Sunday, December 7, 2008

Dark Passage

Dark Passage is an atmospheric, stylishly made noir about a man who is framed for killing his wife, breaks out of prison to clear himself, and remakes his face, emerging from plastic surgery looking like Humphrey Bogart. Not a bad deal for him. Bogart himself plays convicted murderer Vincent Parry, and director Delmer Daves goes to great lengths, for the first 40 minutes of the film, to keep Parry's pre-surgery visage off the screen. His face is seen twice in newspaper photos, showing a distinguished-looking chap with a mustache, very different from Bogart's heavy-lined face, which bears the marks of a rough, sad life. The bulk of the film's first half is told with judicious use of Parry's first-person perspective, with the camera peering through his eyes, glancing about while Bogie's signature drawl provides commentary from offscreen. Daves balances this first-person storytelling with shots where the escapee's face is obscured by shadows, like a wonderful sequence during a cab ride where the contours of Bogart's face are obvious even while his features are hidden from view. Later, after the surgery, Parry is swaddled in bandages like Claude Rains in the Invisible Man, his face wrapped up in white. The effect of all this sleight of hand is ostentatious, and obviously intended to keep Bogart out of sight until the point where the story actually requires him to look like Bogart in addition to sounding like him. In Casablanca, the shot where Bogie is first introduced focuses first on the ashtray and glass on the table in front of him, before panning up to reveal his face. Here, this type of introduction is stretched out for the entire first half of the film, banking on the iconic nature of Bogart's face to enhance the impact of his eventual unveiling, which is almost ritualistically performed by Lauren Bacall as Irene, the young woman who's helping him hide out.

Unlike Bogart and Bacall's earlier two screen pairings — in Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep — the main appeal of this film is not necessarily in the crackling chemistry between the real-life couple. The duo does get some good scenes together, but the script doesn't have the same high-energy dialogue as in Hawks' films with the pair. Bogart gets some good lines off, of course, with his usual laconic drawl: talking about faces after the surgery, he tells Irene, "Don't change yours, I like it just as it is." Irene initially helps Parry out because she suspects he's innocent, and because she had a handily similar incident in her own past; her father died in prison after being falsely convicted for killing his second wife. Needless to say, she eventually begins falling for Parry in the course of helping him out, but the burgeoning relationship between the duo is almost perfunctory. The film's real focus is on the moody, perfectly handled suspense of Parry's attempts to avoid capture.

Parry's adventures bring him into contact with a fascinating array of shifty figures, all of them portrayed by memorable character actors. His visit to a back alley plastic surgeon (Houseley Stevenson) has a macabre, sinister aura, with the surgeon chatting amiably beforehand about botched surgeries where the men came out looking like bulldogs. Parry is referred to this disreputable doctor by a chatty, overly friendly cabbie (Tom D'Andrea), who recounts his own horror story, about a woman whose facelift essentially washed off and drooped off her face during a rainstorm. The segment is capped by a glimpse of Parry's feverish dreams under the influence of anaesthesia, populated by Irene, the doctor and the cabbie, all floating in multiple exposures amidst a black nothingness. Later, Parry has run-ins with a suspicious detective (Douglas Kennedy) and a small-time crook (Clifton Young) who gets the idea to blackmail the prison escapee. These scenes are crisply, memorably written, and performed as though these walk-on characters were major parts. Young has a jumpy, leering persona, with a faint echo of the baby-faced evil that Richard Widmark would bring to Kiss of Death that same year. His character is just playing at this kind of high-stakes crime, though, and his scenes with Bogart have an interesting dynamic as a result: the twitchy hood with the itchy trigger finger, ostensibly in control but clearly outmatched by the cool, collected Bogart.

Among the film's minor players, none stand out so much as Agenes Moorehead, who plays the vicious, petty, possessive Madge, a woman with connections to both Parry and Irene. It was Madge who essentially set Parry up for his fall, testifying that he killed his wife, and she now haunts Irene because of a dispute over a hapless man who neither of them seems to want much anymore. Madge, however, can't let go of anything. She either gets what she wants, or she wants no one else to have it, even if she doesn't particularly want it anymore. Madge is like a shrewish, dowager version of the traditional noir femme fatale, tenacious and willful. Moorehead only appears in a few scenes, but she makes sure her presence is felt, especially in her climactic showdown with Bogart, where her progressively unhinged demeanor culminates in a monologue of devastating insanity.

Moorehead's star turn in a bit part is indicative of the film's overall thrust, its attention to detail and continual inclusion of little bits of business happening at the fringes of the plot. There's no reason to invest any particular characterization into a diner owner who regrets drawing attention to Parry, or a nervous motorist who nearly runs over the detective pursuing Parry, or the impatient cab driver who keeps buzzing the door bell every few seconds until someone comes down. But all of these characters, appearing for just single scenes, are nevertheless given some personality, some complexity beyond whatever's required of them for the simple practical function they have in the plot. Most of these bit players aren't memorable in themselves, but their cumulative impact is to create a sense that Bogart's story, as dramatic as it is, is taking place in a living, breathing city populated with more ordinary folks who aren't necessarily less interesting just because they're not involved in murder plots and daring jailbreaks. Daves' use of real San Francisco street footage rather than studio sets also helps to situate the film in a very realistic milieu despite its over-the-top pulp fiction narrative. The film's settings feel real, as "lived in" as Bogie's face or his wearied side-of-the-mouth drawl.

Dark Passage is a fine noirish thriller, notable for its inventive first-person opening, its succession of intriguing character actors, and of course that great Bogart/Bacall chemistry. There's a lot to love here, as Parry's escape from prison and subsequent adventures lead him through one enjoyable, stylishly staged scene after another. These scenes, littered with improbable coincidences and contrivances, don't always hold together as drama or add up to a coherent plot, but the film is compulsively entertaining nonetheless. Its individual parts are strong, even if the whole picture they add up to doesn't always make much sense.

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