“It’s wonderful when guys like you lose out. Makes guys like me think maybe we got a chance in this world.”
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall remain one of the most famous couples in Hollywood history. Between the former’s gruff cynicism and the latter’s razor-sharp wit, they were an ideal screen pairing who managed to elevate films like To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) to classic status. That said, there is one Bogart and Bacall film that has fallen into relative obscurity: 1947’s Dark Passage. Not only is the film primed for rediscovery by fans, but I’d wager that it’s the duo’s most underrated collaboration. Let’s crack open the vault and investigate why…
Bogart, at the height of his stardom, plays a fugitive named Vincent Parry. He was sent to prison for murdering his wife, but he escapes during the film’s opener and goes on a search to find the real killer. Along the way Parry meets Irene Janson (Bacall), a painter who agrees to shelter him and aid in his search. Fairly standard pulp stuff, right? Well, not exactly. The reason the film put off audiences in 1947, and continues to do so today, is that we don’t see our star’s face for the entire first act. Instead, the camera assumes Parry’s point of view, and goes as far as to have the other actors speak into the lens to sell the gimmick.
Now this wasn’t altogether new for film noir. At the top of the year, Robert Montgomery had released his detective yarn Lady In the Lake, which made use of a similar POV technique. Where that film falls short, and Dark Passage succeeds, however, is that “Passage” uses the technique in a manner that serves the story. Parry’s face is plastered all over town, and he has to get plastic surgery to conceal his identity. Because we cannot see Bogart’s face, the film manages to sell us on the notion that he looks like someone else. (We are actually provided a face via newspaper clippings; that of actor Frank Wilcox).
The reliance on the POV technique pays off after the character has his surgery. In a triumphant piece of staging, the camera pulls around to reveal both Parry’s new face and Bogart’s iconic mug (“I look older”). Delmer Daves is not a filmmaker who’s often praised by modern critics, but his ability to use the technique without losing sight of the story is worth noting. Without such a deft hand, the film could have been a shallow exercise in camerawork.
Bolstering Daves’ work in front of the camera is his talented leading lady. Bacall is given a difficult task here, as she has to sell the romance between her character and Parry almost single-handedly. Had she not been able to do so, the transition from the POV technique to the scenes with Bogart in the frame would have been jarring. Fortunately, Bacall maintains her breathy magnetism even when she’s saying her lines right into the lens. The scene where Irene and Parry first have dinner is a shining example. Her reactions; her ability to bounce off of Bogart’s line delivery with a smirk or a suspicious glance, are a testament to her nuanced taste as an actress.
I’d also like to commend Dark Passage for its extensive and often breathtaking coverage of San Francisco. The city is treated as an ominous force within the story, especially when a post-surgery (and likely drugged) Parry has to find his way through a maze of endless stairs and jagged streets. It’s the perfect setting to convey Parry’s fractured state of mind, while subtly conveying the slim chance he has of locating his wife’s killer. The film also does a great job of highlighting lesser known areas in San Francisco, as Parry’s investigation takes him through the Fillmore District, Telegraph Hill and the Filbert Steps. (The current residents at Irene’s apartment sometimes place a Bogart cutout in the window as a nod to the film!)
Of course, all the camera techniques and scenic locations wouldn’t matter were it not for the baseline chemistry of the film’s stars. Bogart gives a wonderfully nimble performance here, hinting at the neurotic tendencies that would color later films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Caine Mutiny (1954). Bacall breaks away from the teenage sirens she initially played in favor of a matured, complicated woman. Both expand their star personas, while sharpening the chemistry they forged both onscreen and off.
I won’t spoil the final act of the film, given its “hidden gem” status, but I will say that the final shot is the perfect summation of Bogart and Bacall’s timeless appeal. It’s quintessential film noir, given its bittersweet tone, and quintessential Hollywood, given its glamorous spin. The song that plays them off effectively doubles as my thoughts on the entire film: “Too Marvelous for Words.” A-
TRIVIA: Film noir regular Dane Clark is the voice on the radio when Parry escapes police custody.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.