Our review of Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection, published November 15th, 2010, is also available.
In danger as violent as their love
Dark Passage is an odd little creature of a noir film. Structurally, it's screwier than an elephant in a prom dress. It takes a major movie star and places him in a major movie star role, then refuses to show his face for the first hour of its hour and forty-five-minute running time. It uses the entire first act to introduce a filmmaking gimmick that, whether it seemed like a good idea at the time or not, feels like just that: a gimmick. It makes wild, incongruous demands of its audience's ability to suspend disbelief, and throws together a ham-fisted murder mystery with a resolution we don't much care about, mainly because we never learn enough about the suspects to feel one way or another about who did the killing. But somehow, despite its flaws, the whole mishmash works. I don't know how it does, but it does.
Facts of the Case
The film opens with Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) having just escaped from prison, sent up on a murder charge for killing his wife, a crime he didn't commit. After a tussle with a drifter who wises up to his identity, Parry manages to hitch a ride with Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), a wealthy socialite who knows more about his murder trial than he thinks. She offers him asylum, for a brief time, but he soon becomes bent on clearing his name with the law and exposing the person (or people) who framed him. And as more murders begin to pile up, Parry's struggle becomes not only a fight to prove his innocence, but a fight to save himself from a one-way ticket to the gas chamber.
Dark Passage would be the third of four films real-life husband and wife Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would make together, and it's routinely considered the least of their on-screen pairings. After the faux-Casablanca intrigue of To Have and Have Not and the classic adaptation of the Raymond Chandler gumshoe caper The Big Sleep, the two would team up for this, the strangest and most experimental of their collaborations, a murder mystery built mostly around a technical gimmick that, no matter how you slice it, just doesn't quite come off the way the director, Delmer Daves, probably wanted it to.
The gimmick in question is the decision to film the first half hour of the picture in mostly a first-person point of view, which allows the director to get away with the story development that has Bogart changing his appearance at the end of the first act via plastic surgery. By showing everything from Parry's perspective for the first half hour (we see what he's supposed to look like in a newspaper photo, and it's a completely different person), then having his face wrapped in bandages for the next half hour, the logic is that when the bandages come off and Bogart's face is revealed, the audience will buy it more readily than if the whole effect had just been done with makeup. Though the first-person technique had been done before (most notably in The Lady in the Lake), the assumption was probably that if it were more essential to the plot, it would come off as less gimmicky.
That's all well and good, but the actual effect comes off as just the opposite—that is, it feels as if the script is written around the technique, rather than the technique itself being necessary to tell the story. A better idea might have been to use a different actor to play the Parry role and just have Bogart dub his lines, though that would likely have not flown well with the actor in question, and the sound of Bogart's voice coming from someone else's mouth would probably have seemed comical. No, I would have started the film with Bogart in bandages and explained the plastic surgery development in the film's first scenes, with Bacall either already a part of the story or somehow introduced later. This would have allowed Bogart to reveal himself earlier in the film instead of more than halfway through it, and would have allotted more time to the mystery of just who did kill Parry's wife, which as it is doesn't really get rolling until the bandages come off. It also would've allowed more time to introduce the various suspects (which include Agnes Moorhead and Bruce Bennett), who otherwise have to be introduced through their relationship to the Bacall character. As it is, the structural problems and reliance on the one visual gimmick make the production feel hopelessly dated in comparison with the classics of the period.
And yet, in its own wacky little way, Dark Passage actually ends up being a pretty entertaining picture, no doubt due to the Bogart-Bacall chemistry. This would be the first appearance of the couple after their real-life marriage (they were hitched after wrapping The Big Sleep), and the film reflects the evolution of their off-screen relationship, replacing the sassy wit of their earlier pairings with more of a tender, conventional romance that feels almost completely honest as a result of their real feelings toward each other. And though the movie itself is the least of the four films they made together, quality-wise, their screen chemistry is actually better displayed than in their last film, John Huston's Key Largo, in which Bacall is essentially relegated to damsel in distress status. Whereas good actors like Bogart and Bacall could make screen romances believable when paired with other actors in different films, there's something unmistakably authentic about seeing two people who we know are in love paired in a romantic story, and it's this aspect that saves Dark Passage from what might otherwise be considered a B-movie.
It's unfortunate, though, that Bacall essentially disappears from the final third of the movie, and doesn't manage to show up again until the very end, but once again, this is just another example of inherent structural problems in the screenplay. Had writer-director Delmer Daves chosen not to revolve his movie around a technical gimmick and instead focused on hammering out the structural problems inherent in the storytelling, he might just have turned out one of the film noir classics. As it is, Dark Passage plays as a relatively dated curiosity piece, a solid film for fans of the genre as well as the two leads to seek out, but one that leaves the audience wondering "what if…?" It's an entertaining picture to be sure, but with the level of talent involved, it could've been one of the greats.
Warner's video presentation of Dark Passage is arguably the best of their four recent Bogart releases (the others being To Have and Have Not, High Sierra, and They Drive by Night). The film is presented in its original full-frame taken from a solid black and white source print that exhibits minimal wear. There's the occasional scratch and speck of dirt, but they're less frequent than in the other three releases, and black and white levels are uniformly excellent. The audio, as per the usual, is in mono, and sounds free of distortion. There are subtitles present in Spanish, French, and English for the hearing impaired.
The extras here are right on par with the other Bogart films, and begin with a ten-minute featurette entitled Hold Your Breath and Cross Your Fingers: The Story of Dark Passage, which provides a decent overview of the making of the film and features film critic Leonard Maltin acknowledging the film's failures as well as its strengths. It's great when studios don't pull their punches when putting together this kind of material, and in my opinion, acknowledging a movie's flaws actually shows the film more respect than trying to hold it up as something it's not. The disc also includes the now-requisite Merrie Melodies short, this one entitled "Slick Hare" starring Bugs Bunny, as well as the film's original theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I neglected to mention this in my review of To Have and Have Not, but Dark Passage is again released in the dreaded Warner Bros. snapper case, the kind that look awful on the shelf and fall apart if handled improperly. Studios like New Line have wised up to keep-case packaging, and even MGM, who don't usually give a hoot about catalogue titles, put their cheapie releases in Amarays. So are you listening, Warner Bros.? Stop it. It's not funny anymore.
Dark Passage isn't likely to be confused with high art, but for fans of Bogart and Bacall, as well as lovers of classic films in general, it's required viewing, if only to see one of the few screen pairings of Hollywood's most storied off-screen couple. Warner Bros. has given the film proper respect on DVD, with terrific video and audio presentation and extras that don't mess around with unnecessary accolades. For $14.99, it's a damn fine package, even if it does come in a snapper case.
Not guilty. Classic filmmakers are thanked for nipping the first-person gimmick in the bud, and Warner Bros. is again commended on giving their library titles the respect they deserve. Case dismissed.
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• Hold Your Breath and Cross Your Fingers: The Story of Dark Passage Featurette
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