Monday, March 20, 2006

Dark Passage (1947)


Don Malcolm

Dark Passage, the orphan child of the Bogart-Bacall film quartet, is one I’ve seen umpteen times over the years. It remains a personal favorite despite the fact that I should know better. What follows below is one part justification, two parts appreciation.

When I say “orphan child,”, it’s because Dark Passage is routinely slammed as being far-fetched, gimmicky, and downright clunky. Even the producers of the companion documentary that accompanied the film’s recent release on DVD could only muster up lukewarm praise—a “good” film, not a great one.

So why does it have so much resonance for this viewer? Is it just a personality quirk, or is there something else?

The film begins with a prison escape by falsely convicted wife-murderer Vincent Parry (played by Humphrey Bogart). Hiding in a garbage barrel leaving San Quentin on a prison truck, he executes a tricky, dangerous rolloff while still inside. From the point that he emerges from the barrel, we see everything from Parry’s eyes—director Delmer Daves has to hide Bogart’s face from our view for awhile, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute.

Right off, viewers are brought into an area of controversy. The “first-person camera” did not wear well with audiences in 1947; the most prominent attempt to employ the technique, in Robert Montgomery’s adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel Lady in the Lake, was too static in its execution and suffered from the inconsistent performances of actors trained to avoid looking into the camera. Daves surmounts most of these problems by creating movement in as many of the first-person scenes as possible, and by interpolating third-person scenes whenever he can hide Parry from view.

Parry’s first attempt to get into San Francisco from the Marin countryside goes awry when the driver he's hitching a ride from hears a bulletin about the escape. Parry slugs him, knocks him out, drags him into the bushes and changes clothes with him; he’s just about ready to leave when a car stops and a young woman confronts him. She is Irene Jansen (played by Lauren Bacall), and she has a backstory with Parry’s case: as the narrative unfolds, we find out that she a) had a father who died in prison after being falsely convicted for the murder of his wife, and b) had attended Parry’s trial and had become friendly with the star witness against Parry.

Irene convinces Parry to hide in her car and they successfully get past the roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge. They wind up at Irene’s place in North Beach, where she buys him a new wardrobe, and the star witness (the meddlesome Madge Rapf, played by Agnes Moorehead) rattles Parry by knocking at Irene’s door while Parry is there alone. He decides to try to escape from the city that evening, but not before it becomes clear that he and Irene have some kind of romantic spark. (He is interested in an apparent boyfriend, named Bob, who calls shortly after they arrive at Irene’s place.)

Irene, who is well-fixed, supplies Parry with some badly-needed cash ($1000). But the cab driver (played by Tom D’Andrea) recognizes him. Parry contemplates jumping out of the taxi, or popping the cabbie in the back of the head; but this isn’t necessary, because the cabbie is a) sympathetic and b) knows a plastic surgeon who will take only $200 to give Parry a new face. (Yes, a face that looks just like Bogart!)

And this is just the beginning of the surreal plot twists that propel Dark Passage forward. While the cabbie lines up an appointment with the surgeon, Parry visits his only close friend George Fellsinger (played by Rory Mallinson), who agrees to let him stay with him once the surgery is performed. He also supplies more of the backstory leading up to the murder of Parry’s wife (“Remember when you spent your last dollar to give her that fire opal ring?” he reminds Parry, who grimly remembers she threw it in his face because the opal “had flaws in it”), and baldly states that Madge framed Parry for her death by lying on the witness stand.

The scene in the surgeon’s office brings the first-person camera technique to an close, but director Daves saved his best actor for last: veteran stage actor/director Houseley Stevenson, who at age 70 would embark on a short-lived career as a noir character icon, is nothing short of brilliant as the renegade doctor, seamlessly careening from existential philosophy (“There’s no such thing as courage; there’s only fear”) to black humor (“If a man like me didn’t like someone, he could surely fix him for life; he could make him look like a bulldog—or a monkey!”). As he gives Parry an anesthetic, we move into a ninety-second dream sequence, where Parry oscillates between sinister and reassuring images: though it’s derivative of a similar sequence from Murder, My Sweet, it’s still effective, and fun.

When Parry awakes, he’s all bandaged up, and after getting instructions for how to deal with his recovery period, he goes back to Fellsinger’s apartment—only to find that his friend has been murdered. With no other place left to go, he returns to Irene’s apartment, collapsing in front of her building. Just before passing out, however, he has noticed that the same car that first picked him up in Marin is parked near Irene’s place. As will become clear a bit later on, this is no coincidence.

Irene starts to take care of Parry, but there’s still another hurdle. When the papers get wind of Fellsinger’s murder, it prompts Madge to make a second call at Irene’s door. Apparently panicked by these events, Madge tries to invite herself to stay with Irene. At this point, Bob arrives (Irene had invited him in order to keep his dependent possessiveness under wraps), and it turns out that Bob (played by Bruce Bennett) and Madge are acrimonious ex-fiancés. They battle it out while Parry waits upstairs, and we learn that Madge is trying to figure out what man was in Irene’s apartment the previous day. Irene, thinking quickly, tells them that it was Parry—which stops both of them in their tracks. (As she tells Parry a bit later on, in one of the film’s best lines: “You tell the truth, and nobody believes you.”) Bob, thinking that Irene has really found another man (but not Parry!!) with whom to be romantically involved, gallantly steps aside; Madge is forced to retreat and await further developments.

All seems to be working out for Parry now; he has time to recover from the surgery, and he has the attentive, soulful Irene to take care of him. But, as a cutaway shot reveals, there is still the punk that he slugged initially (played by Clifton Young), who has his jalopy parked outside, keeping an eye on things.

Five days pass in a single dissolve; the bandages are removed and, wonder of wonders, Parry looks just like Bogart. And the attraction between Parry and Irene has continued to grow; she wants to know where he is going, and when he tries to sidestep the question she tells him that the reason he won’t tell her isn’t because he’s afraid she’ll tell the cops, but that he’s afraid she’ll follow him. This is certainly the most heartfelt and most artfully paced of all Bogart-Bacall love scenes; when Bacall asks if she was crazy to have picked him up on the road, Bogart hesitates an instant, then kisses her for the first time, pulls back, pauses, and says: “Yes.”

Parry doesn’t want to drag her into life on the lam, however, so he leaves her behind, planning an early-morning escape under a new name that Irene has conjured up for him. However, he’s not out of danger even with a new face; he is accosted at a diner by a cop who overhears him asking the short-order cook for race results at Bay Meadows, when the racing season has been over for a month.

He’s able to give the cop the slip, but his next move—taking a hotel room to bide time—only results in bringing back his first post-escape obstacle to his door: the punk, Baker, who tailed him from Irene’s and has extortion on his mind. Parry is escorted by gunpoint to Baker’s jalopy; they’re going back to Irene’s to force her to pay off.

Parry, forced to drive, stalls for time, all the while drawing information out of Baker, a small-time crook trying to step up in class. He finds an opening, grabs the gun away, and gets Baker to admit that he saw another car following Parry’s cab on the night he went to the surgeon—a car he knows belongs to the person who killed his wife and killed his friend Fellsinger. Baker makes a last-ditch play for the gun and, after a struggle, winds up dead at the base of a cliff. Parry now knows that he has to pay a call on the murderer, his once-and-always nemesis.


It has been Madge all along, but Parry has no way of proving it. He pretends to court her, but he can’t keep from revealing his true identity, and he promises to hound her until he confesses. But Madge has one last surreal, deadly twist ready for him: in order to make sure he can never prove his innocence, she hurls herself through her eighth-story window, falling to her death below.

Stunned, Parry manages to escape without detection (the shots of him climbing down the apartment fire escape are somehow claustrophobic and vertiginous all at once), and heads for the bus station to begin his escape to South America. He realizes, however, that life would be lonely without Irene; he calls her to let her know where he's going. The final scene reunites Parry and Irene in a little seaside cantina in Peru, where they can spend the rest of their days laying low and living well with Irene’s dough. The dark, forboding orchestrations in Franz Waxman’s score transmute into a fanfare of major-key hope and reconciliation, and the distant tropical lights twinkle as we leave the lovers to a well-deserved respite from this overly complicated plot.

Still with me? Yes, it’s a laborious plot—the original novel, by the great noir eccentric David Goodis, is even more dense and involuted—and the coincidences are even more outrageous. But, as Barry Gifford points out in his entry on this film in his wonderful book Devil Thumbs a Ride (now titled Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir)“...movies aren’t meant to be real; the reality is in the feelings produced by the viewing.”

What’s also clear from a comparison of Goodis’ novel (perhaps his most optimistic) and the screenplay (which condenses and removes character relationships, backstory, and several more plot complications) is that director/screenwriter Daves created a lot of cinematic problems for himself that might have been avoided had the film not been a Bogart-Bacall vehicle.

For example, with Bogart as the star, there was no way to show another actor as Parry and then bring him into the film halfway through. A “B”-movie version could have done that; but audiences then and now would not countenance such a device with Bogart in the lead role. Thus the first-person camera was needed.

Repeated viewings of the film show how artful the actors are at handling their play-to-the-camera roles. Bacall rises to the challenge of this role, and is noticeably more effective in this portion of the film than later on, when she is pushed into a more traditionally romantic role. (In the novel, Goodis never permits Irene to get so sentimental; he finds several other ways to convey the fact that Parry and Irene are soulmates.)

The character actors here—Stevenson, D’Andrea, and Mallinson—are the ones who really shine. It’s easy to overlook how much is going on in Mallinson’s one scene—how much narrative information he is supplying, for example. While Stevenson and D’Andrea are more flamboyant, adding comic relief to the grim proceedings, Mallinson has to play it straight: the subtle shadings, inflections, and shifts in emphasis that he negotiates during his five minutes become more impressive with each viewing.

And then there’s Young, a former Little Rascal (he was “Bonedust”), who deftly handles his quick turnabouts from cocky weasel to sniveling coward. Watching Warner Brothers’ films from the 40s on TCM provides other welcome glimpses of Young, but this is the place where he gets the most chance to show his stuff. Sadly, he died only four years after the filming of Dark Passage, suffocating in a house fire.

The main problem with Daves’ adaptation is that it cannot provide enough screen time for Agnes Moorehead’s Madge. In the novel, Parry’s plastic surgery “dream” features Madge, portraying her as a flamboyant, fearless trapeze artist; there are flashbacks to Parry’s dying wife, and additional details about the trial. All of these avenues for providing more on-screen backstory for Madge were left unexplored, and it is only due to Moorehead’s prodigious talent for histrionics that this very significant narrative problem is held at bay.

Daves does a fine job with Madge’s key scene, however, condensing Goodis’ prose into a solid set-piece for Moorehead. Her vocal inflections and her mounting mania are well-paced and become more startling with repeated viewings—even when you know she is going to wind up going out that window.

Goodis provides us with a haunting buildup to that moment in the novel, even managing to bring back the trapeze image:

She took a long breath and he could hear the dragging in her throat. She said. “They’ll always be looking for you. She wants you very badly. And that’s why she’d be willing to run away with you and keep on running away and always scared, always running away. And it would ruin everything for her because she’d be with you and that’s all she wants. And you know that and that’s why you won’t take her. That’s why she doesn’t have you now and she’ll never have you and nobody will ever have you. And that’s the way I wanted it. And that’s the way it is. And it will always be that way.”

She laughed at him and he saw the gold inlays. He saw the bright orange going back and away from him, going too fast. She was running backward, throwing herself backward as he went after her, but she was too fast and then he saw the gold inlays glittering and the bright orange flaring as the arms went wide, as the gold inlays flashed as she hit the window and the window gave way and the cracked glass went spraying and she went through.

He was at the window. He leaned through the broken window and he saw her going down, the bright orange acrobat falling off the trapeze. And it was as if she was taking him with her as she went down, the bright orange rolling and tossing and going down and hitting the pavement five stories below.

Gifford argues that this scene is Moorehead’s best film performance; while it’s hard to view it as better than her performance as Aunt Fanny in The Magnificent Ambersons, there is no one who makes more out of her limited screen time. When she goes out that window, it is electrifying—even after you’ve seen it for the umpteenth time.

So that’s why, in the end, I find the arguments about this film’s clunkiness, its gimmickry, and its outrageous, almost shameless coincidences to be nitpicky grumblings. Not, it’s not “perfect,” but its flaws are fiery and forceful, and ultimately the film is more engaging because of them, not in spite of them. And, finally, there’s San Francisco—the noir city, contrary to claims made by those who would champion New York or L.A.—which was successfully put over in that role for the first time with this film. And done so with indelible, hypnotic effect. There’s nothing more comforting than a nightmare with a happy ending, and Dark Passage is just that.


Mike said...

Thank you!!! I'm glad to see you, too, are a Dark Passage fan. I have what I call my "annual viewing" every year. Seriously, you pegged it when saying that there is something oddly alluring about this film. It tugs at me and, like you, I'm not sure why. When someone asks, "What's your favorite noir?" I ALWAYS say Dark Passage. Is it really the best? No, probably not. But, for whatever reason(s) -- it is my favorite.

On a sidenote, I was in SF in 1998 and visited the apartment house that Irene lived in. Complete with the art deco glass still intact. I half expected to see a young Lauren Bacall walk out.

Thanks for featuring Dark Passage! You made my day - and reminded me it's about time for my Annual Viewing.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking for the screenplay to Dark Passage, but can't find it anywhere. Any ideas where I could get it from?

esar shvartz said...

This is my favorite noir. I cannot explain why, the other reviewers have done a good job doing it. I saw it first almost 50 years ago and have seen it many times since. The street shots of mid century San Francisco are a jem. And, the B movie cliches are fun.

Lou Delgado said...

No question. I agree w/ Esar's comments.

Paul McGoran said...

I'm a Dark Passage fan from childhood. Not nearly enough has been said about Agnes Moorehead's incredible performance. Her last scene with Bogart, where she alternately flirts with, is suspicious of, then ultimately horrified by the new Vincent Parry is one of the supreme moments of noir. Forget all its faults, folks, Dark Passage is the real deal despite the gimmicks and plot flaws. To paraphrase what Churchill (?) said about Democracy as a form of government - Dark Passage is the worst kind of film noir - except for all others.

Anonymous said...

I loved the scene with the plastic surgeon who's operates on the philosophy of calling a spade a spade.
I also love the song "Too Wonderful For Words". Now, whenever I hear it, I think of this movie.

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