A commercial flick gone weird

Of the four films that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, Dark Passage is undoubtedly the most outlandish, in both narrative and formal terms. Its central conceit, of an escaped convict undergoing plastic surgery to completely transform his appearance, would be a challenge for modern techniques, but for a surgeon in the 1940s to turn out a result that looked as good as Bogart seems very unlikely. So does the relationship between the central characters, and the rather precarious series of coincidences that sees them ending up in one another’s company. In fact, almost every significant event in the film seems far-fetched.

In order to avoid showing the main character’s face pre-transformation, the early scenes are shot from a first-person perspective. This is not a technique that’s been widely deployed in mainstream cinema, although one of the best-known examples, Robert Montgomery’s Lady In The Lake, was released nine months before Dark Passage. In Lady In The Lake the effect is intended to emulate the first-person narration of the Raymond Chandler novel from which the film is adapted, but the story of Dark Passage isn’t told solely from the protagonist’s perspective, and for me the shift felt a little awkward. It was certainly a radical decision to cast Bogart, and then to avoid showing his valuable image for the first chunk of the movie—his face is bandaged for a number of scenes after the conclusion of the first-person section.

It’s hard to get a grip, from the beginning of the twenty-first century’s third decade, on how this formal manoeuvre would have come across on the film’s release. Was this a piece of serious film-making, or was it a commercial flick gone weird? It has something of the feel of a stage play, in the way its various dramatic scenarios are set up and executed—although not the same sense as some earlier Golden Age movies, of having failed to completely adapt a formal vocabulary forged on the stage. Director Delmer Daves seems to have been largely interested in dialogue and character interaction, and Bogart delivers an unusually subdued performance, characterised by nuance and uncertainty. However any serious dramaturgical pretensions are undermined by the overwhelming implausibility of the story and the majority of the incident.

Bacall does Bacall to perfection in Dark Passage, although her character is less morally equivocal than it is in the first two movies she made with Bogart: she is, however, self-possessed, poised, and in pursuit of her own agenda, which isn’t always quite how women tend to behave in films of this era. However, her interactions with Bogart are not as sparky as they are in To Have And Have Not or The Big Sleep, and it’s arguable that this film is less entirely predicated on the cinematic magnetism of its stars. It’s an ensemble piece, notwithstanding that the ensemble always revolves around Bogart and Bacall, and the setting of San Francisco, frequently shot on location, is an important member of the cast—rather than being a roughly painted flat for the stars to stand in front of, as were the settings of their two earlier films.

So Dark Passage is not the same kind of delightful confection of style and wit for which this legendary Hollywood couple is known (largely on the basis of their first two films together). But it is still a fascinating window into the Golden Age, and into the social assumptions of the era in which it was made. There is a dissonance between its apparent seriousness and its ridiculous scenario, but its interest as a period piece makes that easy enough to swallow, and it’s still a very entertaining visual feast. Even on the relatively subdued form they display here, it’s hard to take your eyes off Bogie and Bacall, and the flick is worth watching, of course, just for them.

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