Dark Passage is one of the most underrated and interesting of all the 1940’s Noir films. Quite why this one isn’t discussed more often is beyond me. It’s a very different looking Film Noir than most and also offers us a glimpse of a far more vulnerable Humphrey Bogart.
The Humphrey Bogart we see in this film is far removed from the cool and tough hero who is fully in control and who we’re so used to seeing, that man who can get himself out of any scrape and not be too phased by what happens to him in the process. His character here on the other hand is a desperate, awkward and frightened man; a man who has no control over his situation and who doesn’t have a clue how to help himself. It’s rare to see Bogie in such a role. Personally I would have liked to have seen him play more similar characters because this shows what a great actor he could be. Bogie’s romantic/affectionate scenes with his wife Lauren Bacall are among some of the most tender I’ve ever seen the couple perform. Dark Passage marked the third time that the couple worked together on screen. Their final screen pairing would come the following year in Key Largo.
The film is directed by Delmer Daves and is based upon the 1946 novel of the same name by David Goodis. Much of this was shot on location in San Francisco and that ensured a more realistic feel to the film Dark Passage is based upon the 1946 novel of the same name by David Goodis. Delmer Daves also wrote the screenplay in addition to sitting in the director’s chair. This is one of his finest films along with The Hanging Tree and 3:10 To Yuma.
Delmar Daves had cinematographer Sidney Hickox shoot a large amount of Dark Passage using a subjective camera technique. This technique makes the film unfold before us entirely from the point of view of Humphrey Bogart’s character. For most of the film we don’t see Bogie’s face at all, but we do hear his voice. When we finally do see his face it is heavily bandaged. The film is one hour and 41 minutes long and it takes about an hour before Bogie’s face actually appears on screen. This visual style more than anything else about the film is what makes it such an unusual one.
The point of view photography was pretty risky when you think about it. Bogie was one of the biggest film stars on the planet at this time. Not showing his face for such a large part of the film was a gamble. Bogie was the draw for a large amount of the audience and they could very easily have walked out of screenings thinking they weren’t going to get to see the man himself. Dark Passage is not alone in the Noir genre for its use of this technique.Actor Robert Montgomery had caused quite a stir when he directed and starred in another Noir film, Lady In The Lake, which had been released earlier in 1947. That film had been shot almost entirely from the point of view of the character of Philip Marlowe(played by Montgomery).
Vincent Parry(Humphrey Bogart) is in prison for the murder of his wife, a crime that he insists he didn’t commit. Vince escapes from prison and is pursued by the law. While he is on the run he is picked up by a man who agrees to give him a lift. A news report comes on the car radio describing Vincent and causes the driver to recognise his passenger as the described convict. Vince beats the driver up and drags him into some bushes by the roadside and takes his shoes. Suddenly another car pulls up and out gets a young artist called Irene Jansen(Lauren Bacall). Vince doesn’t know her, but she seems to know him(this is all explained later in the film). She tells him to come with her and that she will help him. Irene drive to San Francisco where they encounter a roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge, which leads to a very suspenseful sequence where Irene has to act casual to throw off the suspicions of the police who stop and search her car. Vince hides underneath a large covered pile of her art supplies and narrowly avoids being discovered. Once in the city, Vince gets help from a back-street doctor (Housley Stevenson)who performs plastic surgery on him to give him a new face.
The scene where Vince prepares for surgery is a standout and it’s made so by the dubious character of the doctor and his fabulous dialogue and laughter as he prepares for surgery – “Ever seen a botched plastic job? If a man like me didn’t like a fella, he could surely fix him up for life. Make him look like a bulldog or a monkey!”. I doubt a man would want to get a shave off this dude, let alone willingly sit back and let him perform facial surgery on them. As the anaesthetic takes effect on Vince, he enters a bizarre nightmare, one where images and conversations he’s had get all mixed up as he goes under.
Vince emerges with a new face and recovers from his surgery at Irene’s apartment. Once recovered, Vince changes his name and sets about trying to investigate his wife’s murder. His investigation is difficult and dangerous.His only ally in all of this is Irene.
The one person who knows the truth about his innocence or guilt is Madge Rapf(a scene stealing Agnes Moorehead), the woman whose evidence in court was crucial in getting him put away. Agnes delivers one of her best performances here.
Madge is a real nasty piece of work. She’s the sort of dame who sucks people in, charms them and then discards them.She’s a whole lot of mean encased in one beautiful and glamorous exterior. I hope that Agnes had a lot of fun with this role because it sure looks like she relished playing the part. Such a shame that she didn’t get to play more villainesses in more Noir films.
Bogie and Bacall are both absolutely terrific here. They convince as a couple thrown together in very unusual circumstances who slowly begin to fall in love. Bogie does a good job of playing a more vulnerable and wounded character than he usually played. Much of his performance here comes via his voice and by the look in his eyes, it’s a more subtle performance than many of his others. He also makes us root for Vince and admire his determination to risk himself in order to find out the truth. Lauren delivers one of her best performances in my opinion. I love her as the determined, confident and fearless Irene. I find her character so interesting because she is actually quite symbolic.
Irene functions as the traditional white knight figure(a role usually played by men)to Bogie’s man in distress. She appears to him out of nowhere and saves him several times, nurses him, supports him and stands by him. She is his guardian angel and salvation. You could also say that Irene serves as a symbolic maternal figure as well, due to her being the one to bring the new Vince into the world in a way. Vince doesn’t remove his bandages, it is Irene who does that and thereby reveals his new identity to him. Irene is also the one who chooses a new name for Vince too. Farewell, Vincent Parry. Hello, Alan.
The entire supporting cast all deliver solid performances. The film is an interesting mystery and contains a lot of suspense and thrills. I admit that some of the plot certainly does come across as being somewhat far-fetched, but the film still works despite that. It is a film that deserves to be much more widely discussed and appreciated today. Highly recommended to Noir fans.