In tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, we’re looking at the four classic films she made with husband and screen partner Humphrey Bogart between 1944 and 1948: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. Last week we looked at Hawks’ The Big Sleep. Today we’ll look at Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage.
Dark Passage doesn’t get any respect. It’s a fine film noir that has two things working against its reputation: 1) a hokey stylistic device, and 2) the fact that it is the least of the Bogart/Bacall vehicles.
I’ll deal with each of these criticisms in a moment. First however, the plot: Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a convict who has just busted out of prison when the film starts. He’s picked up by a talkative motorist named Baker (Clifton Young). It doesn’t take Baker long to figure out that Parry’s a fugitive, so Parry slugs him, takes off on foot and is picked up by another motorist. She’s Irene Jansen (Bacall), and surprisingly she already knows who Parry is and wants to help him. It turns out that Parry was convicted of killing his wife, and Irene followed his trial in the papers, convinced of his innocence. Before long, Parry undergoes a facelift and sets out to track down his wife’s killer.
Because the story involves plastic surgery, the makers had to come up with a way to handle Parry’s transition from one face to another. Their solution was to have the pre-facelift sections of the movie told from Parry’s point of view through a subjective use of the camera (i.e. the camera functions as his eyes, so we never see his face). The subjective camera was a hot concept in 1947. Orson Welles had planned to use it in his proposed adaptation of Heart of Darkness before abandoning the idea as unworkable. Robert Montgomery picked up the idea and shot his entire adaption of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake with a subjective camera. The results there were disastrous. Here, the technique is a bit distracting, but Daves is able to blend it a little more seamlessly into the story. For one thing, although much of the first forty minutes of the film is done subjectively, not all of it is. Daves gives himself the freedom to alternate between Parry’s point of view and a more conventional point of view that includes establishing shots. It also helps that once the facelift occurs we cut to Bogart’s lovely visage. While the subjective camera stuff is gimmicky, it has the virtue (unlike in Montgomery’s film) of serving a purpose and solving a problem presented by the story.
The other obstacle standing in the way of Dark Passage’s reputation is that it has the unfortunate distinction of being lumped together with the other Bogart/Bacall films (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Key Largo). Those movies are masterpieces (at least the first two are), and I will grant that Dark Passage does not rise to their level.
However, this is quite a fine piece of work. For one thing, Bacall is excellent. She has to carry the first half of the movie by herself because Bogart isn’t onscreen, and she also has to make Irene’s rather odd character believable. She carries off both of these tasks with great skill, and her work here is far more interesting than in Key Largo, where her job mostly consisted of staring at Bogart with longing for two hours. When Bogart does appear onscreen, he’s as good as she is. His Vincent Parry is an underacknowledged swerve for the actor. Parry isn’t a superhero like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He’s a normal guy who’s in over his head.
The first two Bogart and Bacall movies were all about the sexual tension between the leads. They were falling in love onscreen and having an affair offscreen. By the time they made Dark Passage, however, they were married. The sexual tension of the earlier work—which also owed something to the airy touch of director Howard Hawks—is here replaced by gravity. Bacall has a way of looking through Bogart, stripping him of any defensive shield. And Bogart’s mournful visage—especially his dark, heavy eyes—seems weighed down by a deep-seated knowledge of failure. This quality is perfect for Dark Passage, based as it is on an early novel by the great David Goodis, an author incapable of writing about heroes. His characters are sad, lonely, broken people. This movie glosses things up a bit, of course, but the last few scenes between Bogart and Bacall have a fragile emotionalism unlike anything else in their work together. The last shot of the film is probably the sweetest one they ever shared.
The rest of the cast is equally good. In particular, Clifton Young is a sleazy joy as Baker, the slugged motorist who resurfaces later in the movie to make trouble for Bogie and Bacall. And it is always good to see Agnes Moorehead. Here she plays Madge, an old friend of Parry’s and the key to unlocking the mystery at the center of the movie. When she was used right, there was no one more hypnotically watchable than Agnes Moorehead, and here she’s used right.
I’ve always thought Delmer Daves was an underrated director. For one thing, his movies unfailingly have a great physicality. This made him a strong hand at westerns (3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree), but it also served him well in his noir work (The Red House). His films usually have atmospheres achieved through their excellent utilization of black & white photography and even more through a mastery of art design, set decoration and camera work. Daves wasn’t a realist, but he had a realist’s eye. In Dark Passage you can almost smell the cheap apartments, the cigarette smoke, and the alcohol. Some of the film was shot on location in San Francisco, and he exploits that glorious city as well as anyone ever did.
Dark Passage isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a damn good piece of work and one that I never seem to tire of seeing again.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.