Sunday, 10 March 2019

Noir Diary # 2:
Dark Passage
(Delmer Davies, 1947)

Ah, Bogart and Bacall. Need I say more? ‘To Have and Have Not’. ‘Key Largo’. ‘The Big Sleep’. ‘Dark Passage’. Wait a minute, what was that last one again…?

Yes, no one ever talks about ‘Dark Passage’, do they? I wonder if there might be a reason for that? Only one way to find out…

Adapted by director Delmer Davies from the David Goodis novel of the same name (after Bogart himself apparently took a shine to it), ‘Dark Passage’ gets straight down to business with Bogie (or at least, an unseen man with Bogie’s voice – see below) escaping from San Quentin, hidden inside a barrel on the back of a truck.

Taking a dive into the undergrowth at the side of the road, he proceeds to hitch a lift from sneering Warner Bros stock player Clifton Young, essaying the kind of motorist who apparently doesn’t think twice about picking up shabby looking guys in overalls who are mysteriously marooned just down the road from California’s largest prison. An inconvenient radio announcement however alerts the driver (and indeed, us viewers) to the fact that one Vincent Parry – imprisoned for the murder of his wife – has escaped and is on the run, forcing Parry (as we can now identify our protagonist) to lamp Young on the jaw and flee back the questionable safety of the roadside shrubbery.

Just as he is trying the unconscious man’s shoes on for size, he is interrupted by the more promising appearance of Lauren Bacall, who tells him to get in her car pronto before the cops pick him up. For a few seconds, we assume that the pair must know each other, but, as they make the tense run back toward San Francisco, passing through a roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge with Parry hunkered down under canvas in the back seat, it becomes clear that they have never previously met.

Explaining her actions, Bacall’s character (Irene Jansen to the likes of us) claims that, due to the fact that her own father died in prison after being framed for murder, she has taken a sympathetic interest in Parry’s case after reading about it in the papers, and… well, she just happened to be in the area painting some landscapes when she heard about his escape on the radio, so what the heck, right?

And if you believe THAT, well… perhaps you’ll also be able overlook the question of exactly she managed to pinpoint Parry’s exact location before the cops did. If such unlikely events are liable to pose a problem for you, you should probably be warned that you’re in for a long, hard road with this movie, and it only gets worse from hereon-in. But, for those of us willing to simply accept all this as an intriguing and exciting set-up for a crime story, well… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I thought the first half of ‘Dark Passage’ was pretty damn great.

We should probably pause at this point to address what, for many, will be the film’s most noteworthy element – namely the fact that our protagonist’s face remains entirely invisible to us for the first hour, with Davies instead relying extensively upon the use of handheld, subjective POV shots.

The director and his collaborators deserve credit here I think for ensuring that this technique never becomes merely a distracting gimmick. The “first person shooter” type material is carefully balanced out by more traditional back of head / long shot footage (not to mention a great taxi ride in which Parry’s face is shrouded in shadow), and the reason for this unusual conceit eventually becomes clear when we see a photograph of Vincent Parry in a newspaper, and realise that he looks absolutely nothing like Humphrey Bogart.

(At which point, legend has it, old Jack Warner nearly suffered a heart attack upon viewing the dailies and realising that he was financing a movie in which his biggest star pointedly did not appear… but, I’m getting ahead of myself.)

After laying low in Irene’s beautifully decorated pad for long enough to take a shower and acquire a new set of duds (like a true early 20th century bad-ass, he knows his inner leg measurement and hat size right off the bat), Parry is soon on the run once again, after the apartment is besieged by Irene’s busy-body frenemy Madge (Agnes Moorehead), who – cue outrageous coincidence number two – turns out to be the same woman whose testimony led to Parry conviction for his wife’s murder in the first place! At this point, even the most credulous of viewers will likely start to suspect an ulterior motive behind Irene’s impulsive decision to act as Parry’s guardian angel, but… best not hold that thought for too long, because the script for ‘Dark Passage’ certainly doesn’t.

Thankfully, such lackadaisical plotting becomes easier to overlook through the next few sequences, which see the film lurching toward what I can only describe as a kind of hard-boiled surrealism, temporarily casting our faceless hero into a weird, urban netherworld that could almost have been pulled from a William S. Burroughs novel.

As Parry drifts aimlessly through the Mission District in the back of a cab, contemplating his sorry situation, the amiable driver – clearly one of Burroughs’ “good Johnsons” – soon wises up to his passenger’s identity. After expressing his opinion that Parry got a raw deal from the law (“I figure you slugged her with that ashtray because she made life difficult for you. I know how it is.”). The cabbie suggests they pay a visit to “a friend of mine - knows his stuff”, who might be able to help him out. Hey, why not?

Now, clearly, the idea that Parry has providentially stumbled upon some genius back street doctor willing to perform miraculous feats of plastic surgery for a couple of hundred bucks - in ninety minutes, at 3 o’clock in the morning, in 1947 - is so utterly fantastic that we’re forced to do more or less what our exhausted protagonist does, and just go along with it in a state of dazed disbelief.

“I perfected my own special technique twelve years ago, before I was kicked out of the Medical Association,” explains the doctor (Houseley Stevenson) as he sharpens his straight razor. “My method is based partly on calling a spade a spade. I don't monkey around. Have you got the money?”

Well I don’t know about you, but I’d probably hand it over. Stevenson has one hell of a bedside manner, and, as sloppy as this movie’s scripting may be elsewhere, the dialogue assigned to both he and Tom D’Andrea’s good samaritan cabbie is absolutely fantastic. Both actors deliver splendid character turns that, along with Davies’s bold, expressionistic direction (including a classic long-plunge-to-oblivion nightmare bit when the doc administers the anaesthetic), help to sell these potentially ridiculous events to us quite brilliantly.(1)

After curtly advising him that his bandages can be removed in twelve days, and that, until then, he needs to stay on a liquid diet, can’t speak and must sleep on his back with his arms tied to the bed (“you can smoke, but - use a holder”), the doc bids farewell to Parry – his face now a recognisably Bogart-shaped mass of bandages – as the sun rises over the bay.

For a while after the operation sequence, the film retains a sense of jittery, off-kilter adrenalin, presumably reflecting Parry’s frantic state of mind as he sets off in search of a safe place to recuperate. In a scene almost worthy of a ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ style parody, our hero returns first to the home of his best pal – a down-on-his-luck jazz musician – only to discover that the poor guy has been beaten to death with his own horn!

“The only thing he ever wanted was to go to South America with me, and to play that trumpet,” Bogart’s voiceover deadpans, as he raises the bent instrument into shot. “That's all he wanted out of life. Go to Peru, play a trumpet. Now he's dead.”

It is at moments like this that I wonder why I waste my time watching films that are not late ‘40s noirs.

This is closely followed by another great moment, when, returning in exhausted desperation to Irene’s place, Parry staggers, barely conscious, up one of those vertiginous San Francisco hills, only to find an open-topped car parked outside the apartment building… with the same highly distinctive seat covers he had previously noted on the one belonging to the by now long-forgotten motorist whom he slugged at the side of road! The plot thickens…

Unfortunately however, it never really thickens into anything terribly interesting, and it is a sad irony that, from the moment Bacall eventually removes Bogart’s bandages following a fortnight of caring ministrations, finally revealing the iconic face of the film’s star, ‘Dark Passage’s momentum sags fatally and never really recovers.

I’ve not had the opportunity to read the Goodis source novel, but, knowing that author’s gift for exploring the inner life of his doomed and desperate characters, I can well imagine him pulling something worthwhile out of this story. Rendered as a flat Hollywood thriller however, the resolution of the film’s central murder mystery plotline achieves the rare distinction of being both unfeasible and boring, despite the admirable efforts of Agnes Moorehead, chomping her way through the scenery like a thespian pit-bull.

Also off-putting, from my point of view at least, was the sense of schizophrenia that seems to afflict Bogart’s characterisation throughout the movie. Although we never get much background on Vincent Parry, all available evidence seems to suggest that, prior to the misfortune of being framed for his wife’s murder, he was, well… a bit of a chump, to not put too fine a point on it.

We build an impression of him as a bland, middle-aged guy, stuck in a loveless marriage, who presumably hoofed it into the city each day to do some sedate desk job, before spending his leisure time drinking cocktails with a group of insular, bitchy friends who didn’t even seem to like him very much. So - not exactly your average Humphrey Bogart character, in other words.

It’s surely no accident that, prior to the surgery, the doctor tells Parry, “I’ll make you look as if you’ve lived” – that of course being the essential quality Bogart brought to all his roles - but unfortunately the disjuncture between actor and character here extends beyond the kind of cognitive dissonance you’d reasonably expect from this kind of face-swap story.

Armed with that voice even before he goes under the knife, Parry sometimes seems as panicked and clueless as we’d expect of an average joe in his situation, but elsewhere in the film, he suddenly becomes proficient in slugging guys in the face, handling guns and talking turkey with small-time hoodlums… not to mention having a loyal best friend who’s a down-on-his-luck jazz musician. So, who exactly are we watching here? Vincent Parry, the mild-mannered suburban fall guy, or Humphrey Bogart, the movie star, roaming free in his usual hard-boiled persona? Like so much in ‘Dark Passage’, the whole thing never really gels.

Likewise, I find it difficult to believe that Goodis’s novel gave this story’s central couple as easy a ride together as they get here. Bacall is excellent here, projecting a mixture of menace, mystery, practicality and vulnerability that pretty much nails exactly what’s needed for a female lead in a film noir, but, as I’ve mentioned above, the character's behaviour is also profoundly suspicious from the outset. In any other noir, she’d have made for such an obvious femme fatale they might as well have decorated her apartment with a giant spider’s web.

But, as an early example perhaps of the kind of “star driven” scripting that has blighted so much Hollywood product in the 21st century, ‘Dark Passage’ was clearly built around the famed on-screen chemistry of its real-life star couple, and nothing so silly as “telling a good story” was going to be allowed to upset the thoroughly wholesome nature of their characters’ burgeoning relationship.

This leads us, inevitably, to a deeply unconvincing South of the Border happy ending, complete with a faux-exotic night club setting, which feels very much like a limp attempt to reignite the romanticism of ‘Casablanca’. This seems especially ironic, given that that film’s entire emotional arc was predicated on the idea of a couple who don’t get together at the end, but whatcha gonna do?

Though a deeply flawed movie, and an understandable box office failure upon its initial release, I don’t want readers to feel as if I’m coming down too hard on ‘Dark Passage’. At the very least, it remains a prime slice of film noir style from what was arguably the genre’s peak era. Davies’ direction is energetic and accomplished, the San Francisco location shooting is absolutely beautiful, and the stand-out sequences during the first half are total classics. Even after that, you’ve still got a cast that can legitimately be termed “legendary” firing on all cylinders.

With all that in the ‘plus’ column, who am I to sit here giving it the “script problems from day one” treatment? If you’re a noir fan, or a Bogart fan, or a Bacall fan (or hell, even a Houseley Stevenson fan) and you’ve previously overlooked this one – give it a try, it’s well worth your time.


(1)TRIVIA ALERT: Houseley Stevenson was the father of Onslow Stevens(on), who enjoyed a parallel Hollywood career, also seemingly specialising in doctors. He played the doctor in Universal’s ‘House of Dracula’ two years prior to this film, and went on to wield a stethoscope in ‘Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ (1948) and ‘The Creeper’ (1948) amongst many others, before expanding his range to play a general in ‘Them!’ (1954). Suffice to say, despite his best efforts, his Dad beat him hands-down when it came to movie doctors, if his performance in ‘Dark Passage’ is anything to go by.

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