Monday, October 4, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Dark Passage" (1947)

"Dark Passage" wouldn't have been a particularly notable film noir, except for three things: Bogie & Bacall, Bogie's face swap and first-person camera perspective.

It was, of course, one of several onscreen pairings of offscreen couple Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. They met on the set of "To Have and Have Not" (profiled in this column some months back) and soon became a permanent item. Even though she was much younger than him, somehow their faces just fit well together on the screen.

Another interesting thing is that Bogart, whose distinct face is indelibly etched into the iconography of American cinema, does not show his mug until about halfway through the movie. When we do see him, his face is all bandaged up like the Invisible Man. Bogie has to do a lot of acting with just his eyes, and gives a softer, more sensitive performance than his usual tough-guy routine.

For the first third or so of the movie, we don't even see Bogart at all, bandaged or otherwise. That's because director Delmer Daves shoots from a very unusual perspective, as if the audience is seeing through Bogart's eyes. We see his hands coming into the frame, but that's it.

If indeed they are Bogart's hands -- they look more beat-up and hairy-knuckled than I would have thought. It seems more likely that they rigged up a special camera to an operator, who walks around and pretends to be Bogart, sticking his own hands in front of the lens when necessary.

Bogart's voice narrates his thoughts as his character, Vincent Parry, escapes from San Quentin, where he's been imprisoned for a bum murder rap after supposedly killing his wife.

Young painter Irene Jansen (Bacall) picks him up in her car, saving him from being recaptured, and keeps Vincent in her apartment until he can figure things out. He goes to see an old friend, trumpet player George, and bumps into a helpful cab driver (Tom D'Andrea) who, rather than turning him into the authorities for the $5,000 reward, suggests he visit a plastic surgeon instead.

Plastic surgery is something depicted in Golden Age movies as some kind of magic process by which people's faces can be completely altered in the matter of 90 minutes under the knife, followed by a mere week of recovery.

The doctor, who makes vague threats about turning Vincent's face into that of a monkey if he takes a dislike to him, ends up doing his job very well indeed. Interestingly, he suggests making Vincent look older and with a few scars, which seems to serve no purpose other than to justify Bogart's distinctive look.

The movie abruptly shifts from the first-person perspective after Vincent is sedated, the camera turning around to show us Bogart's face in all those bandages.

He tries to return to George's to lay up while his new face heals, but finds him dead, bludgeoned with his own trumpet. Out of options, Vincent returns to Irene's.

The second half of "Dark Passage" is not nearly as good as the first, as the plot devolves into a mix of gobbledygook and double-crosses. A small-time crook that Vincent bumped into earlier turns up again to blackmail Irene and Vincent. Madge (Agnes Moorehead), a friend of Irene's who also was the star witness against Vincent at his trial, also makes an appearance, along with her once-fiance Bob, who now has an eye on Irene.

I have to say the romance between Bogart and Bacall is not terribly convincing. Irene seems to have talked herself into believing she loves Vincent without ever really having a reason for doing so. There's a few moist eyes, but not much real passion.

The ending is notable in a few ways. Having figured out that Madge was the one who framed him, Vincent confronts her, trying to force her to confess. When she refuses, he seems completely stumped as to what to do next. Was his entire plan to get a murderer to admit to what she did, even though there's no proof to substantiate it?

Anyway, Madge falls through the window to her death. Vincent describes it as her stumbling, but I think the real implication is supposed to be that she threw herself against the pane. Either way, Daves shows her entire fall from several angles, including her body lying on the pavement far below -- fairly gruesome for 1947.

Vincent and Irene talk on the phone from the bus station, where he's crossing the Mexico border on his way to Peru. Their conversation is reminiscent of the one between Red and Andy in "The Shawshank Redemption," where the person on the run tells the one they've left behind what little remote town they'll be in, even making Irene repeat the name back to her. In the last shot, they're reunited in a beach-side club.

"Dark Passage" isn't a particularly good film -- there's a lot of disparate elements that never quite sew themselves together. It's like a crazy patchwork made up of different pieces of other movies. Still, the audacious camera work alone make it memorable.

2.5 stars out of four

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