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Dark Passage

Dark Passage
Warner Home Entertainment
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 106 min. / Street Date November 4, 2003 / 19,98
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, Agnes Moorehead, Tom D'Andrea, Clifton Young, Douglas Kennedy, Rory Mallinson, Houseley Stevenson
Cinematography Sid Hickox
Art Direction Charles H. Clarke
Film Editor David Weisbart
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Delmer Daves from a novel by David Goodis
Produced by Jerry Wald, Jack L. Warner
Directed by Delmer Daves

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 too.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 viewing.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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