Though short on Criterion's usual assortment of extras, the real star (which is as it should be) is the transfer of Marcel Carne's taut little suspense-drama, featuring sympathetic Jean Gabin as the man on the lam, and radiant Michele Morgan as the mysterious woman.
The interior sets and soundstage locations come off the best, with near-flawless black & white images of optimum clarity. Where things get a bit rough are visible compression during some of the foggy night shots; many already heavy with grain from the optical effects. When dissolving between locations and some low-light night shots, the grain level is quite pronounced, sometimes even between specific shorts within a few interior scenes.
The distraction between print grain and stark clarity is lessened, however, by Jacques Prevert's beautiful and engaging dialogue. Though also known as one of France's top poets, Prevert's sparse language conveys unsaid character conflicts and longings, and cineastes weaned on standard Hollywood fare of the era will find the more adult relationship between Gabin and Morgan a welcome surprise; for our unwed lovers, there's no single bed nonsense here, and a passionate kiss isn't covered by a sudden head tilt or dark shadow over the lips. Their onscreen romance is unusually mature, and certainly strengthens our empathy when dark subjects begin to materialize.
Also of note is the surprisingly crisp mono soundtrack, nicely cleaned up to balance all sonic elements. Maurice Jaubert's rapturous score - sparsely used, but highly effective in the film - really resonates.
A French-German co-production, the film's position as a sublime example of "poetic realism" is nicely described in Luc Sante's introduction to the thick booklet. Royal S. Brown, a longtime film and film music scholar, has filled out the remaining pages with extracts from Carne's 1996 autobiography that summarize the film's rather unwanted production (only Carne, Prevert, and Gabin kept the script's integrity intact during shooting), and some of the edits made to keep French censors happy at the time.
Note: The less you know about the story, the better - and avoid the spoiler-heavy trailer until after the film, as it blows chunks of the denouement!
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan