Port of Shadows can be read as an allegory for France wavering on the edge of disaster. Much like the fog and imminent storm the barkeep’s fixed barometer represses, the threat of fascism lingered over pre-war France. Mussolini established a fascist dictatorship in Italy while both the Nazi Party and Communist groups were rising. Jean embodies the wounded spirit of pre-war France and the gangsters represent the emergent fascist powers. France longs to avoid the fearsome future of oppressive rule, just as Jean plans to escape via the ship.
However, Port of Shadows considers the nation’s failure to armor itself against incoming threats. Collective and national forces against the rising powers are viewed as fruitless. Jean (France) is ultimately shot dead by the gangsters (fascists). Panama serves as a supposed refuge from the stormy weather and communal space but ultimately offers no protection against the storm outside and the gangster’s destruction.
Port of Shadows aptly encapsulates the characteristics of French Poetic Realism. The moody, soft-focus cinematography shrouds each scene with a dismal gloom. Even the fairground scene has a lingering melancholy. Atmospheric locales define the mise-en-scene: a rundown seaside tavern surrounded by a grimy and gravelly pier, pitch-black roads surrounded by stark trees and filled with fog and narrow cobblestone streets.
Port of Shadows employs French Poetic Realism’s focus on characters from a low social milieu. Jean is a runaway war deserter with no money to speak of, and he faces off against petty crooks, gangsters, and meager drifters. The pessimistic tone of French Poetic Realism is signaled by the characters’ tortured psyche and oppressive circumstances. Jean subtly indicates that he has disturbed wartime memories and Nelly is trapped by her lecherous guardian. Characters frequently express their distaste for living. Jean indicates that life has “been pretty beastly to me so far.”
This pessimistic tone is encapsulated in the bar occupants’ exchange with a suicidal artist. He admits that he cannot paint anything beautiful without seeing the crime behind it, “I’d seen crime in a rose” and “To me a swimmer is already a drowned man.” This cynical exchange concludes that there is always something malevolent lurking underneath our daily lives. (This also functions as another allegory for the surrender to rising fascist powers) Port of Shadows fulfills the sad endings of French Poetic realism when Jean dies in Nelly’s arms. Just as the painter professed, the beauty of love is thwarted by the crime lurking underneath. Port of Shadows concludes that happiness is fleeting and corruption always wins out in the end.