Unfortunately, and puzzlingly, it's not even a hundredth as good as Les Enfants. It's the moody tale of Jean (Jean Gabin), a deserting soldier who makes his way to Le Havre hoping to board a ship for foreign parts. Instead, he becomes entangled with all sorts of doomed and dubious characters. There's Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), a rich boy who's set himself up as a small-time hood and drives about town with a bunch of cronies as though he owns the place. There's shady antiques dealer Zabel (Michel Simon), who keeps a beady eye on all the town's goings-on. And then there's Zabel's god-daughter Nelly (Michelle Morgan), who finds a small measure of freedom in sneaking off to various insalubrious nightspots. She's in agonies over the sudden disappearance of an old beau, who also seems to have been somewhat dodgy. How will she ever get over it? Here's an idea – kiss her, Jean!
But now Jean's torn. Love or freedom? A boat to Venezuela? Or a tumble in the sack with Nelly? Worse, he's at odds with Zabel and Lucien, who both like to think they have dibs on the town hottie. Needless to say, it all ends in tears and the spillage of much vin rouge.
There are worse stories, so why does Le Quai des Brumes make such painful viewing? The first obstacle to pleasure is Jean, who strikes one from the start as a bit of a merde puante. Our introduction to him is a sequence where he hitches a lift in a truck, only to seize the steering wheel and send it plunging dangerously off the road to avoid hitting a dog. When the driver protests, Jean invites him to step out of the cab for the French version of a knuckle sandwich. These actions are presumably supposed to mark him out as reckless, unconventional and a bit of a softy, as least as regards out four-legged friends. And who knows, perhaps they conveyed all those things in 1938. But in 2012 they leave you reeling from their stupidity. To be fair, he never does anything quite so obnoxious again, but he remains a dullard. And anyway the damage is done.
The second problem with the film, from a modern standpoint, is its vitiating air of pretension. The script, by poet turned screenwriter Jacques Prevert, takes what is basically a nasty little tale of dockside lowlife and injects it with symbolism and intellectual gravitas. But the effect is less weighty than gassy, as the screen fills with characters ruminating with shakes of the head on the meaning of life. And these two problems compound each other. Why make a reflective talk-piece, and then have an utter plank as your central character?
At his best, Gabin was a pioneer of the sorts of performances that seem impassive, yet speak volumes. Here, though, he's histrionic and strutting. But the saddest thing is seeing Pierre Brasseur – who, in Les Enfants, plays the rakish actor Frederick Lemaitre with such unforgettable humour and charm – making a bit of a knob of himself in the role of the weasely Lucien. Still, it's not all bad news. The last reel is definitely better than the first. And there's always Nelly. Attired in a beret and a transparent raincoat, her eyes soft as raindrops, her teeth glinting like pearls, she definitely seems worth all the trouble; and she brings the film's only true moments of poetry.