Random Film of the Week: Dark Passage

1947 seems to have been a year for some interesting (albeit not entirely successful) experiments by Hollywood movie makers using a subjective camera (or first-person viewpoint) to tell a story.  Movie audiences got a pair of dramas in the form of actor-turned-director Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake, (shot a year earlier, but released in ’47) based on the popular Raymond Chandler novel and Dark Passage, Delmer Daves’ adaptation of a terminally so-so David Goodis novel.  I was going to do this column on the former film at first, but a coin toss brings you Bogie and Bacall in the more interesting, but tremendously flawed film. Don’t get me wrong here – both movies have their issues, but both are worth viewing for a few reasons including their unique use of POV storytelling. That and you have to go with a film that doesn’t show the face of its lead for about an hour, but works in some lovely shots of a San Francisco that’s long gone thanks to “progress” in transportation and probably even earthquake proofing…

If you try to dissect it (or hell, even just simply pay attention to the movie – put away the tablet and phone!) the story is pretty nuts. That said, working with what they got as far as the director also doing the script, all the actors give it their best. Bogart plays Vincent Perry, who’s been convicted for his wife’s murder and sentenced to jail. At the beginning of the film, he breaks out and hitches a ride with a trucker, only to have to knock the poor guy out when he starts asking what up with the prison duds. Fortunately for Perry, he makes his exit from the truck near where Bacall’s Irene Jansen is out painting (now, THAT’S luck!). And yep, before you can say “Play it, Sam” she offers to take this total stranger in prison wear into San Francisco AND put him up in her apartment. Yikes. This is explained away as Irene just so happens to have been following Perry’s case, thinks he’s innocent and wants to help him find the real killer. Wait, what?

Before you can say “Holy, O.J., Batman!” (and you wouldn’t back in 1947, mind you), Perry panics after Irene leaves and there’s a scene where a former flame he jilted, Madge (an amazing performance by Agnes Moorehead), who just so happens to have testified against him, shows up and gets denied (again!) through the closed door by Perry. After Madge goes away, Perry decides he needs some fresh air for obvious reasons. Hopping into a cab, he’s recognized by the hack who JUST so happens to know of a really top-notch plastic surgeon and yup, offers to hook Perry up with a meeting for a face job. Things actually get weirder post-surgery when Perry moves in with a old friend to recover and the guy turns up dead not too long afterward. So, it’s back to Irene’s for rest and some romancing. I won’t spoil the rest of the movie, but let’s just say you’ll be baffled but entertained thanks to the acting and scenery more than the story actually making much sense.

The amazing thing about all that stuff above is you don’t even see Bogart’s face until about an hour or so into the film. The first part up to Perry’s arrival at the doctor’s is presented almost entirely through his POV and he comes from the doc all bandaged up, spending the next chunk of the film looking like someone who had his bandaged head beaten into the distinctive shape of Bogie’s. Which leads to a pretty hilarious thought I had when I first saw the film. Here goes: Perry gets a new face (we never see his old one) but it’s so recognizably unique of a mug that even if no one in his old crowd could pick him out, he’d be easily described as a suspicious looking tough guy if he were to do something off the wall. Like maybe going after the guy who killed his wife and framed him for the deed.

Like I said, this flick has flaws. Then again, this isn’t the sort of movie where you’ll be lost in deep thought. It’s a pure popcorn noir, there are some great performances with Bogie as a tougher guy in the beginning, but interestingly understated post unmasking, Bacall smoking things up as usual and Agnes Moorehead making for a superb, ticked off ex-girlfriend with a few ulterior motives. The San Francisco locations are all shot wonderfully and realistically (there’s a great shot of the super-steep Filbert Street steps) and although I’ve never been there before, compared to more modern films, TV shows and photographs, the city has definitely gone through some major changes. Then again, so has New York City, but I live here and am probably pretty jaded about some of the constant changes to the landscape.

Anyway, warts and all, I like this one a lot. Go check it out when you can, maybe as a twofer with Lady of the Lake just to see how cool POV film noir was as a short-lived trend. Again, both do some cool things with the camera, but both are flawed, but intriguing slices of cinema history worth watching.

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