Marcel, born in Paris, the son of a cabinet maker, entered the movies as the assistant of Jacques Feyder. At the age of 25 he directed his first movie Jenny (1936). Colaborating with the writer Jacques Prévert, the decorator Alexandre Trauner, the musician and composer Maurice Jaubert and the actor Jean Gabin he became the great director of the pre-war era of the French cinema with the poetic realism style (e.g. Hôtel du Nord (1938)).
During the ocupation of France by Nazi-Germany he worked in the zone of the government of Vichy making Les Enfants du paradis (1945), a clear anti-nazi parabola and all time classic of French cinema. After having been confronted with a purge trial he went on filming but none of his later movies could catch up with his former works.
After the war, Carné's poetic realism became unfashionable and his association with Prévert ended in 1946 after the failure of Les Portes de la nuit and the cancellation of La Fleur de l'âge. Carné continued making films, scoring a notable popular success with his 1958 film Les Tricheurs.
Carné's last feature film, La Merveilleuse visite (1974), about a beautiful young man who turns out to be an angel visiting Earth, is an allegory in which male beauty is used as an indicator of innocence.
During the 1970s, Carné issued several statements to the press indicating that he wished the openness of the post-Stonewall era had been available to him earlier in his career. Although he regretted that he had not infused his work with a political consciousness about his gayness, he believed that his partiality to themes of impossible romance derived from his acute awareness of the societal oppression of homosexuals.
He was an outspoken champion of filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who politicized questions of gender and sexual orientation.
However, under the onslaught of negative criticism from the founders of the French New Wave, his filmmaking career soon fell into decline. His final film, La Mouche, was begun in 1992, but never completed. He died in Clamart, Hauts-de-Seine, Île-de-France.