(Check out my previous film noir essay here: Key Largo)
1947’s Dark Passage was the third out of four films in which Bogart and Bacall would co-star. And when it was released it was something of a big achievement in film history. For the first hour and one minute of the film, the audience doesn’t see the face of the protagonist and nearly everything is shot from his perspective. Such use of the subjective camera was not a novel concept as it had first been used twenty years prior on Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon, as well as in another noir, Lady in the Lake, earlier in January of 1947. But whereas the technique was used sparingly in the former example, Dark Passage uses the technique for much longer. And whereas the latter example used the subjective camera throughout the film, the camera seems to have been put to more novel use in Dark Passage, but more on that later.
The film was directed by Delmer Daves, a filmmaker who began in the classical period as a screenwriter. Under his belt before turning directing in the early 1940s include two unqualified classics in Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (1928) and the proto-noir legend The Petrified Forest (1936): though this last designation confuses me as Fritz Lang and other emigres were pouring into the American Hollywood system since the early 1930s and producing films like Lang’s Fury (1935) and You Only Live Once (1937). Likewise, American directors like Michael Curtiz and Joseph von Sternberg had been creating films that resemble film noirs of the forties in lighting, camera work, themes, and philosophy since the late 20s. But that’s the problem with noir, or any genre, in the classification. Daves would shoot noirs throughout the forties and move strongly in the direction of Westerns in the mid-fifties with classics like Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957).
The last major credit, I’ll discuss here is of the cinematographer Sidney Hickox whose career began in the 1910s, but hit its stride in the 30s with crime films, then in the forties with many noirs. A few notable titles among this latter group include To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and White Heat.
The film opens with a man hiding inside of a trash bin on the back of truck. As the vehicle climbs mountainous terrain and moves along bumpy roads, the contents of its hitch jostle to and fro. Eventually, the can falls out and rolls down an adjacent hill. The man inside incredibly survives the long spin relatively unscathed, though dizzy but no worse for the ware. His name is Vincent Parry (Bogart) and he is on the lam, just escaped from San Quentin. As sirens ring out across the hills, the man thinks about how he can get out of this jam. A car comes rolling past and he decides to hitch a ride, but his driver is awfully nosy and keeps asking Vince about why he’s wearing the odd clothing he is. After a while, the man turns on the radio and a broadcast reports that a man is on the run with the exact same appearance and clothing as Vincent has on. Vincent knocks out his driver, who has gotten wise to the situation, then parks the car on the side of the road, pulls the man into the shrubbery beside the road and steals his clothing.
Before Vincent can escape in the car, a woman, Irene Jansen (Bacall), pulls up and tells him to get in. He decides to do so and hides in the back of her car under her painting supplies. This turn of events is fortunate as a road block is in effect and he would have been caught immediately if he tried to roll through past it or bluff his way through. Irene brings Vincent back to her place in San Francisco and tells him that she was aware of his case. She believes that Vincent was innocent on the count of murder of his wife that landed him in jail, and that he was only jailed because of unfair and unscrupulous media manipulation of the masses, which made him out to be an evil figure. He stays with the woman only one day, but she gives him $1,000 bucks with which to do what he will in making his escape.
That night, as he hires a cabby to take him to his friend’s George’s house, the cabby pegs him for who he is. But the cabby ain’t hostile you see. In fact, he’s an underground figure himself who knows where to go to hide one’s identity, and for cheap. The cabby turns Vincent on to a plastic surgeon friend of his who charges only $200 for a full facial reconstruction. Vincent thanks the man who then takes him to his friend’s house who promises to let Vincent to lay up there for the next week during his recovery from the surgery. Vincent leaves and goes to place the cabby told him about, gets the surgery done, has a frightening dream sequence in which he imagines that the surgeon, a disbarred, currently unlicensed old souse, botches the job, and awakens to find instead that the old man has seemingly done a good job of it. His face is bandaged and will remain thus for a week.
Next, Vincent returns to George’s flat to find he has been killed with his prized trumpet. Vincent struggles through the city toward Irene’s flat where she takes him in with open arms. For the next week he hides out in her flat, convinces Irene that he didn’t kill George, and heals. Eventually, the bandages come off revealing Bogart’s face beneath, which is radically altered from the first look of Vincent Parry’s facial features as seen in the newspaper clippings that abound throughout the film.
The rest of the story involves most of the meat of the action, suspense, and thriller elements as Vincent seeks out the real murderer of his wife and his friend, tracks down his old lover Madge Rapf (the Mercury theatre actress Agnes Moorehead, who was incidentally one of Orson Welles’ favorite actresses), fights off the man who he beat up at the film’s opening (who, it turns out, is a crook himself and is looking to extort money from Irene using Vincent as a bargaining chip), and eventually escapes to Peru where he waits for Irene to meet him.
The result is a pretty solid film noir feature with iconic performances by Bogie and Bacall, as well as Moorehead, an all-star production team, murder, intrigue, the revelation of a cunning Femme Fatale responsible for the Wrong Man’s predicament, and the final revenge and redemption of the Wrong Man. The Wrong Man will never be able to return to America, or at least not until the memory of his ‘crimes’ are forgotten, but at least he’s in that nice seaside Peruvian town in a posh hotel, with the woman of dreams who eventually arrives. And even better, she’s loaded, rolling in it, moolah baby!
[Next up: The Big Sleep]