Of the four movies Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, Dark Passage is the forgotten stepchild. Sandwiched between The Big Sleep and Key Largo, Delmer Daves’ innovative and suspenseful mystery-thriller caused barely a ripple at the box office upon its initial release. Maybe the gritty, post-war themes of isolation and paranoia hit too close to home, or the use of a subjective camera alienated audiences. Whatever the reason, Dark Passage got a bum rap from critics and public alike. And while it may not rank up there with the best of Hollywood noir, the film flaunts enough style and substance to merit appreciation.
After World War II, filmmakers found the subjective camera a slick gimmick to add realism and flair to crime dramas. Robert Montgomery even shot an entire film, The Lady in the Lake, from the first-person perspective, with his character’s face appearing only in the reflection of mirrors, windows and water. Of course, by the mid-1940s Montgomery’s star stature had faded, so audiences didn’t particularly miss his physical presence. Not so for Bogart, who in 1947 was still at the peak of his popularity. Audiences came to see Bogie and felt somewhat cheated when the first third of Dark Passage offered only his inimitable voice. Still, Daves employs the subjective camera to superb effect. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the device quickly draws the viewer into Bogart’s world and adds urgency, confusion and a sense of unease to the film.
Yet in Dark Passage, the subjectivity isn’t all flashy technique—it serves a narrative purpose, and a clever one, too. Bogart portrays wrongly convicted wife-killer Vincent Parry, who stages a desperate escape from San Quentin prison, which we see through his frantic eyes. On a deserted roadside, he’s rescued by sympathetic socialite Irene Jansen (Bacall), who identifies with Parry’s predicament and believes him to be innocent. Parry hides out in Irene’s San Francisco apartment, narrowly evading her busybody friend Madge (Agnes Moorehead) and casual boyfriend Bob (Bruce Bennett). Of course, he yearns to clear his name and root out the real killer of his wife, but to freely roam the city, he needs a new face. A helpful cab driver (Tom D’Andrea) refers Parry to a renegade plastic surgeon (Houseley Stevenson), who alters his features. When the bandages come off a week later (during which time his best friend also winds up murdered), Parry looks exactly like—surprise!—Humphrey Bogart.
The artistry of Dark Passage, however, extends well beyond the subjective camera. Daves filmed much of the drama on location in San Francisco, and the hilly landscape and majestic Golden Gate Bridge lend the story a coarse, realistic edge. He also favors the close-up to heighten tension and mood, as well as unveil a softer side of Bacall that her previous director, Howard Hawks, never explored. Hawks showcased Bacall’s allure, but Daves photographs her like a glamorous movie star, with striking results.
Bacall must also carry the film’s first third with her acting and presence, and quickly proves she’s up to the task. While she never totally abandons the smoldering attitude that made her famous, she nicely tones it down in favor of a more sensitive image. Bacall’s screen relationship with Bogart also evolves, becoming more mature and gentle. Gone are the wisecracks, nicknames and verbal one-upmanship that dazzled the masses. In Dark Passage, their romance is more about aching need and deep, abiding love than boozy good times and lusty passions. Personally, I find the change fascinating, although it left contemporary audiences cold.
Caught up in a Hitchcockian wrong man scenario, Bogart also displays refreshing vulnerability and at times a palpable fear that gives his screen persona new dimension. In Dark Passage, he’s older, more weathered, a bit broken down, and although we know he’ll rise to the occasion and eventually take control, there’s now a seed of doubt buried inside us. Typical of the post-war attitude, nothing in life is a sure thing anymore, not even Humphrey Bogart, and that unsettling feeling helps fuel Dark Passage. The always-marvelous Moorehead also excels (though perhaps a bit too much), adding some Freudian complexity to her icy performance. Her magnetism steals every scene in which she appears—and that’s saying something when you’re up against the likes of Bogie and Bacall.
Unfortunately, Dark Passage will always be regarded as that “other” Bogart-Bacall film, despite the way it smoothly balances taut suspense and tender romance. Yet over time, Delmer Daves’ stark, involving mystery has earned well-deserved respect, and holds up well today. The film provides terrific entertainment and the opportunity to savor one of Hollywood’s most legendary love teams in its prime. It may remain the weakest of the Bogart-Bacall quartet, but in the company of To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo, that ain’t half bad.
Hold Your Breath and Cross Your Fingers: The Story of Dark Passage
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