Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 13, 2016)
With this 2016 release of 1947’s Dark Passage, movie buffs get the third of the four Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall flicks on Blu-ray. Convicted of a murder he claims he didn’t commit, Vincent Parry (Bogart) manages to escape from San Quentin prison. Though she doesn’t know him, Irene Jansen (Bacall) takes interest in his case and helps him evade the authorities.
Because the press publicizes his escape, Parry realizes that he can’t get around with his “real face”, so he endures back-street plastic surgery to change his visage. Along with Irene’s assistance, Parry tries to prove his innocence – and get revenge on the real killers.
When we look at the directors behind the Bogart/Bacall films, we usually see Hollywood royalty. Howard Hawks directed To Have and Have Not and Big Sleep, while John Huston led Key Largo.
In the case of Dark Passage, we find Delmer Daves in the director’s chair. On the surface, Daves seems like a step down from Hawks and Huston – and he probably was, as it’d be hard to match such heavyweights.
However, Daves enjoyed a long, prosperous career on his own, though mainly as a writer. He created the script for Bogart’s famous film The Petrified Forest and created the text for 1939’s Love Affair, a work that would get recycled for the even more popular Affair to Remember in 1957.
As a director, Daves probably hit his peak with the excellent 1957 Western 3:10 to Yuma. Would Dark Passage be remembered as well without the Bogart/Bacall combo? Probably not, as Passage seems relentlessly mediocre.
Though it does try to be different. In particular, Daves makes the unusual choice to spend much of the movie’s first act in “first-person perspective”. This means virtually all of the film’s initial 21 minutes comes from Parry’s POV.
Oddly, Passage deviates from this for a few third-person shots, which I don’t get. It officially loses the first-person POV at 37 minutes – the part of the film where Parry undergoes plastic surgery – but those occasional third-person moments presage that shift.
Why? I have no idea. It seems illogical that 95 percent of the opening 37 minutes go first-person – why use this technique only to abandon it for brief periods? Perhaps a logical reason for this exists, but I can’t come up with it, so the short third-person tidbits remain perplexing to me.
That said, I don’t see the purpose of the first-person perspective anyway, as it exists as little more than a pointless gimmick. Actually, I do comprehend the primary rationale: to hide Bogart’s face. Since Parry needs to look like a different person after he gets plastic surgery, the filmmakers needed to do something to obscure Bogart’s actual mug.
While unusual, the first-person camerawork doesn’t seem satisfying. In terms of the story, it just doesn’t make sense – this tale comes with no obvious purpose for such photography.
Because of this, the first act doesn’t really connect to the rest of the movie. Nothing about the story changes in such as way that the shift from first-person to more traditional third-person appears appropriate or logical. Clearly the first-person approach exists solely to hide Bogart’s face, so the lack of narrative necessarity makes it a distraction.
We still don’t see Bogart in full until 62 minutes into the movie, which creates the question: why cast an “A”-level actor when you won’t see his face for about 60 percent of the film? And why give him a role that also deprives him of his voice for a long stretch?
Good questions, and lapses of story logic occur as well. Irene’s attachment to Parry never makes a ton of sense, and I can’t figure out why Madge (Agnes Moorehead) – who knew Parry very well – couldn’t recognize him when he spoke. Face it: Bogart had a distinctive voice, so it seems strange that no one identified it.
Perhaps if Passage offered an involving tale, I might ignore these issues. Alas, the story never really gets off the ground. It gives us a mystery with little tension or intrigue packed with fairly forgettable characters.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. Moorehead and some of the other supporting actors threaten to make Passage interesting from time to time, so they add spice to the proceedings.
Surprisingly, our leads fail to do so. Bogart and Bacall lack much spark here, perhaps due to the fact the movie waits so long to really “connect” them.
As mentioned, we don’t see Bogart’s face until well past the film’s halfway mark, so the actors don’t get much time to interact in a concrete way. Bacall emoting to a camera meant to represent Bogart doesn’t count, and by the time we see Bogart, Parry and Irene spend little time together.
All these factors turn Dark Passage into a wholly mediocre film. A few elements make it sporadically involving, but the overall impact remains limp.