Bogie and Bacall bid farewell to their on-screen teaming in Delmer Daves’ gritty, though misguided thriller, Dark Passage (1947) an ambitious, often brooding hybrid of the escaped convict pot boiler that had been all the rage during the early to mid-1930's. Trademarking their ‘ripped from the headlines’ approach to telling hard tales of even harsher-living characters of spurious repute, Warner Bros. had practically invented the ‘gangster’ sub-genre, cultivating their own ‘murderer’s row’ of rough n’ ready all-stars with headliners like George Raft, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and – yes, even Humphrey Bogart; all of them rivals to the likes of a John Dillinger or Al Capone; at least…in the movies. But by 1947, the Robin Hood-esque exploits of these real-life reprobates had decidedly fallen out of fashion with audiences. Moreover, they flew in the face of the newly established Production Code of Ethics that, by 1939, had purged Hollywood’s movie screens of such deliberate ruthlessness. Warner never entirely abandoned the gangster flick however, even as it abided by this new tradition in the picture-making biz. Thus, by 1940 even Eddy Robinson was mugging for the camera, doing a wicked lampoon of his formerly sadistic ‘Little Caesar (1931) in Brother Orchid (1940). You dirty rat, indeed!
Dark Passage is perhaps the feeblest of Warner’s attempts to resuscitate the gangster sub-genre, made a full two years before Cagney’s own superlative benchmark and goodbye to it, White Heat (1949), sounding the death knell once and for all. If anything, Dark Passage illustrates just how much Bogart’s movie-land persona had grown up since his early days at the studio; chronically cast as a Duke Mantee knock off who gets ‘knocked off’ in the third reel. Herein, director, Delmer Daves has become utterly enamored with the subjective camera – a gimmick used this same year even less effectively in MGM’s Lady in the Lake. The virtues of the subjective POV are equally its vices and, indeed, studio head, Jack L. Warner was not at all pleased with the final results in Daves’ grand experiment; Bogart’s iconic visage absent from virtually all but a handful of brief shots scattered throughout the last third of the picture; the audience limited to seeing only what Bogie’s alter ego, Vincent Parry, sees. Mostly, Vincent has his eyes on renewed hope reflected back at him by one Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall); a successful landscape artist, living fashionably in a San Franciscan deco apartment.
Inexplicably, Irene is Vincent Parry’s singular champion all through the lean years he served in San Quentin for a murder he did not commit. Buried under all the hoopla and gimmickry is an occasionally clever, though never entirely engaging ‘who done it?’ almost as desperate as Parry to break out and have its’ day in court. Alas, Dark Passage can never decide whether it is a crime/thriller, a chase for the man with – or without – the face, an atypical Bogie/Bacall romance, or just a nice – if quirky – little flick, fitting neatly under the hashtag ‘crime doesn’t pay’ but if it did, the dividends would hardly satisfy. Ironic too, as Dark Passage ends with no fulfillment for our hero’s journey; unearthing his frame-up and tracking the deceiver down to a seedy downtown apartment, only to have her inadvertently stumble and plummet through an open window, thereby destroying all hope to gain an eye-witness confession: also, now likely to be blamed by police, rife to pin another murder charge on Vincent Parry’s already blackened reputation.
A genuine pity Daves’ screenplay, based on the novel by David Goodis, is a little too cliché, and much too conveniently stitched together to satisfy even the most liberal suspensions of disbelief. Whether we are to trust in Vincent’s innocence from the outset in the same sort of naïve and nobly fawning way Irene has without possessing anything more or better than blind-sighted faith in a man she barely knows, or, suspect the duplicity of her ‘best friend’, Madge Rapf’s (Agnes Moorehead), middle-aged quixotic venom at the crux of the supposed ‘crime of passion’ that sent Vincent to prison for life, now rekindled and soon to be exacted full-throttle on the mysterious stranger recuperating from plastic surgery in Irene’s apartment (surgery that effectively turns gritty mug shots of a lumbering clod into…well…Humphrey Bogart, thus leaving him to briefly walk the town with impunity, undetectable as the daring escapee for whom an all-points bulletin and roadblocks have been set up); and further still, to think a total stranger, cabbie, Sam (Tom D'Andrea) would lead a wanted man to an even more shadowy figure, disgraced ‘doctor’ (Houseley Stevenson), who takes pleasure in creating real-life works of art from crudely sewn flesh; Dark Passage is a movie more invested in the magic of movies and its own fanciful style than substance and far more in love with some truly gorgeous B&W cinematography by Sidney Hickox. Dark Passage really is Hickox’s show – from its exquisitely dank, bleak and perpetually moody usage of real San Franciscan locations, to its Salvador Dali-esque inspired hallucination/nightmare (as Vincent awakens from the ether after his surgery). This movie is a textbook example of how an elegant approach can divert attention away from a rather pedestrian and occasionally bungled plot.
Style, alas, will only get you so far: ditto for star power. Dark Passage would be nothing at all without the Bogie and Bacall, and, Hickox’s ingeniously visualized masquerade. But it is a movie that desperately wants the audience to forget there is a crime story buried somewhere beneath all the gimmicky ‘first person’ viewpoints of our rather empathetic protagonist; Bogart’s persona and particularly his voice, utterly at odds with the newspaper mug shots of Vincent Parry, looking about twice as tall and equally as wide in the shoulders with a square-jawed scowl that could stop a coal barge. Our first glimpse of Bogie, post-surgery and out of his bandages, gives Claude Rains’ Invisible Man a real run for his money. In hindsight, it is not altogether a convincing juxtaposition with the rest of ‘the truth’ as represented in this story. We can completely understand why Madge hasn’t a clue the diminutive ‘new guy’ in Irene’s apartment isn’t the same fellow she had a jealous yen for prior to the operation – because he isn’t; her recollections stirred only by the sound of Parry’s muffled voice through Irene’s door. Personally, I have my doubts the various bits of business conducted by a pair of unreservedly ‘werewolf hairy’ hands in front of the first person camera are not actually Bogart’s; looking far too meaty and in need of a good trim/wax. Besides, why pay a major star like Bogart to do what any B-actor or grip aspiring to the big time could, given half the prompt and motivation by a skilled director like Delmer Daves?
“What the hell is the point of having a star in the part?” Jack L. Warner reportedly told Daves after screening the early rushes. Warner’s legendary lack of tact is practically digestible herein and well worth taking into consideration. As we only see what the camera sees for nearly two/thirds of the movie, we never really get to experience the sort of insolent on-camera chemistry that made Bogie and Bacall such legendary sparring partners on the big screen; no deep romantic clinches either, as it is virtually impossible for Irene to get close enough to the camera to make it work. So, we are left with a view witnessed through a shadowbox; Hickox’s camera panning back and forth across an enviable landscape of shadow-laden, foggy vistas, punctuated by the lonely call of harbor boat whistles and the occasional echo of shoes clicking on damp pavement. This sets the tone of the piece, although without ever allowing us access into Vincent Parry’s head. Part of what a skilled actor brings to any part is body language – particularly, in facial gesturing. Without Bogie’s descriptive visage to crib from, the first third of Vincent Parry’s escape and survival devolves into cheaply imagined pantomime; ultimately rectified when the bandages come off and we see Bogart’s reincarnation for the first time. But even with his head wrapped up like a mummy, Bogart manages to do some miraculous emoting with his eyes. It works, sort of, but comes far too late to make any real difference.
Yet, despite these shortcomings, Dark Passage is hardly a write-off, as no picture co-starring Bogart and Bacall could ever be considered ‘bad’ on principle alone. However, it miserably fails to hold even the faintest flicker in notable resemblance to their other great moments together – particularly in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Without Bogie, we are left with Bacall to carry the bulk of the load, her reactions to acting opposite a camera, with Bogart undoubtedly standing off to the side of its’ bulky apparatus, feeding her the next line, creates a few rather woefully transparent moments of awkwardness. And Bacall just looks different – ditto for Bogart (once revealed), his painted image used in posters to promote the film, that of the Bogie we best recall in his physical prime a la Casablanca (1942), decidedly not matching up with the more careworn, weather-beaten and skinny fellow whom we later meet in passing, but who looks as though makeup artist, Perc Westmore has plastered a little too much rouge and lip gloss on an already sweat-soaked face. For more than half the movie, Bogie remains an enigma to the plot despite being the focus of it – the elephant in the room no one gets to see except Irene. I can completely understand why Dark Passage was not another Bogie/Bacall mega hit when it first came out. I mean, if you went to the circus to see the elephant and only the clowns appeared, you would be fairly upset, n’est pas? And Jack Warner likely fancied himself a showman of P.T. Barnum’s ilk; different medium and minus Barnum’s personal panache.
Viewed today, Dark Passage is a fairly gripping story, steeped in uncanny cynicism. Bogart gives his reincarnation of Vincent Parry class, tinged in faux heroism - two contradictory sides to any man's life clashed together in Daves' screenplay like the tectonic plates of the San Andreas Fault and with just as much friction mounting as the narrative progresses. Moving along: Bogart is Vincent Parry, a man wrongfully accused of murdering his wife and sent to prison for life. He escapes San Quentin in a metal garbage barrel (honestly, is no one in the watch tower being vigilant today?). After a terrible tumble off the open back truck, down a steep ravine, and landing in a watery underpass near Golden Gate Park, Vincent is rescued by amateur painter, Irene Jansen (Bacall) who – conveniently – just happens to be nearby when her radio tunes into the all-points bulletin about Parry’s daring escape, and just happens to be passing by the spot where his battered mode of escape has landed. Call it fate. I prefer to think of it as the most utterly far-fetched of movie-land contrivances. Irene smuggles Parry under a tarp in the backseat of her station wagon, past police who have already cornered off the Golden Gate Bridge. Again, the boys in blue are not very thorough here. They don’t even lift up the tarp!
Back at Irene’s apartment, Parry gets some spending money; then finds a sympathetic cabbie to take him to a disgraced plastic surgeon who will alter his facial features. Both men are of the anti-establishment ilk – unusual for a movie of this vintage; even more progressive when one considers neither knows for sure the fellow they are aiding and abetting is not a cold-blooded killer. A subtler homage: the cabbie is called Sam – the name of Bogart’s right-hand, immortalized by the inimitable Dooley Wilson in Casablanca; actor, Tom D'Andrea here giving this Sam a gum-chewing lowbrow satisfaction as the ‘everyman’ just trying to make a buck, suddenly invigorated by the prospect of making a few more off the meter, and, perfectly counterbalanced by Houseley Stevenson’s moderately brutish, though equally as blunt Doc Walter Coley, who casually threatens ever-lasting post-operative disfigurement before applying the ether. Each man becomes a distorted apparition in Vincent Parry’s drug-induced post-operative fantasy/nightmare; the ‘dream sequence’ vaguely reminiscent to Gregory Peck’s regressed memory fantasia in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).
The plot thickens as Parry arranges to stay with an old friend, George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson) while he recovers from his wounds. However, when Parry returns to George's apartment all bandaged up a few hours later he discovers George’s corpse lying on the floor. Someone is on to him; perhaps the same person who murdered his wife. Retreating into the night, Vincent eventually winds up back at Irene’s. For the next several days she shelters him, both from the police and Madge’s probative inquiries. Irene is a very cool customer; comforting to a point, but devious to a fault. Her absence from the apartment leads to an unexpected chance encounter between Madge and Vincent. He manages to discourage her from entering. Ah, but the voice is familiar – too familiar to be ignored. It is…no, it couldn’t be. Yes – it’s Vincent. Recognizing the danger he has put Irene in, Vincent elects to vacate her apartment in search of the truth. Since Madge has not seen his new look, Vincent pursues her to a seedy downtown apartment. He is determined to get to the bottom of things. But after questioning Madge for only a few moments, she cleverly recognizes the man behind the voice is Vincent Parry. What happens next is rather obtusely handled by director, Delmer Daves; Madge retreating in abject fear as Vincent approaches in a non-threatening way; pressed against a large picture window that gives way. Madge plummets several stories to her death, the thud of her broken body on concrete far below bringing a small army of police to investigate ‘the crime scene’. Madge murdered Vincent’s wife out of jealousy, then deliberately helped to frame him out of spite. But who will ever know the truth now? In a frantic race against time, Vincent and Irene quietly meet in secret at the bus station before he makes a run for the border. Considering the veritable military presence closing in on all sides, Vincent’s miraculous vanishing act is capped off by another truly ironic moment; an epilogue inside a chichi nightclub in Mexico City. A hunted man no more, Vincent is reunited with Irene, the two sharing a moment together – presumably to lead to romance – before the screen fades to black.
Dark Passage is about as dubious and austere as movies get; Delmer Daves casting a veil of alienation over his big city milieu. Perhaps, Daves firmly believed with Bogart as his star nothing could discourage the picture’s success. He was mistaken. Not even Bogart’s reputation – nor the promise of the ole Bogie/Bacall chemistry – could salvage Dark Passage from devolving into a rather careworn and remorseless epitaph. For certain, part of the picture’s awkwardness is owed to its first person POV. This dominates two thirds of the movie, but deprives us of Bogart’s iconic visage. The other problem with Dark Passage is its screenplay; held together by Vincent Parry’s oft mindless skulking in search of clues. Here is a guy with no ‘Plan B’ – living moment to moment like a scared little animal being hunted by a pack of wild dogs. Odd too, since Parry’s pre-Bogart persona suggests a real piece of work operating outside the law – thug muscle with fists of steel. With Bogart’s casting – and big reveal some 39 minutes in – presided by the notion plastic surgery can magically transform a muscled-up oaf into…well, Humphrey Bogart – seems not only inconceivable, but actually quite silly. And Bogart offers us little of his trademarked rank sarcasm that, at least in other movies, translates rather effectively to raw masculine toughness, with or without a gun.
Even less palpable is Irene’s rather insidious fawning over Vincent, her motivation to see him a free man as wafer thin as the rest of the plot. Are you ready for it? – because the particulars of Vincent’s case recall Irene’s own father’s trial and subsequent incarceration, resulting in his death behind bars. Oh brother, is Irene the posterchild for ‘hybristophilia’ or what? It’s too bad for this Bonnie (but perfect for the Production Code) her Clyde is actually quite blameless of the crime for which he has been accused. Not that it matters to Irene one way or the other. But as it turns out, Vincent Parry would no more harm a hair on either his philandering wife’s or even Madge’s head than defile a chrysanthemum. And Bacall, for all her intuitions and wit as an actress elsewhere, herein plays Irene Jansen right down the middle as a sort of melting mass of ‘his gal Friday’ flavored butter, darting sexual attraction utterly muffled beneath her high-collared noblesse oblige as the forthright defender/patron saint of all lost causes. Virtue does not really suit Bacall’s temperament – at least, not in the movies. There is not enough piss and vinegar in this Sweet Polly Purebred to spark the flint during her dulcet moments of romanticized fantasizing. While poster art and trailers sell Dark Passage as full of lust and passion, what we actually get is a very antiseptic story about Suzy Cream Cheese and her Sport n’ Shave Ken doll who just had the dumb luck to do real time in a penitentiary for a crime he did not commit.
It is one of Hollywood’s mad ironies Agnes Moorehead once again plays the reviled bitch in Dark Passage. Nearly her entire career was built upon such variations as the spinsterish and persnickety dried prune with nothing but bitterness and venom in her heart; ironic, because in life, Moorehead’s philanthropy was as big as all creation, the keys to her home and her heart left for anyone in need of a helping hand, a good ear to listen and a gentle word, providing genuine comfort. The last bit of clumsiness that makes Dark Passage B-grade Bogie/Bacall (and occasionally C-grade noir) goes to Delmer Daves’ artistic choices; not only for his screenplay, sorely sagging at intervals, thus allowing the mind to wander – if still be reasonably anesthetized by Sidney Hickox’s inventive and stylish cinematography – but also, for his rather ridiculous abandonment of the subjective POV after Vincent becomes ‘Humphrey Bogart’ incognito. It is a jarring moment of transition; the audience, conjoined with the camera’s eye at the start and cajoled into seeing only what the main character does, suddenly separated from this myopic viewpoint and brought into every scene as the traditionally omnipotent third party, outside looking in for these characters’ motivations and the next pivotal plot point. In the final analysis, Dark Passage is not a great movie. It remains a cagily blemished creature of varying intrigues but like the proverbial toad, no matter how many times kissed, never manages to morph into a prince.
With Warner Archive’s debut of Dark Passage on Blu-ray, the only co-starring Bogie/Bacall feature left to languish is To Have and Have Not. One sincerely hopes the delay will not be long. Despite the passage of time, Dark Passage on DVD looked superb. On Blu-ray, it advances in all the usually expected areas; better contrast, more refined film grain and a greater amount of detail to delight and amaze. Warner Archive really ought to take a bow and a breath for this and all their other hi-def releases, though particularly the unexpected onslaught of deep catalog titles released as of January this year. Classic movie lovers are being repeatedly treated to Warner’s gradual reopening of their formidable cave of wonders; cinema gems culled from the back catalogs of three golden age movie studios (WB, MGM and RKO) Wow and thank you again! God – and executive management willing – we should see more great titles from this offshoot of Warner Home Video proper in the coming months with rustlings of pending Blu-rays for Victor/Victoria, Love Me Or Leave Me, Silk Stockings and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon already slated.
While I have, from time to time, questioned the decision-making process giving certain ‘lesser’ catalog undue preference, I have nothing but unaffected praise for the consistent level of quality afforded these hi-def releases. So, a bow is definitely in order. Consider it done from this end. The mono DTS audio is, as the visuals, up to snuff. It sounds fantastic. Extras are regurgitated from the old DVD and include a Bugs Bunny short and featurette on the making of the movie. Dark Passage is a reference quality Blu-ray of a less than perfect movie. I would much rather have it this way than the other way around. Wouldn’t you? Bottom line: very highly recommended! Support the format and the studio’s efforts. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)