Jean Gabin did not receive an Oscar nomination portraying Jean in Port of Shadows.
Well if one is speaking of actors with the most range of the period, one must speak the name of Jean Gabin within that context as well if one is speaking of early sound cinema. Gabin though is that notable, and always potent combination of the considerable actor, but also a proper star. The idea of his range is particularly well supported by his work in 1938 with this film and The Human Beast which share the similarity of a man being caught within a bad situation somewhat out of his control, yet very different within the characters in how that comes about. What is a most remarkable talent with a performer though also is even working within similarities there are key differences within the performances. Gabin is an actor with that talent here in that on the surface there are similarities, however the performances are properly dissimilar. This is seen from the outset as Gabin delivers a man of a wholly different burden in the opening scene. This is fascinating though just to watch Gabin play such subtle yet important differences, as his Jean hitches a ride with a truck driver. Gabin is burdened by a somber expression, however it is one that seems less to pertain to the man as his very being, but rather just the current state of his existence.
Gabin finds this balance within only his expression even of this sadness that essentially doesn't run too deep, as he reveals no pain within the man in terms of a truly burdened mental distress rather alluding to a more recent difficulty of his life. There is more within this though as Gabin delivers this natural soulfulness within his performance here that creates not only an inherent sympathy towards Jean as a character, but also so well alludes to the nature of the man even within his distressed state. This is as Gabin, even in this overarching somber state, doesn't portray even a hint of bitterness or hatred within his gaze. He presents a man well aware of his troubles, yet also not a man who seems to blame others for them. This is even further realized as Jean stops the truck driver, he's hitched a ride with, from hitting a stray dog, which leads the two to nearly come to blows. Now in the moment of the action, I love the unassuming morality that Gabin expresses, as the action is just of a man who simply has this need to do the right thing. When explaining his action Gabin delivers such an earnest conviction, yet so modestly within his delivery as again a man who just simply has to do that righteous act, yet in no way intends to boast of it.
That action though does lead to a near fight that Jean diffuses quickly in what is just a brilliant moment for Gabin, and the sheer unique magnetism he has in the role. Gabin again is very calm, very internalized in style as he plays it as Jean so calmly explaining that there is no reason to fight, while also asking for cigarette. Gabin is wholly convincing in this moment by bringing such an earnest goodness that he makes exude from the character through his meek expression, but also his wholly genuine while also unpretentious manner of speaking. Gabin uses this brief interaction to so successfully establish the nature of the man, that establishes Jean as such a congenial protagonist even within his current state. Jean moves on to become involved in a bit of the shadowy underground of the city merely by seeking refuge in the wrong place at a dive bar. Gabin in these moments is particularly interesting as this reactionary protagonist within the story, as he largely observes the others within the seedy world, however is never truly inactive. Gabin rather presents a man who essentially has come to be drawn within himself, which we see early as he expresses his hunger, while also noting his pride from having to do so earlier. Gabin in the moment presents so effectively this man who is burdened by his current situation, however most directly by his initial unwillingness to take the simple ways out of it.
Gabin realizes Jean as the soldier who had to desert long before we are given this information, by this natural reluctance in attitude of a man who has just escaped from something, which is currently defining his behavior however doesn't wholly define the man. Gabin portrays the state as purposefully thin, which we see more of as his place in the bar leads him to interacting with a low grade gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), a wannabe runaway Nelly (Michele Morgan) and her creepy "protective" godfather Zabel (Michel Simon). In each of the interactions Gabin is able to allude to the state of mind of Jean where he essentially speaks and acts in a certain way as is fitting to his position. Within the interactions with the two men there is an initial lack of concern that Gabin presents through this exasperation fitting to a man on a run, who intends to run more by taking a ship to Venezuela. In turn these interactions Gabin delivers a lack of concern in both his blunt delivery in his less flattering attitudes towards them, but also in a certain indifference to their responses realizing a man who believes he will be gone from his current situation soon. The relationship with Nelly is quite different though where we technically we should have traditionally charming Gabin. Gabin to fall upon that type of charm though would be ill-fitting for the character, yet Gabin still realizes his usual charisma however in a way that is proper to the deserter Jean. When he initially speaks to her, he does so somewhat callously of a man who again is on his way out, however Gabin presents this as a facade in regards towards Nelly as even in his most negative statements Gabin grants an undercurrent of the disingenuous. He plays it in that moment of the charm naturally coming out, as he shows so effectively Jean's immediate infatuation with her, even as the man feels he should be the "bitter ex-soldier" in the current moment.
Gabin uses this so well to grant an impact through the romance by quietly bringing a more overt charm and warmth within his performance. What is key though is he evokes this from the first interaction, and makes it a gradually growing revelation of what was already there. Gabin never just becomes charming in say the Pepe Le Moko way, but rather stays true to the character by still handling this with a great degree of modesty that not only is fitting towards how he established Jean in the opening scene, but also fitting to the man in his somewhat desperate circumstances. Gabin reveals that as Jean opens up it is perhaps a better man in creating a moving romance with Morgan's Nellie, while still even in these moments alluding to that weight on the man's mind due to his circumstances. Gabin carefully opens up though in allowing that greater warmth, and creating the right poignancy within the interactions between the two. Interactions that become more difficult through increasing suspicions of others particularly her godfather, which eventually leads to a confrontation. The confrontation that is a great scene by Gabin even as he reveals a more outgoing individual than the careful soldier of the opening of the film, he still shows the same nature of the act as he does what he believes is the right thing, just as when he saved the dog. Gabin in the moment brings similar almost instinct like manner to the act though with a greater intensity fitting that Jean is removing a problem rather than saving a life. Gabin is able to portray the transformation well of the closed off soldier, to a still modest, but now loving man, while carefully maintaining that nature of the man, which defines Jean's story from the opening to the final scene. Gabin delivers his second great performance from 38 that also realizes a man who becomes lost in a dark web, however through his powerful performance creates an alternative path, and a different man who becomes almost accidentally lost into shadow.