Friday, August 29, 2014

Dark Passage Movie Review

Did women’s voices mature earlier in the 40s? Why, when we watch actresses in their early twenties from that period, do they sound like grown women, but today’s young actresses sound like little girls? is there something in our culture today that values infantilizing girls so that they intuitively maintain their immature squeaky whiny tones? Perhaps the question answers itself. Or maybe it’s nothing so deep and dramatic. Maybe actresses then received formal theatrical training like singers to develop their voices. Whatever it is, Lauren Bacall had one of the great all-time sexy mature female voices, even at twenty-two, when she starred in only her fourth feature, and third with Humphrey Bogart, Dark Passage.


Based on a novel by David Goodis, Dark Passage is a post-war Hollywood film noir, one of many films of the period to feature anti-heroes with shady pasts and questionable morals, dark themes and subject matter, and a bleaker outlook than was typical through the 30s. Bogart plays Vincent Parry, an escaped convict serving time in San Quentin for the murder of his wife (he claims wrongful conviction). He gets picked up on the side of the road by the lovely Irene Jansen (Bacall), who is trusting and quick to invite him into her home. She was a champion of his innocence during the trial, or at least of giving him the benefit of doubt. Now she wants to help. There are additional plot complications like a meddlesome small-time crook,  helpful cab driver, a disgraced but useful plastic surgeon, and a Madge, a friend of Irene’s who keeps getting in the way, threatening to ruin Vincent’s escape.

Dark Passage is an early effort from director Delmer Daves, who went on to direct some minor successes in the Western and Dramatic genres. His other work doesn’t illustrate a grand visual style, but in Dark Passage he utilized a first-person camera approach through the first third of the film. Bogart speaks his dialogue from “behind” the camera and the other actors look directly at the lens. The effect is meant to do two things: help us identify with Vincent as the protagonist and also to conceal the fact that he won’t look like Bogart until after a plastic surgery job to alter his identity.  It’s terribly gimmicky by today’s standards. Maybe it played as groundbreaking, exciting, and new in 1947, but I found it distracting and, at times, laughable. It’s the kind of trickery that Hitchcock might have attempted (he was known for boxing audiences in to particular visual schemes), but he was a more masterful manipulator and probably would have made it much more arresting and taut.

Once the bandages come off Bogart’s face, the film settles into a fairly even-keeled and mediocre thriller. The mystery element is not nearly on par with even more minor noir films from the era. Cinematographer Sidney Hickox made most of his career in the 40s on Warner Bros. crime dramas including two other Bogart and Bacall pictures. He gets in some fantastically lit shots, especially covering up Bogart’s face in an early taxi scene before he’s had his operation.

The movie is greatly serviced by some memorable supporting performances, the most notable of which are Houseley Stevenson as the plastic surgeon and Agnes Moorehead, who brings some electric energy as the shrewish Madge. These are the details that remain memorable. But ultimately Dark Passage is rather dull throughout, failing to make proper use of what Bogart was best at. He doesn’t fit the mold of Vincent, who is really an ordinary guy and not the kind of tough world-weary character Bogart normally played. It all comes to a conclusion with no grim realities and no ambiguities – just a patronizing ending that cheaply panders to popular demand. It feels sullied an compromised, which I suppose would have upset me a lot more if I’d even really enjoyed what preceded it.

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