Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dark Passage (1947) -- Delmer Daves

Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) is an innocent man accused of murdering his wife. When he escapes from San Quentin prison, he is picked up on the road by Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), an attractive and sympathetic woman who seems to know all about him. She offers Vince temporary shelter; and as he goes to drastic measures to hide his identity in order to uncover the real killer before the police manhunt tracks him down, they begin to develop feelings for one other. But complicating his efforts is Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), the witness whose testimony sealed his conviction. Before his marriage, she and Vince were once an item.     

If that sounds like the makings of a decent noir, you're in for a disappointment. The third of four Bogart/Bacall collaborations, Dark Passage doesn't measure up to the others. Despite a great cast, the script is flat, far too reliant on coincidence, and the real killer too obvious early on. Vince and Irene fall for one another too quickly, though in Irene's case it can be explained as a father fixation. Worse is the gimmick photography used in the first hour of the film -- the action unfolds from Parry's point of view. Bogart's face doesn't appear on scene during this period, but we hear his voice and occasionally see his hands doing something at the bottom of the frame. If director Daves used the technique for a short spell it might have been effective, but as it is, the novelty wears off quickly, making it distracting and just plain weird. I want to see Bogart.

Robert Montgomery employed the same gimmick five months earlier in his film, The Lady in the Lake. That two directors used an unconventional POV in such a short period is an odder coincidence than Bacall's character coming upon Bogart's shortly after his breakout. (He sneaks out of prison in a barrel on the back of a supply truck, the most interesting scene in the entire film.)

Vince's escape. Are those really Bogie's hands?

Irene reveals that she happened to be painting in the area and heard about Vince's escape on the radio. Having followed his trial and incarceration because his circumstance mirrored her father's, she felt compelled to look for him. Naturally he's suspicious, but has no choice but to accept her offer of help. He hides under a blanket in the backseat of her car as they make their way into San Francisco. At the Golden Gate Bridge, director Daves undoubtedly hoped to stage a suspenseful stop at a police roadblock. It's not. After a harmless conversation with a patrolmen and a cursory check, Irene is waved through and she drives across the bridge and into the city. It is interesting to see the then ten-year old span so empty. There's a shot of it in another Bogart film, The Maltese Falcon (1941), but this is one of the earliest films to feature the landmark.

Irene is the second person Vince meets outside the prison. First he hitch-hikes with a small-time hood who happens by. When an account of the escape runs on the radio, Vince's identity is compromised. He knocks the man cold -- the POV makes the fight appear silly and girlish -- and switches clothes. The hood will dog Vince for most of the rest of the film and ultimately give him the clue to identify his wife's killer.

D'Andrea and Stevenson discuss Vince's face before the operation.
The film's supporting characters almost save the story. Clift Young plays the hood as a somewhat weaselly man in over his head; he looks scared even when he's holding the gun. Tom D'Andrea is a talkative cabbie who leads Vince to a back-alley doc who specializes in plastic surgery. The surgeon is Houseley Stevenson. You wouldn't trust this guy to give your dog a shot, let alone allow him to carve up your face. He looks well-acquainted with a bottle.

Bogart finally makes his appearance. 
Vince emerges from the operation swathed in facial bandages, which he wears for a week or so, only able to communicate with pen and paper so as not to disturb the doctor's work. Give him sunglasses and he'd look like Claude Rains from The Invisible Man. Amazingly, when he takes the bandages off at Irene's there's no bruising, marks or stitches to deal with. That's one fine surgeon. In any case, we finally get Bogart's face. Perhaps Vince should have asked for a refund.

There are a couple of scenes where Bogart over-acts, once when interrogated by a suspicious cop in a diner and his hand shakes excessively and another when he staggers up a hill after the operation to Irene's place, looking more like a drunken sot than a man who is tired.

Madge, in the most amazing coincidence, happens to be friends of sort with Irene. She shows up at Irene's apartment having heard of Vince's escape and fearing he will seek revenge. Irene sends her away. Vince at this point has fallen in love with Irene and changes his plans, now more interested in leaving San Francisco than proving his innocence. The hood miraculously makes another appearance, coming out on the losing end of a confrontation with Vince, who manages to extract some information that leads him to the killer -- Madge.

Vince (Bogart) and Madge (Moorehead) have it out.

In the climatic scene Vince shows up at Madge's. With his new face she doesn't recognize him despite a voice that hasn't changed and knowing that Vince is somewhere in the city. Apparently this woman is over-sexed because she lets the stranger in. He flirts a few minutes before revealing his true identity and demanding she sign a confession. Really? She refuses, but either falls or jumps out the window to her death. (The obvious dummy drop caps the silly scene).

The "jump" scenario assumes that Madge is so obsessed with Vince that if she can't have him, she decides no-one will. Knowing Vince loves Irene, she opts for suicide to prevent his being declared innocent. Such a course is unnecessary so long as she doesn't confess, so I don't find this very plausible.                

Johnny Mercer's 1937 hit "Too Marvelous for Words" plays several times in the film, Jo Stafford  with the vocal on the phonograph in Irene's apartment, and just the melody at the end as Irene reunites with Vince in a cantina in Peru. It seems far too sophisticated for this story.

It's a stretch to call this a noir. There's no femme fatale, little characteristic shadowy images, and lacking in cynicism. More importantly, the good guy has a happy ending. Sounds like shady marketing to me.

The Bogart/Bacall Quartet:

  • To Have and Have Not (1944)
  • The Big Sleep (1946)
  • Dark Passage (1947)
  • Key Largo (1948)


  1. Funny, this is my favorite of the Bogey/Bacall pairings. I love this film. While they didn't have the "sizzle" they had in "To Have and Have Not," I thought there was sweet tenderness between them. "Key Largo" is my next favorite of their pairings...the other 2 I don't care for at all.

    Then again, I'm the lone person on the planet who doesn't care for "Rear Window," so I suppose it's not unusual that I'm out of step on this one. I'm used to being the "wacky" one.

  2. Hi, Patti. Thanks for commenting. I guess all 4 films have faults. I love "Key Largo" for Robinson, and enjoy "The Big Sleep" for its crazy plot. ANd you are right, there's no sizzle in this one between Bogie and Bacall. Actually, I think you are more in step with the masses on liking this one than I am in not. Now as for not caring for "Rear Window," my gosh; I don't know what to say.

  3. This movie could have been better than it was... But, as you said, it has a great supporting cast.