Dark Passage was a great surprise for me. I have now seen every onscreen Bogie and Bacall collaboration and this least well known of them may be my favorite. It does have some problems, mostly in the department of suspension of disbelief, but these problems don’t amount to a hill of beans next to the interesting direction of Delmer Daves, the unusual darkness of the story, and the legendary chemistry of Bogie and Bacall.
Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) is a prisoner at San Quentin for killing his wife. While making his escape, he is picked up by sympathetic painter Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) who believes his claims of innocence due to similarities in her father’s case. He stays with her while recovering from plastic surgery to change his appearance, and then goes on a hunt to find the real killer and prove his innocence.
The beginning of the film is quite gripping. It is comprised almost entirely of point of view shots, the reason for which is obvious. Daves doesn’t show Bogie’s face until after the bandages from the surgery come off, because of course we need to believe he looks completely different. When not using point of view shots, Daves is careful to focus on other parts of Bogart’s body, like his back as we are following him, or hides his face completely in shadow. This lends a menacing edge to the picture, as other people look all the more threatening from the point of view of the hunted man, and the hunted man himself (who may or may not be a killer) looks all the more threatening when cloaked in shadow.
After Vincent goes under the knife, he spends most of his time at Irene’s house recovering. Daves largely abandons the extensive use of POV shots at this point, because Bogart’s face is covered in bandages anyway. While less interesting from a cinematography standpoint, the film becomes more interesting from a performance one here. This is probably the most vulnerable Bogie has ever been onscreen; it’s amazing how fragile he becomes without the use of face (or voice, because he can’t move his mouth to talk). He can only act with his eyes, and because that’s the only part of his face we as the audience can latch onto, his eyes seem to become all that more expressive. I know Bogie won his Oscar for The African Queen, but I kind of wish he had won it for his fascinating performance in this film. It seems obvious in retrospect, but obscuring the face of an iconic star has a profound impact on the film, one I did not really anticipate.
The end of the story however, is where things get a bit muddled. Searching for the real killer, and now looking and acting like the classic Humphrey Bogart film noir archetype, things become for one thing less innovative both the cinematography and the acting departments, and for another really confusing on the story side of things. Vincent, now assuming the name Allen Linnell, gets shaken down by a small time criminal (Clifton Young) who as it turns out has been following him the whole time, and also finds out who really killed his wife. The dialog in the scene where the killer is finally revealed is really confusing; while they seem to be explaining their motives it gets buried under a lot of who can have whom and ties into stuff we haven’t witnessed. After the killer is revealed to the audience Vincent still can’t prove it to the police, so he escapes, and eavesdrops on a conversation between two people in a bus station, which doesn’t make sense at all. Add this to the initial problem of why Bacall’s character is on his side in the first place when she doesn’t even know him yet (because his case is similar to her father’s he must be innocent? Come on.), and the story has more than a few issues.
There are a lot of little things that don’t quite add up on the story front, but as regular readers of the blog will know, plot holes are not the biggest of my pet peeves. There are too many unbelievable things here to ignore, but on the whole the film is still plenty suspenseful and involves a lot of interesting camera work. I can’t think of another film from this time period that dealt with plastic surgery at all, so it’s interesting that the film went this route and made it crucial to the story. This is one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart performances so far, and Bacall, though staying in her comfort zone, does a superb job as well. The supporting players are just as good, with Agnes Moorehead killing it in a key role. Dark Passage is a great film noir, with excellent performances, inspired cinematography, and a rare happy ending.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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