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The Noirathon: Dark Passage(1947)

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Dark Passage is one of the most underrated and interesting of all of the 1940’s Noir films. Quite why this one isn’t discussed more often is beyond me. It’s a very different looking Noir film to most, and it is also one which provides us with a glimpse of a far more vulnerable and tender side to Noir tough guy/hero Humphrey Bogart.

The Humphrey Bogart we see in this film is far removed from the smooth and tough screen hero we’re used to seeing, that man who can get himself out of any scrape and not be phased by what happens to him. His character in this film however is a desperate, awkward and very frightened man, a man who has no control over his situation. It’s rare to see Bogie in such a role. Personally I would have liked to have seen him play more similar characters because this one shows what a great range he had as an actor.Dark Passage poster Bogie’s romantic and affectionate scenes with his co-star and wife Lauren Bacall, are amongst some of the most tender I’ve ever seen the couple perform on screen. Dark Passage would mark the third time that Bogie and Bacall had worked together in a film. Their final screen pairing would come the following year with Key Largo.

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Bogie and Bacall get intimate as Vince and Irene. Screenshot by me.

Director Delmar Daves shot a large amount of Dark Passage with a subjective camera technique. This technique shows the film unfold before us entirely from the point of view of Humphrey Bogart’s character. For most of the film we don’t see his characters face at all, but we do hear his voice. When we finally do see his face, it is his heavily bandaged face. The film is one hour and 41 minutes long, but it takes about an hour before Bogie’s face actually appears on screen. This visual style more than anything else about the film is what makes it such an unusual one.

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The bandaged Vince. Those eyes sure do look familiar. Screenshot by me.

The point of view photography was pretty risky when you think about it. Bogie was one of the biggest film stars on the planet at the time this film was made. Not showing his face for such a large part of the film was a gamble.  Bogie was the draw for a large amount of the audience and they could very easily have walked out of screenings thinking they weren’t going to get to see the man himself. 

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We see what Vince is looking at for much of the film. Screenshot by me.

Interestingly, Dark Passage is actually not alone in the Noir genre for its use of this camera technique.Actor Robert Montgomery had caused quite a stir when he had directed and starred in another Noir film, Lady In The Lake, which had been released earlier in 1947. That film had been shot almost entirely from the point of view of the character Philip Marlowe, who Montgomery played, and the film became quite the talking point because of the way it was shot.

Delmer Daves also shot much of his film on location in San Francisco and this, coupled with the point of view sequences, ensured that there was quite a realistic and different feel about this film. The film is based upon the 1946 novel of the same name written by David Goodis. Delmer Daves wrote the screenplay in addition to sitting in the directors chair.

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Irene appears to help Vince. Screenshot by me.

The film tells the story of Vincent Parry(Humphrey Bogart), a man who is imprisoned for the murder of his wife, a crime that he insists he didn’t commit. Vince escapes from prison and is pursued by the law. Vince is picked up by a guy who agrees to give him a lift.

A news report comes on the car radio describing this man’s passenger. Vince beats the driver up, drags him into some bushes by the roadside and takes his shoes. Suddenly another car pulls up, and out gets a young artist called Irene Jansen(Lauren Bacall). Vince doesn’t know her, but she seems to know him(this is all explained later in the film). She tells him to come with her and she will help him. Irene drives him to San Francisco.

                               The roadblock sequence. Screenshot by me. 

Vince and Irene encounter a roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge, which leads to a very suspenseful sequence where Irene has to act casual to throw off the suspicions of the policeman who stops her car. Vince hides underneath a large covered pile of her art supplies and narrowly avoids being discovered. Once in the city, Vince gets help from a back-street doctor (Housley Stevenson)who performs plastic surgery on him to give him a new face. 

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Who’s in the mood for some plastic surgery? Screenshot by me.

The scene where Vince prepares for surgery is a standout, and it is made so by the dubious character of the doctor and his fabulous dialogue and laughter as he prepares his patient for surgery – “Ever seen a botched plastic job? If a man like me didn’t like a fella, he could surely fix him up for life. Make him look like a bulldog or a monkey!”. I doubt a man would want to get a shave off this dude, let alone willingly sit back and let him perform facial surgery on them. As the anaesthetic takes effect on Vince, he enters a bizarre nightmare, one where images and conversations he’s had get all mixed up as he goes under.  

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Part of the nightmare Vince has. Screenshot by me.

Vince emerges with a new face and recovers from the surgery at Irene’s apartment. She nurses him. Once recovered, Vince changes his name and sets about trying to investigate his wife’s murder. His investigation is difficult and dangerous.His only ally in all of this is Irene. The person who knows the truth about his innocence or guilt is Madge Rapf(a scene stealing Agnes Moorehead), the woman whose evidence in court was crucial in getting him put away.

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Agnes Moorehead as Madge. Screenshot by me.

Agnes delivers one of her best performances here. She’s a real nasty piece of work in this film. Madge is the sort of dame who sucks people in, charms them and then discards them like trash. She’s a whole lot of mean encased in one beautiful and glamorous exterior. I hope that Agnes had a lot of fun with this role because it sure looks like she relished playing the part. Such a shame that she didn’t get to play more bad girls in more Noir films. 

Bogie and Bacall are both absolutely terrific here. They convince as a couple thrown together in unusual circumstances who begin to fall in love.  Bogie does a good job of playing a more vulnerable and wounded character than he usually played. Much of his performance here comes via his voice and by the look in his eyes, it’s a more subtle performance than many of his others. He also makes us root for Vince and admire his determination to risk himself in order to find out the truth. Lauren delivers one of her best performances in my opinion. I love her as the determined, confident and fearless Irene. I also find her character so interesting because she is actually quite symbolic. 

                               Irene removes Vince’s bandages. Screenshot by me. 

Irene is the traditional white knight figure(a role usually played by men)to Bogie’s man in distress. She appears to him out of nowhere and saves him several times. She nurses him, supports him and stands by him. She is his guardian angel. She is his safe port in the hellish storm he finds himself caught up in. You could also say that Irene serves as a symbolic mother too, due to her being the one to bring the new Vince into the world so to speak. Vince doesn’t remove his bandages, it is Irene who does that, and in the process reveals his new self to him. Irene is also the one who chooses a new name(identity)for Vince, so if you look at it one way, it is she who brings this new man to life. Farewell, Vincent Parry. Hello to Alan. 

The entire supporting cast all deliver solid performances. The film is an interesting mystery and contains a lot of suspense and thrills. Some of the plot certainly does come across as being extremely far fetched, but somehow the film still manages to work despite that. It is a film that deserves to be much more widely discussed and appreciated today. I highly recommend this one to fellow Noir fans. 

Have you seen this? Leave your thoughts below. This is my final entry for my Noir Blogathon being held this weekend. 

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14 thoughts on “The Noirathon: Dark Passage(1947)”

  1. You gone on a noir frenzy Maddy. Respects.
    Loved the first person beginning and the plastic surgery bit was a blast. The back alley doctor smoking away. Then the drug trippy bit. So cool. Oh and Bacall is stunning. Yeah the far fetch bits!!… To pinch a bit from my own write up…..
    “It would achieve top marks from me if it wasn’t for a few over the top coincidences that are just a little on the far-fetched side but to be honest the film is so much fun it doesn’t really matter.”
    (ps will catch up on the others soon)

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  2. Today (July 24th) is Delmer Daves birthdate. Did you plan this or is it just one of those wild coincidences such as we might find in Dark Passage?

    Whatever else it is, and Dark Passage is many things to different people, this is a memorable movie. I know of no one who forgets it, and they usually have certain scenes that stay with them. Miss Morehead figures prominently. Personally, I never hear the Whiting and Mercer song Too Marvelous for Words without think of Irene and Vincent/Alan.

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  3. Nice review. This is one of those movies that only work because of Bogart and Bacall. From a logical POV it is not only farfetched but completely loony. Looked at dispassionately and objectively, the entire premise is ludicrous.

    First, there is the plastic surgery gimmick. Bogart’s whole face seems to have been altered completely with one operation and he heals extremely fast. OK, we let that pass. It’s not the only movie that did that.

    Then we have Bacall who helps a convicted murderer on the run from the police because she does not believe him to be guilty and he reminds her of her father’s fate, a man who was (supposedly) also falsely imprisoned.
    After that, every person Bogart meets (cabby, doctor, guy at the diner) helps him selflessly and believes him to be innocent just because he doesn’t have the eyes of a murderer and they “feel” he is somehow innocent! This is how people end up dead in a ditch somewhere. Nobody’s reactions to Bogart make any sense from a logical point of view.

    It all shouldn’t work for a second…but it does…
    Because then there is the magic between Bogart and Bacall and somehow nothing else matters anymore. This film works beautifully and comes together as a whole despite itself.

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  4. Just to add to Margot’s observation – I’d say the film overcomes some ludicrous coincidences and developments due to Bogart and Bacall, and Delmer Daves. The man’s tireless optimism and faith in the ultimate triumph of the human spirit adds that extra layer of effectiveness to the Bogart/Bacall partnership and elevates the whole thing.

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    1. Colin, now this is a coincidence. (Sorry for going off topic). I just watched Jubal, a wonderful Western, and then read your piece about it. You and the others talk a lot about Daves. It’s true, many of his films, especially his Westerns, have a more upbeat ending than one would initially suspect. I don’t know if that was his vision or if the Code intervened.

      For me Dark Passage is a good movie only because of the actors. Without the Bogart/Bacall magic the movie would almost be infuriating for any lack of sense.

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      1. I think the positivism is Daves’ voice, Margot. The production code, and the studios themselves, certainly influenced the shape of filmmaking in general but the best directors, and I’d included Daves at his peak among them, still communicated their own sensibilities quite clearly.

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  5. I loved you analysis of the character Irene. I haven’t thought about some of those “roles” she plays, and they certainly make her the most interesting character in the picture. And, wow, how I love the subjective camera here – quite daring, but with great effect.
    Thanks for hosting this cool event!
    Kisses!
    Le

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