His novel Quai des Brumes was the source for Marcel Carné"s 1938 film of the same name, starring Jean Gabin. He was also a prolific writer of chansons, many of which were recorded and popularized by French singers such as Juliette Gréco, Monique Morelli, Catherine Sauvage, and Germaine Montero. Born in Péronne, Somme, in northern France, Mac Orlan lived in Rouen and Paris as a young man, working at a variety of jobs and learning to play the accordion.
In his twenties, he travelled widely in Europe, before returning to Paris and becoming a noted figure in Bohemian art circles.
In particular, his song performances were a regular feature at the Lapin Agile cabaret. During this period, he was part of a broad circle of writers and painters including Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, Maurice Utrillo and Francis Carco.
He fought in the war against Germany until wounded in 1916, after which he worked as a war correspondent. In later years he earned a living as a writer in Saint Cyr-sur-Morin, outside Paris.
In the late 1920s he became an influential critic of film and photography, writing important essays about the work of Eugène Atget, Germaine Krull and others
The well-known photographer of New York in the 1930s Berenice Abbott was highly influenced by Mac Orlan"s writings on the "fantastique" and the "social fantastique". The physicist Freeman Dyson, in his 2008 American Mathematical Society Albert Einstein Lecture, interprets MacOrlan"s song "Louisiana Ville Morte" ("The Dead City") as an example of the "empty city archetype", a Jungian archetype as described by mathematician Yuri I. Manin.