Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
By pedigree and intent Dark Passage is a film noir, but in all fairness it's a
confused movie with a gimmick that can't hide a pile of foolish coincidences and absurd plotting.
Even weirder, the magnetic attraction of the Bogart-Bacall duo makes it eminently enjoyable.
Functioning only as a mindless romance, it's no endorsement for writer-director Delmer Daves.
Convicted wife killer Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) escapes from San Quentin and is
picked up and sheltered by Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), an artist with an interest in his case. Helped
by a friendly cabble (Tom D'Andrea), Parry gets a new face from plastic surgeon Walter Coley
(Houseley Stevenson) but has difficulty hiding out at Irene's: Madge Rapf, the clinging and spiteful
woman whose testimony sent him up the river in the first place (Agnes Moorehead) is hanging around
because she fears Parry has escaped to murder her.
I've got a high-toned film book that puts Dark Passage on a list with King Kong,
Peter Ibbetson, Duck Soup and Night of the Hunter as pre-eminent examples of
Surrealist theory. 1
The author assigns the film's complete lack of coherence and narrative logic to a surrealist
origin, an absurd idea that becomes even moreso when one tries to imagine overachieving Warners
company man Delmer Daves as a subversive artist.
Dark Passage doesn't need artsy help to make us scratch our heads. It breaks so many rules
of logic and good plotting, it would appear to be assembled by a bad computer told to place 10
noir clichés in random order:
Irene Jansen is personal friends with the evil Madge Rapf, who
sent Vincent Parry to prison for life. Coincidentally, her own father was convicted of a similar crime.
Coincidentally, she's sort of involved with Rapf's husband, Bob, a similar entanglement to the one
that got Parry in trouble. Coincidentally, Irene just happens to be painting on the same road where
Vincent escapes. Conveniently, she's wealthy and lives alone in an apartment where Vincent can hide.
Although we don't see him for almost a full hour because of an elaborate subjective point-of-view experiment
lifted from The Lady in the Lake, we know Vincent is Humphrey Bogart because we hear his
voice. So when we see a picture of a man who doesn't look like him, it doesn't add up. There's also no
surprise when the bandages later come off to reveal Bogie. So why hide him, and why the POV gimmick?
Ancillary characters stack up rapidly, as in a radio show. 2
Parry's picked up by a creep who immediately suspects him and later tries to blackmail him. Vincent's
best friend is a swell guy willing to risk a prison sentence to harbor him. Naturally, he has
'potential victim' written on his chest in neon letters. The first cabbie Vincent rides with turns
out to be the top connection for needy criminals in the Bay Area - asking nothing in return, and
whisking him off to a plastic surgeon eager to work in the dead of night.
In the middle of this insane whirlpool is acting as good as can be found in movies of the day. Once
he's finally on camera Bogie is charming, and costar Bacall never strikes an unconvincing note no
matter how ridiculous things get. Perhaps this contrast was what the Surrealist book reacted to.
Agnes Moorehead is terrific as a shrewish monster and holds up her end of the story beautifully. As
an insane crime soap opera this is so well done that our thoughts do turn to the possibility that
it was some kind of intellectual exercise on the part of Delmer Daves - to prove that a movie
could make absolutely no sense and still play on a screen.
The physical details are even stranger. Because of one remark overheard in a diner, Vincent becomes the subject
of scrutiny by a nosy detective who claims the right to demand a total accounting for who he
is and what he's up to. But Vincent is able to walk up and down the steep Frisco hills for
hours, in the midst of a citywide manhunt, his faced wrapped up like Im-Ho-Tep, and nobody takes
any notice of him. (spoiler) Vincent's argument with blackmailer Baker (a reptilian Clifton Young)
includes a fight and gunplay at Fort Point. It's a very public place but Vince is able to drive away
unnoticed after leaving Baker dead. (bigger spoiler) And the demise of Agnes Moorehead is as
silly and convenient an 'accident' as ever happened in a movie. 3
(bigger spoiler yet)
With all the logic of a soap opera, Dark Passage ends with Bogie unaccountably well-to-do
in an unnamed South American country represented by one very chic oceanside nightclub. Bacall
meets him there and they dance to their favorite tune. Most real noir pictures find substantially
less pleasant ends for their lovers; the earlier Nora Prentiss is incredibly bleak, and
poor Kent Smith in that one didn't mean to hurt anybody. Vincent Parry is morally entangled
in at least four deaths - don't forget that his adultery contributed to his original wife's murder. He's
no Richard Kimball, not by a long shot. 4
So perhaps the ending is surreal - Lauren and Humphrey reunite in an exotic fantasyland, and
this tale of murder and deceit ends up happily ever after.
I haven't read hardboiled author David Goodis' original story, but I did read his Nightfall,
which was a complicated series of nightmarish twists and turns in urban and rural settings, with
an innocent man trapped between the law and ruthless criminals. Jacques Tourneur made it into an
okay film in 1957 that I never liked much. Perhaps the usually dependable Daves tried to simplify
and star-sanitize this similar story, and it turned into a mish-mosh.
The funny thing is that Dark Passage is eminently enjoyable, from its impressive location
shooting to the undeniable attraction of its stars. One laughs at the end, but it's entertaining
Warners' DVD of Dark Passage is immaculate and bursting with a restored picture and punchy
sound that will make old murky 16mm TV prints a lost memory.
For extras, there's a Looney Tunes short where Bogie and Bacall make guest appearances. The short docu
Hold Your Breath and Cross
Your Fingers features the usual critical suspects who analyze the film and its stars. Dark
Passage was reportedly a flop. It's too bad that studios
were so sensitive then to romantic pairings in movies, as the romantic angle in this one works,
and I'm sure audiences would have come back for more of the duo.
The critics make a case for Bogart and Bacall's HUAC problems being the prime reason for the film's
failure, but it doesn't wash with this reviewer. Sure, people who read the papers might have been
exposed to political
criticism of the stars, but the overboiled Dark Passage was more likely
than not rejected as silly by audiences on its own merits, and word of mouth killed it.
It doesn't matter now, as the film is a lot of fun to watch. And don't forget the terrific noir
artwork on the DVD snapper cover ... I wish I had a poster of it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dark Passage rates:
Supplements: Theatrical trailer, featurette Hold Your Breath and Cross Your
Fingers, cartoon Slick Hare
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: November 15, 2003
1. Matthews, J. H. Surrealism and American Feature Films Twayne, Boston 1979
2. It's more like a radio show than just that. People constantly fill in
the blanks verbally as if we can't see what's happening, telling each other what they see outside windows, etc.
3. Lots of reviews call Moorehead's window plunge a suicide, when it's
clearly accidental. I wonder if the new reviewers just got their plot synopsis from the reference book
Film Noir: A Reference to the American Style where the mistaken suicide idea seems to have originated.
4. Nora Prentiss - now there's a weird film noir with a nasty
kick at the
end. It's also said to have been cut by more than half an hour at the last moment, although it's hard
to see how it could be any longer than it is. Catch it on TCM sometime, it's essential Ann Sheridan
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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