One of the quintessential images of pre-war French cinema was the almond-eyed Michèle Morgan, dressed in trench coat and beret, trying to grab some happiness together with the doomed army deserter, Jean Gabin, in a sombre fogbound port in Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938). “You have beautiful eyes, you know,” Gabin tells her. “Kiss me,” she replies.

It was the first film in which the distinctive melancholic “poetic realism” of the director Marcel Carné and the screenwriter Jacques Prévert expressed itself. The then 18-year-old Morgan had already been in pictures for three years, yet never again in her long career would she appear in a role so perfectly suited to her, that of the beautiful, mysterious waif, old beyond her years.

Following Le Quai des Brumes, Morgan, who has died aged 96, was paired once more with the great Gabin, with whom she had a brief affair, in Jean Grémillon’s Remorques (Stormy Waters, 1941), another gloomy tale of doomed love, with Morgan again falling for a married man. On the strength of her performances in these successful films, Morgan was offered a Hollywood contract by RKO Pictures.

In Hollywood, she found that “RKO didn’t know what to do with me. I spent the first year perfecting my English, then I made two films, both of them stinkers.” The first was Joan of Paris (1942), a competent resistance drama in which Morgan, as a Parisian barmaid, nobly sacrifices herself to help a Free French flyer (Paul Henreid, also in his Hollywood debut) and four RAF flyers escape the Gestapo. Higher and Higher (1943) was a pleasant enough musical with Morgan as a scullery maid who impersonates a debutante in order to attract a wealthy man (Frank Sinatra, in his first acting role).

Michèle Morgan with Jean Gabin in Le Quai des Brumes (1938). YouTube

In the same year, Morgan tested for Casablanca, and was extremely disappointed at losing out to Ingrid Bergman over contractual problems. Her pain was slightly assuaged when she landed the follow-up picture, Passage to Marseilles (1944), with the same director, Michael Curtiz, and several of the same cast. Morgan seems to spend most of the movie looking up at the sky waiting for her flyer husband, played by Humphrey Bogart, to return to her.

“It was a wartime melodrama full of propaganda,” she recalled, “although Hollywood at that time couldn’t have been more remote from the war. I didn’t enjoy doing the film. At the time I was single, bored and unhappy with Hollywood. It seemed very unreal to me then.”

She was not single for long and married a minor American actor, William Marshall, with whom she had a son, Mike, in 1944. (He also became an actor.) After the marriage broke up, Morgan returned to France.

Back on home territory, after liberation, Morgan immediately re-established herself as one of her country’s pre-eminent screen actors with her performance as the blind orphan girl in La Symphonie Pastorale (Pastoral Symphony, 1946), Jean Delannoy’s sensitive adaptation of André Gide’s novella. Morgan, whose performance earned her the inaugural best actress award at Cannes, managed to communicate the girl’s innermost thoughts through her expressive eyes.

In Britain, Morgan was moving as the devoted mistress of Ralph Richardson as a butler at a foreign embassy in London, in Carol Reed’s masterly The Fallen Idol (1948), co-written by Graham Greene. She then took the title role in Fabiola (1949), the most expensive film made in Italy at that time. In this costume epic, she was the daughter of a senator who falls for a secretly Christian gladiator, played by Henri Vidal, whom Morgan married soon after.

They made three further films together, all rather hackneyed melodramas, before Vidal’s death of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of 40: La Belle Que Voilà (Here is the Beauty, 1950), L’Etrange Madame X (The Strange Madame X, 1951), and Pourquoi Viens-tu Si Tard? (Too Late to Love, 1959). Morgan married the director-actor Gérard Oury in 1960.

She was born Simone Renée Roussel in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a wealthy suburb of Paris. At 14, after her bourgeois parents moved to Dieppe, she ran away from home to Paris to stay with her grandmother, who arranged for her to study drama with René Simon, the founder of the Cours Simon drama school. After some film work as an extra, one of her first speaking roles was as a schoolgirl in Le Mioche (40 Girls and a Baby, 1936).

It was Marc Allégret who gave Morgan both her big break and screen name (with an eye on international stardom) in two films. In both, she is innocently involved with married men, the first played by Raimu in Gribouille (Heart of Paris, 1937), in which she played a penniless young woman on trial for manslaughter, and the second by Charles Boyer in Orage (Storm, 1938). Morgan thought herself dreadful in the latter because “I was terrified of Boyer.”

Following her 1930s and 40s heyday, Morgan was kept busy during the stagnant 1950s period of French cinema in several mediocre commercial productions, and her status as a monstre sacré grew. She appeared as Joan of Arc in the portmanteau movie Daughters of Destiny (1954), and as Josephine Bonaparte in one of the series of vignettes that made up Sacha Guitry’s Napoléon (1955).

The rot was stopped temporarily by René Clair’s Summer Manoeuvres (Les Grands Manoeuvres, 1955), a gently ironic romantic comedy in which Morgan as a standoffish divorcee is seduced by a handsome dragoon (Gérard Philipe). In Claude Autant-Lara’s updating of the Faust legend, Marguerite de la Nuit (1955), she was beautiful enough to sell one’s soul for.

Hollywood claimed her once more for The Vintage (1957), a dud drama set in the vineyards of the Midi. More challenging was her role in André Cayatte’s Le Miroir à Deux Faces (The Mirror Has Two Faces, 1958) as a bored, ugly duckling wife transformed by plastic surgery into the glamorous Michèle Morgan that audiences knew and loved.

In fact, despite her ignoring and being ignored by the French New Wave, she continued to be high in the popularity polls in France for many years to come, even when she started playing ageing beauties in minor vehicles. Her last Hollywood film, Lost Command (1966) – a turgid action movie about the Algerian war – was no better than her others. After Benjamin (The Diary of an Innocent Boy, 1968), a ribald comedy set in the 18th century, and one of the few of her more recent films that she actually liked, Morgan spent most of her time with her silk tie fashion business, Cravates Michèle Morgan. In the year of her temporary retirement, 1969, she became a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

She returned to the screen six years later in Claude Lelouche’s glossy thriller Cat and Mouse (1975) as a woman suspected of killing her wealthy husband, then continued her career in the occasional film, a TV mini-series, and on stage, retaining the elegance that one associates with French female stars from a bygone era. She received an honorary César award in 1992 for her contributions to French cinema, and in 2014 was elevated to the grand croix of the Légion d’honneur.

Morgan’s son died in 2005; her husband in 2006. She is survived by six grandchildren.

Michèle Morgan (Simone Renée Roussel), actor, born 29 February 1920; died 20 December 2016