Thursday, October 2, 2014

See What Bogart Sees in "Dark Passage"

Bogart--after we finally see his face.
As regular Cafe readers know, I'm a big fan of writer-director Delmer Daves. My definition of "filmmaker" is one who both writes and directs a film. Frankly, it always irks me when a director--who shoots another person's script--uses the credit "A John Smith Film." Daves wrote or co-wrote almost all of the thirty movies he directed. Ironically, one of the few that he didn't author was To the Victor (1948), which was penned by Richard Brooks--who later became another acclaimed writer-director.

Parry escapes in a barrel; one of the
few opening shots not in first-person.
This lengthy introduction brings us is to one of Daves' best directed films, the 1947 film noir Dark Passage. It opens mid-plot with convict Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) having just escaped from San Quentin prison. Parry eludes the police by hitching a ride with an inquisitive man who quickly figures out the identity of his passenger. When the driver unwisely stops the car, Parry beats the man unconscious and drags the body from the car to hide it. He is spotted by an attractive young woman (Lauren Bacall), who recognizes Parry instantly--and then offers to provide him with safe passage to San Francisco. The perplexed Parry agrees.

Lauren Bacall as Irene.
The escaped convict's mysterious benefactor, Irene Jansen, lets him stay in her luxurious hilltop apartment, buys him new clothes, and gives him $1000. We later learn that she attended his trial everyday (he was accused of killing his wife) and wrote a letter to the newspaper proclaiming his innocence. Is Irene's interest driven solely by the fact that her father was once wrongly accused, too? Has she somehow developed legitimate feelings for Parry? Or does she have an ulterior motive for helping him?

One of the film's few flaws is that its plot, based on David Goodis' novel, depends on a series of happenstances. Irene happens to be driving by when Parry escapes from prison. She happens to be a friend of Madge (Agnes Moorehead) who knew Parry and his wife. A police detective happens to be in the same cafe where Parry stops for breakfast. And the cab driver conveniently knows an unlicensed plastic surgeon that performs operations at 3 a.m. Still, Daves unwinds the plot slowly, so that its unlikely connections somehow seem more believable. 

Bogart in bandages.
Daves' greatest contribution, though, is his direction--and his brilliant idea to show the first hour through Parry's eyes. A key plot element--Perry's decision to change his looks through surgery--left Daves with few options. Bogart could have played the pre-surgery scenes in make-up to look different. With his distinctive facial features, I can't imagine that working. Daves' other option was to have another actor play Parry and dub Bogart's voice (or have Parry "change" his voice, too). Either of those choices would have been ridiculous. So, there's a clever practicality to Daves' approach.

From a literary standpoint, the first-person perspective limits us to experience only what Parry sees and hears. We harbor the same suspicions about Irene's extreme generosity, even while the camera lingers on her face (Lauren Bacall has never looked lovelier). We also "hear" Parry's thoughts, so we know things that could be conveyed no other way (e.g., that he is undoubtedly innocent of murdering his wife). Other directors have used the first-person perspective to great effect in individual scenes, such as Rouben Mamoulian in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And, of course, Robert Montgomery famously shot all of The Lady in the Lake (1947) in first-person (though it eventually comes off as a mere gimmick). However, I can think of no director that employed it to greater effect than Delmer Daves in Dark Passage.
Stevenson as the plastic surgeon.

Although the entire cast is first-rate, the supporting players (many of whom I was unfamiliar with) deserve to be highlighted. Journeyman actor Tom D'Andrea has a terrific extended conversation with Bogart in a taxi cab, the latter's face hidden in shadows. As the craggy plastic surgeon, Houseley Stevenson does nothing to initially instill confidence (he confides to Parry: "I perfected my own special technique twelve years ago before I was kicked out of the medical profession."). Finally, there's Rory Mallinson, who hits all the right notes as Parry's none-too-bright, trumpet-playing friend. One could also argue that the city of San Francisco plays a supporting roles as well, as Daves' camera lovingly captures its architecture and streets.

Surprisingly, Dark Passage was not a hit for its two stars. Allegedly, Jack Warner was displeased with it because Bogart's face wasn't shown until an hour into the 106-minute film. Yet, that very "limitation" has contributed significantly to its reputation, Indeed, Dark Passage has aged well and taken its place as one of the finest film noirs and a testament to Delmer Daves' innovative qualities as a filmmaker.


  1. Always thought Bogart was in bandages for so long so as to ease the audience into his aged appearance opposite his child bride. His surgeon even says his new face will make him "look older". David Goodis, author of the novel, sued tv's Fugitive over similarities. Think he won a small victory after his death, an early application of "intellectual property".

  2. Dark Passage is my favorite of the 4 Bogart/Bacall films. I love it!

    That film was my first exposure to Bruce Bennett, and for a couple years after seeing that, I referred to him as "Irene Jansen's boyfriend" anytime he showed up in something. Eventually, I figured I would learn his name.

    Have a great weekend,

  3. Great acting in this film and such a brave way to shoot it. However, I'll never forgive these filmmakers for not giving Agnes Moorehead more screen time here.

  4. Covering up an actor of Bogie’s statue at that time seemed like an odd thing to do, but I do love this film. I especially liked Agnes Moorhead. Though her role was small I think she stole the film.

  5. Rick, I am very glad to see you highlight "Dark Passage." I, too, am a great fan of Delmer Daves and thought he unveiled his story quite cleverly. The supporting performers are excellent. I would have been horrified to meet Houseley Stephenson's surgeon at 3 a.m. for a facial reconstruction! Lauren Bacall's Irene is fascinating. I was never quite sure if she was going to kiss Vincent Parry or kill him.

  6. Great selection Rick. It;s great film noir with lots of tension despite its deliberate slowness at times. The acting is great by the principal cast and as you point out the director is a master.

  7. I first saw this film when I was 18 (in 1979) and it was the first time I'd ever seen Lauren Bacall 9and of course, immediately fell in love with her!). I loved Daves choice for the POV way of telling the story. I would dare say this film should be considered a classic, if not for it's cast or noir feel, but at least for it's unique directing decisions.

  8. Great review of one of my favorites. The story is so well written and directed, we all accept this coincidences, don't we.
    I love Tom D'Andrea's scene in the taxi. He's so natural.
    It is odd that Bogart's face should be hidden for so long.

    1. The scene in the taxi is indeed excellent. I love that Bogart's face is hidden for so long. That had to be a bold artistic move for that era in Hollywood.