The Film: Dark Passage (1947)

The Principles: Delmer Daves (director), Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead

The Premise: Vincent Parry  (Bogart) was convicted of murdering his wife, and locked up in San Quentin.  He makes a rather unspectacular escape, and is recognized by the first two people who see him.  The first, he punches out and lifts his car. The second happens to be Irene Jansen (Bacall) who is mysteriously lurking around Quentin in the hopes of aiding him.   She’s been stalking Parry out of pity ever since his case made the papers, and she immediately smuggles him home.

But Parry is in trouble.  His photo is everywhere.  His description is all over the radio.   When he leaves the safety of Irene’s apartment, a cab driver immediately recognizes him.   Luckily, the cab driver is seedy, and he offers to take him into the slimy underground for some sketchy plastic surgery.

The surgery is successful. Parry decides that he’s got time and room enough to clear his name.  A few coincidences have put clues in his path.  But Parry is the sort of unlucky stooge that can’t catch a break, and he finds he has more than cops on his trail.

Is It Good: It is.  It’s not the most slick or groundbreaking of film noir, but it’s satisfying.  This was the third film Bogart and Bacall did together, and their chemistry is comfortable and palpable.  It sells a story concept — Irene being obsessed with a convicted killer —  that shouldn’t even work.    Goddamn, those two ooze sex and sophistication, don’t they?

There are a few corny plot twists. It’s baffling how everyone connected with Parry is also connected to Irene, but they’ve managed to never meet before.  This happens in real life, obviously, but not usually when everyone has been sitting in a court room together.   Dark Passage definitely takes  some narrative short cuts, which weakens the overall mystery and quality.   You’ll find yourself scrambling to catch up, not because it’s complicated, but because it’s silly.  However, that doesn’t stop the story from being tense, particularly when some unwanted parties show up to hassle Vincent. There’s also some very satisfying violence when they do.  Parry may be innocent, but he’s no saint, and he’s not afraid to bring it when someone gets in his face.  Especially if they are looking the wrong way at his new friend, Irene.

Is It Worth A Look: Absolutely.  Everything Bogart and Bacall did is.  And while Dark Passage isn’t exactly in the category of  The Big Sleep or To Have or Have Not, it’s still a thoroughly satisfying noir.      And it’s not without its visual flair.  At least half the film is filmed in first person, letting you (in the gaming parlance of our time) “play” as Bogart which is really pretty cool.    Because of Bogart’s presence it’s employed a little slicker than that other first-person noir, The Lady in the Lake, though the latter does stick its guns and keep the technique all the way through.

It’s daring stuff for a star though, particularly since Bogart promptly follows-up the lack of face-time by spending another chunk of the film swathed in bandages. No one would do this today.  Deadline crowed over the box office failure when Josh Brolin scarred half his face, for heaven’s sake.

The plastic surgery sequence is also deliciously squalid and scary.  Once the cabbie tips Parry off about “his doctor friend,” the beleaguered con immediately goes to have his procedure done.   It flies in the face of all medical science  (Parry simply sits down in a dentist’s chair and gets a bit of anesthetic, never gets stitches, and never changes his bandages.) but this is the kind of heightened underworld where a disbarred physician is always on call.  The mind whirls at all the stuff he probably does for desperate people in the wee hours of the morning.    I wouldn’t be surprised if Tim Burton had it in mind for Joker’s similarly grisly operation in Batman.

The best part of the sequence is that we’re supposed to believe Bogart looks older than Frank Wilcox, who helpfully supplies the face for the newspaper profiles.  Unfortunately, I can’t find a 1940s photo of Mr. Wilcox, so you’ll just have to watch to appreciate the visual disparity.

Random Anecdotes The Big Lebowski ripped off the chatty cab driver, although I’m hard pressed to think of a cinematic cab driver who isn’t that forthcoming.