An under-rated classic starring an iconic film couple.
‘Dark Passage’ is an underrated movie in the film noir canon. The movie is composed of an archetypal man on the run from the law theme, gritty realism, and of course, Bogart and Bacall’s electric chemistry. The film has many interesting facets for today’s viewer- the feminist characterisation of Bacall, the modern relationship between the couple, a realistic look at 1940s San Francisco and, most importantly, a chance to see two icons in a rare film. Humphrey Bogart plays Vincent Parry, an escaped convict whilst his real-life wife Lauren Bacall plays Irene Jansen, an independent, artistic young woman. The film was directed by Delmer Daves and released in 1947 based upon David Goodis’ novel.
Ambiguity is the signature of film noir. ‘Dark Passage’ is filled with ambiguity. Bogie is a convict- we don’t know if he is guilty or not. We initially don’t know Bacall’s motives for helping Bogart. There is a risk in the relationship. Bogart’s character and the audience doesn’t know why Bacall is helping him and he is truly at her mercy because she can report him to the police at a moment’s notice.
On Bacall’s side, she is harbouring a possibly dangerous criminal so risks getting into trouble with the law or being attacked. Parry says to Irene, ‘There can’t be anything in it for you except a jail sentence.’ Bogie and Bacall both play strong characters within the relationship which creates a modern feel to the couple.
However, this being The Golden Age of Hollywood, the audience knows Bogart and Bacall’s characters will fit within their well-established on-screen personas of the tough guy who is ultimately a moral character and the sultry, tough dame with a heart of gold.
Vincent Parry gets plastic surgery in the film to hide his true identity and protect himself from the law. Although this plot line sounds farfetched, the literal mask is symbolic of the character being an enigma, who could be either innocent or guilty, and more broadly of the ambiguity of film noir itself. Bogart is the classic masked and anonymous convict in the film with the audience not seeing his famous face for the first half of the picture.
It’s impossible to talk about Lauren Bacall and not mention her exquisite beauty. Bacall was one of the most iconic beauties of the 20th century. In the words of the great Bob Dylan, ‘Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features’. As Bogie said; ‘Look at that face of hers. There you’ve got the map of Middle Europe slung across those high cheekbones and wide green eyes’.
Bacall’s incredible bone structure, extremely arched signature eyebrows, full, luscious mouth and sultry eyes were unique for the time and helped to change the definition of the ideal beauty. ‘The Look’ can be seen today on catwalks and in fashion magazines on models such as Kate Moss and Karlie Kloss. Bacall’s looks were ideal for film noir. Her sculptured face photographed beautifully in the the light and shadows of film noir cinematography; her sultry looks and whiskey-soaked voice made her the quintessential film noir heroine.
One of the most appealing aspects of the film for a modern viewer is the feminist characterisation of Irene Jansen. Irene is an independent woman living alone in an incredibly chic, modern apartment building and is a free-spirited artist.
Bacall take charge in her first scene- she tells Bogie to get into the car, he is suspicious of her. When he asks where they are going; she says she is taking her to him her apartment. In some ways Bacall has the upper hand in the power dynamics of the relationship; he is relying on her to aid his escape. We see the signature Lauren Bacall coolness when Irene is the definition of calm under pressure when her car is stopped by the police whilst Parry is in the boot.
San Francisco is a character in the film. ‘Dark Passage’ offers the modern viewer the chance to get a glimpse of 1940s San Francisco. There is a gritty, B movie realism to the shots of the city. The diner scene and Bogart on one of San Francisco’s famous trolley cars are especially evocative. The film gives us a chance to see the height of modern San Francisco design in the architecture and interior of Bacall’s apartment. It is refreshing to have a film noir set in San Francisco as opposed to LA.
There is stellar acting from all the members of the cast. Bogie and Bacall are excellent. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the film is that we don’t see Bogart on camera for the first 37 minutes at which point his face is bandaged. We not see his famous face until an hour into the film. The was a surprising and potentially risky choice director Delmer Daves made considering Humphrey Bogart was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. That the film still works despite this is a testament to both Bogart and Bacall’s acting skills- Bogart being able to convey so much through his iconic voice and Bacall being able to captivate the audience without having a partner to interact with.
The tension in the film comes from two interfering characters played by Clifton Young and Agnes Moorehead who have the potential to blow Vincent Parry’s cover at any moment. The tension being caused in such a realistic way counteracts the farfetched story-line of Parry having surgery to give him a new face. There is particularly impressive character acting from Clifton Young. The film does become more melodramatic towards the end, however.
‘Dark Passage’ capitalises on Bogie and Bacall’s iconic, electric chemistry. This was the first film they made together as Mr and Mrs Bogart. However they have a slow-burn romance in this film rather than the fireworks of ‘To Have and Have Not’ and ‘The Big Sleep’. The Great American Songbook standard ‘Too Marvelous for Words’ is a recurring motif throughout the film, culminating in the final scene where Bogie and Bacall reunite in a romantic, exotic setting and dance as the song plays. A cool fun fact for Bogie and Bacall fans is Bacall appears to wear the iconic whistle bracelet Bogie gave her as a love token in one scene.
I highly recommend ‘Dark Passage’ to any classic film fan. Bacall said ‘Dark Passage’ was not a classic film. It may not be an all-time classic like ‘The Big Sleep,’ or have the charm and significance in Hollywood history that ‘To Have and Have Not’ has (Bacall’s first film and where Bogie and Bacall fell in love), but it’s a good film with many interesting facets. Of course any film that stars Bogie and Bacall is reason enough itself to watch it because this iconic pair are both too marvelous for words.