Sunday, July 22, 2018

Dark Passage (Warner Bros., 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

In between the two Young People’s Concerts I watched completely I stayed on TCM for a “Noir Alley” presentation of the 1947 film Dark Passage, written and directed by Delmer Daves based on a novel by David Goodis that had been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and thereby caught the attention of film studios even before it was available to the public as an actual book. Goodis had a quirky career; he published a “serious” novel in 1939 called Retreat from Oblivion which didn’t sell, and this led him to write for various pulp magazines, often under pseudonyms. He got his big break in 1946 when the Saturday Evening Post accepted his second novel, Dark Passage, for serialization, he was acclaimed as the “new Dashiell Hammett” (while the original one was still alive but too incapacitated by alcoholism to do much of anything) and Warner Bros. not only paid Goodis $25,000 for the movie rights (a pretty impressive sum for an unknown writer) but hired him as a screenwriter and gave him assignments like Pride of the Marines — a quite good, tough melodrama starring John Garfield as a Marine who’s blinded in combat — and The Unforgiven, a quasi-remake of W. Somerset Maugham’s play The Letter that moved the action from a South Seas plantation to urban L.A. Dark Passage got filmed by Delmer Daves, who wrote the script based on Goodis’s novel and took out much of the stream-of-consciousness commentary from the lead character, escaped convict Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart). Daves also made a daring decision to solve one of the problems presented by the plot, in which Parry undergoes a plastic surgery operation that radically alters his appearance. Instead of slathering makeup on Bogart so he would look different in the first half of the film than he did in the second — or, an alternative that doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody at the time, casting a second actor as Bogart pre-surgery but having Bogart dub his voice — Daves decided to shoot most of the first half of the movie from Bogart’s point of view, which meant that we never saw his face until his bandages came off and his “new” face was revealed as Bogart’s familiar one. Accounts differ about whether Jack Warner did or didn’t know about Daves’ plan in advance — the TCM host said he did and tried to squash it, but was talked into it when Daves’ good friend, actor Robert Montgomery, starred in and directed an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake in which the entire movie was shown from Philip Marlowe’s point of view and Montgomery’s face never appeared except briefly when he was shown in a mirror. An “Trivia” contributor says that Daves never told Jack Warner he was shooting the film that way until the shoot was half finished, when it would have cost way too much money to reshoot the sequences to show Bogart’s face.  

Dark Passage is probably the least well regarded of the four films Bogart and his fourth and last wife, Lauren Bacall, made together, probably because Daves hardly has the kind of legendary reputation of the directors who made the other three — Howard Hawks (To Have and Have Not, 1944; and The Big Sleep, 1946) and John Huston (Key Largo, 1948) — and Daves’ script doesn’t give Bacall the kind of insolent, wisecracking character Hawks’ writers, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, had given her in her previous films with Bogart. (According to people who knew them, they were constantly wisecracking off-screen as well.) The film opens with Vincent Parry escaping from San Quentin, where he’s serving a life sentence for murdering his wife, by hiding in a barrel and hurling himself off a truck. He ends up in a creek and climbs out of it, walks to the nearest road and hitches a ride. Unfortunately, the person who picks him up is a petty crook named Baker (Clifton Young, who turns in a performance similar to the ones Dan Duryea had been playing in his noirs for Fritz Lang: Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) who starts asking questions about him and is clearly up to no good — though we won’t find out how creepy this guy really is until much later in the film. Then he’s picked up by the heroine, amateur painter Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), whose late father left her an inheritance of $200,000 which allows her to live in a quite lovely San Francisco townhouse apartment and not have to work for a living, though she volunteers to teach painting four days a week at a settlement house for homeless kids. She hides him out in the back of her station wagon, under her painting supplies, and successfully gets him through a police roadblock at the Golden Gate Bridge. She allows him to stay in her apartment, only she’s got a semi-serious boyfriend, Bob (Bruce Bennett), and he in turn has an ex, Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead, in perhaps the closest any of her “normal” roles came to the sheer venom and spite of her most famous character, the mother-in-law literally from hell in the 1960’s TV series Bewitched), whom Vincent immediately recognizes by voice when she shows up to the apartment when Irene is out and he’s hiding out in Irene’s upstairs bedroom. 

The shock that Irene knows Madge, who was the principal witness against him at his trial — Madge led the cops, prosecutors and ultimately the jury to think Vincent killed his wife out of unrequited love for her — leads him to flee her place. He ends up in a cab driven by a seedy but sympathetic cab driver named Sam (well, he’s a sidekick in a Humphrey Bogart movie — what else would he be named?), who steers him to a down-and-out plastic surgeon named Dr. Walter Coley, who agrees for $200 to remodel Vincent’s face from its original appearance (represented in the movie by a still photo of actor Frank Wilcox) to make him look like Humphrey Bogart. (There’s a glitch in the dialogue because Wilcox’s photo looks so grizzled he appears 10 years younger than Bogart, but the dialogue tells us the operation will make Bogart look older.) The operation is accompanied by a montage sequence in which Vincent hears, again and again, Dr. Coley say that if he wanted to he could make him look like a bulldog or a monkey (reminiscent of the 1935 film The Raven, with Boris Karloff as a criminal whom plastic surgeon Bela Lugosi operates on, only instead of making him look better he double-crosses Karloff and makes him even uglier) which literally drove me out of the theatre when I first saw this movie (at a San Francisco revival house, with my mother, in the early 1970’s) and had me queasy in the theatre’s restroom for a while. Told that he will need a week or so to recuperate and during that time he won’t be able to eat solid food or talk, Vincent goes to the home of his friend, trumpet player George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson), only he finds George dead, his head bashed in by his own trumpet, and Vincent picks it up, thereby getting his fingerprints all over it and giving the cops a second murder to suspect him of — which will lead to an automatic death sentence if he’s re-caught and convicted. With nowhere else to go, Vincent returns to the waiting arms of Irene, who agrees to hide him out for the recuperation period and tells him her interest in his case was because her father was also unjustly convicted of murdering his wife, and died in prison. 

Alas, Vincent doesn’t have much better luck evading the law with his new face than he did with his old one; a cop “makes” him and corners him in a diner when he innocently pretends to be interested in horse racing at Bay Meadows and the diner’s proprietor tells him the season there ended a month earlier. Then he’s tracked down by Baker, the petty crook who picked him up during his escape and who demands $60,000 from Irene to leave Vincent alone, otherwise he’ll call the cops and get the $5,000 reward on him. The two have a confrontation with the Golden Gate Bridge looming over them, and Baker falls to his death onto the rocks by the beach — thereby leaving Vincent with a third corpse he’ll be accused of killing — though Baker’s information leads Vincent to confront Madge, whom he now realizes killed his wife and murdered George as well in order to frame him because, once she realized she’d never have him, she wanted to make sure no one else did either. Vincent writes a confession for Madge to sign, she refuses, the two confront each other and Madge hurls herself out of her apartment window, thereby committing suicide and depriving Vincent of the one witness who can exonerate him. (The TCM host said that because the Production Code frowned on criminals escaping justice by taking their own lives, Delmer Daves had to fudge the scene to make it look like it could have been an accident, but I’ve always read it as a suicide. He faked it by having her curtains billow up as she fell out the window — itself a visual quote from the scene at the end of The Maltese Falcon in which similarly billowing curtains indicate that Wilmer, played by Elisha Cook, Jr., has made his escape.) The only thing Vincent can still do is use the information Baker gave him to go to Benton, Arizona, where he can acquire false ID papers that will allow him to travel to South America, and he hides out in a small (and real) Peruvian village called Piura (apparently it’s a favorite destination for surfers, and we get a nice stock shot of a big wave so we believe it would be), where eventually Irene Jansen joins him (and Lauren Bacall gets to appear glamorous for the first time in the entire movie).  

Dark Passage is an unusual movie, in some ways the closest Bogart ever came to making an Alfred Hitchcock movie; Daves was clearly influenced by the Master not only in the overall architecture of the plot but in such details as the strongly etched minor characters and the feeling of despair he puts his central character through as every person who could conceivably exonerate him meets a gruesome end. It’s also quite unusual — especially in the Production Code era — for us to be told the central character is innocent but for him never to be able to gain a legal exoneration; instead the “happy ending” is that he and his girlfriend will have to live out the rest of their lives as fugitives from justice in a foreign country. Daves also keeps the action claustrophobic; with very few opportunities for the chiaroscuro nighttime exteriors that usually define film noir, and with so much of the film taking place in Lauren Bacall’s apartment, he finds some quite inventive camera angles and keeps the “look” of the film very closed-in and oblique. One quirk of Dark Passage is that it was not only set in San Francisco but largely shot there, and though Bogart had previously made The Maltese Falcon, a successful (artistically and commercially) murder mystery set in San Francisco, without ever setting foot anywhere near there (a couple of establishing shots of the San Francisco Ferry Building taken by a second unit are the only scenes in The Maltese Falcon shot in the city), this one took advantage of some spectacular locations and, like Hitchcock in Vertigo 11 years later, Daves makes a great deal out of the verticality of San Francisco, its tall buildings, multiple hills, and fabled cable cars. Bogart and Bacall loved getting out of Hollywood to make this movie — the studio put them up at the Mark Hopkins Hotel and they, who had been working steadily since their relationship began on the set of To Have and Have Not, welcomed it as a studio-funded honeymoon even though every time Bogart emerged from the hotel, the predictable happened: fans crowded around him to get a glimpse of him.