however brighter they seemed to shine up there.
The film owes most of its success to Gabin, a true movie star here playing a soldier who appears to have gone AWOL just before he arrives in a bustling port town and promptly falls in love with the wrong girl. Promises are made, prides are bruised, and as always by the end a hero falls.
The film takes some time to get going, but once it does, it's easy to become invested in Gabin, even though we know very little about his background. The plot of the film and even the characters he encounters seem inconsequential - this is all about legend building, and like Bogart in The Big Sleep, Gabin seems above it all even when he's getting his hands dirty. Port of Shadows clearly went through hell in the years before Criterion's release, and a lot of the picture's grand photography is under the cover of 70 years of neglect, especially when compared to more well-known films of the time. But Carné's work still has moments that equal his star, and the film ends up being quite enjoyable for fans of pathos.