Delmer Davies, 1947
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead
Vincent Parry, mistakenly sent to jail for killing his wife, escapes from prison and begins hitchhiking across California. A man picks him up, but hears about Parry’s escape on the radio; he is forced to beat the man unconscious and flee. A beautiful young woman, Irene Jansen, picks him up and hides him in her trunk to get to San Francisco. She knows who he is and wants to help, but Parry’s poisonous ex-girlfriend Madge shows up, forcing him to flee. Madge knew Parry’s wife and testified against him at his trial. It turns out that Irene is willing to help him because her father was also falsely accused of murder, and she believes strongly in Parry’s innocence. He happens to run into a cab driver who recognizes him, but the man is sympathetic and takes Parry to get facial surgery, potentially allowing him to escape. Sparks fly between he and Irene during his recovery time, but he knows trouble is just around the corner. Parry intends to flee to an undisclosed location south of the border and hopes that Irene will meet him, but Madge stands in his way…
Though Dark Passage was somewhat maligned by critics, I think it is an underrated and unfairly maligned film. This is the third (out of four) films that Bogie and Bacall appeared in together and is technically noteworthy because of the first-person POV shot it employs for the first thirty minutes of the film. This is due to the fact that Bogart’s character initially has a difference face and only appears to look like Bogart after surgery. Critics and audiences at the time where disturbed that Bogart only appears in shadow or dialogue for the first thirty minutes and bandages for the second thirty minutes, but I think this profoundly emphasizes the films themes of identity, agency, and responsibility.
It also struck a powerful chord and reminded me of Universal and classic-era horror. In the opening of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), star Frederic March appears in first-person P.O.V., moving through his house until the shot ends when he looks in the mirror. In Dark Passage, after Bogart’s surgery, he spends a significant amount of time in bandages, which reminded me inevitably of The Invisible Man, as well as the Peter Lorre film The Face Behind the Mask (1941), where a well-meaning immigrant recently arrived to New York is disfigured in a fire and can only make a living as a gangster. In all three of these films, the physically transformed protagonist turns to evil, emotionally damaging the woman he loves and putting her in physical danger. It seemed inevitable that Bogart’s Victor Parry would take this path in Dark Passage.
Based on a novel of the same name by hardboiled writer David Goodis, director Delmar Davies (The Red House) also wrote the flawed script. There are plenty of plot holes – for instance, everyone Parry encounters knows who he is and is in some way involved with him – but these flaws oddly work in the film’s favor, giving it a dark, almost surreal tone. The incredibly complicated plot rivals something Raymond Chandler would write, but it is actually a simplified version of Goodis’ original tale. Though I haven’t yet read the book, I suspect the script’s glossing over of Goodis’ complexities resulted in all the plot holes.
There is a nightmarish sense of logic at work – coincidences occur in nearly every scene and there is a strong feeling of unreality throughout the film. While other film noir efforts deal with the concept of fate, Dark Passages instead seems to expose Parry to a series of obstacles and disappointments not to further damn him, but to remove him from his current reality – his life in San Francisco – and push him towards a tropical dream world, where he and Irene can fade away into the sunset. Both of these characters have an odd sense of death, or possibly un-life, about them. Even though Irene does not share Parry’s doomed fate (a return to prison, escape, or death), her character has a sense of waiting, a feeling of not existing without Parry.
Though Bogart’s performance leaves nothing to complain about, this is really Bacall’s film. For maybe the only time in their cinematic partnership is she able to stand on her own. She is excellent -- mysterious, lovely, and a strange mix of determined and naïve – and the camera lingers expertly on the shadows and contours of her face. There’s another strong performance from Agnes Moorehead, who gives one of the best and most uncharacteristic performances of her career as the maniacal femme fatale, Madge. Though she is given limited screen time, her character presents an otherworldly portrait of obsessive love that gets under the skin. Her death scene, which I will not spoil here is jarring, abrupt, and utterly unexpected.
Houseley Stevenson, Tom D’Andrea, Clifton Young, and Rory Mallison are all memorable in colorful, well-written side roles. Stevenson is particularly great as the questionable, yet charismatic surgeon. His scene with Bogart reminded me powerfully of the scene in Tim Burton’s Batman, where the Joker goes to a hack surgeon and wakes up with a colorful face and a demented smile. After the dizzying dream sequence during the surgery scene in Dark Passage, I was waiting for something similarly disfiguring to happen to Bogart.
The final thing worth mentioning is the cityscape. The favorite city of film noir and hardboiled fiction, San Francisco looks particularly dark and unsettling here and almost becomes a character itself. Dark Passage benefits greatly from the cinematography of Sid Hickox (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep), which makes the rolling hills and pleasant vistas threatening and uncertain, with danger always lying in wait.
Dark Passage is certainly a flawed, meandering work, but it comes highly recommended. Available on DVD or as part of the Bogie and Bacall Signature Collection DVD box set alongside The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and To Have and Have Not, Bogie and/or Bacall fans, as well as anyone interested in unusual, off-the-beaten-path film noir will want to check this out.