Saturday, August 16, 2014

Film Review: Dark Passage

This review is dedicated to Lauren Bacall, who died on August 12, 2014. She was 89 years old.

"Dark Passage"  **** (out of ****)

"Dark Passage" (1947) was the third film, out of four, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall acted alongside each other in. It is also considered the weakest of the four. The others were; "To Have and Have Not" (1944), where Bacall made her film debut, "The Big Sleep" (1946) and "Key Largo" (1948).

Those movies had the benefit of having major directors behind them. Howard Hawks directed "To Have and Have Not" and "The Big Sleep". John Huston was the man behind "Key Largo". For "Dark Passage" however Delmar Davis is the director. For me, the weakest of the three directors.

Davis directed  some good movies such as the classic western "3:10 To Yuma" (1957) and the Cary Grant vehicle "Destination Tokyo" (1943). He started off in Hollywood as a screenwriter at Warner Brothers, writing musicals like "Dames" (1934) with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. He also wrote "The Petrified Forest" (1936) with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and a young Humphrey Bogart. But a better director behind "Dark Passage" may have preserve its reputation a bit more. Funny enough, it is because of its reputation I chose this film to serve as my tribute to Lauren Bacall. I wanted to bring more attention to it.

"Dark Passage" is also known for the gimmick of not showing Bogart's face until 62 minutes into this 106 minute film. In the first 20 or so minutes of the film it is told from a first person perspective, meaning the camera itself is the Bogart character and the viewer watches the movie through his eyes. Oddly enough another movie released in 1947, "Lady in the Lake" directed by Robert Montgomery, took this idea one step further and told the entire picture in a first person perspective.

"Dark Passage" starts off with Vincent Parry (Bogart) escaping San Quentin prison by rolling off a truck in a barrel. We hear the police sirens in the background. Parry figures, at best, he has 15 minutes before the police catch up with him. He tries to hitch a ride. A young man named Baker (Clifton Young, best known for his work in the "Our Gang" series, going back to 1926) stops for him but begins asking a lot of questions. Soon there is a police bulletin on the radio about an escaped convict on the loose. Baker puts the pieces together and knows who he has just picked up. But, before Baker can turn him in, Parry beats the man up and steals his clothes.

Soon another vehicle passes on the road and notices the abandon car Parry was driving in, he is still changing his clothes. Irene Jansen (Bacall) was the one who passed him on the road. She instantly recognizes Parry but wants to help him instead. She tells Parry to hide in the backseat of her car and she will take him to San Francisco.

The only way Parry will ever escape the police is if he changes his face and gets plastic surgery. At the suggestion of a cab driver, who knows a guy, Parry agrees to have the work done. With his new face Parry is a dead ringer for Humphrey Bogart.

Irene Jansen wants to help Parry by giving him a place to stay before he makes his next move. She has sympathy for him because she attended his trial every day. She thinks Parry is innocent. Parry was convicted of murdering his wife. What Parry doesn't know is Irene is "friends" with Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead, known for her roles in "Citizen Kane" (1941), "Jane Eyre" (1943) and "Show Boat" (1951), she is the woman that testified against Parry. He blames her for his conviction. He believes she did what she did out of spite since Parry was not interested in dating her.

Everything I have described to you takes place within the first hour of the film. These moments work best. There is some suspense. Will the police find Parry? There is intrigue. Who exactly is Parry? Is he really a killer? Who is Irene? Will Parry kill Irene? And there is a lot of chemistry between Parry and Irene (Bogart and Bacall were married at this time). In fact, I would go as far as saying Lauren Bacall is the reason the movie works. Her presence makes the movie feel alive. Her interaction with Bogart is what gives the movie its spark. Bacall lightens up the screen with her elegance and beauty. But she has more than that. She could act. And she makes us believe in her character. There is a lot there that is not being said about her character in the movie.

But then "Dark Passage" shifts gears just a bit. Parry, with his new face, must find out who really killed his wife. And when he does this, the Irene character is dropped. From this point on, I find the remaining 40 not as strong as the first hour.

"Dark Passage" isn't really a "detective story". Parry isn't putting together a puzzle piece by piece, bringing him one step closer to the killer. There is not a gang of suspects. "Dark Passage" is the story of a man on the run from his past. It makes some interesting  decisions and may not give some viewers the satisfying ending you'd expect from a Hollywood picture.

At first I thought one of the problems with "Dark Passage" is it takes too long to set-up the plastic surgery gimmick, unless you were going to make to the movie longer. I felt everything would have to be rushed. You've taken one hour to show Parry's face, which inhibited him from actively pursuing his wife's killer, and left us with about 40 minutes or less to solve this mystery. You can't go into details at this time. You can only focus on the big picture and draw quick conclusions.

But that was me expecting "Dark Passage" to be one type of movie when it isn't. I wasn't accepting the movie on its own terms. "Dark Passage" isn't really a "dark" film the way we think of other noir films. Some of the beginning is, only because of the gimmick to hide Bogart's face, but after a while the movie doesn't take place in dark alleys.There is no detective character hot on Parry's trail.

Yes, there is a scene or two when someone might suspect who Parry is but overall I think that is the point. It is the story of a man in a constant state of fear. Afraid of being discovered, of being outed.

What is also interesting to discuss is, what is the film's theme? What is it trying to tell us about society, if anything? I would say clearly we are dealing with a theme of identity. Who is Vincent Parry? He must change who he is in order to survive. What about the fact the movie was made after WW2. Is there any connection to that? Men came back from a war. Some had to kill. Sure, they were defending their country. They weren't convicted murders. They were innocent. But war changes a man. What if some wished they could change their face and become a different person?

Also, around this time the House of Un-American Activities was starting to turn to Hollywood. According to Wikipedia "in 1947, the committee held nine days of hearing into alleged communist propaganda and influence in the Hollywood motion picture industry." What I can also tell you is both Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were outspoken critics of the committee.

So, a story about a person afraid of being "outed" could have connected with the time period. The story of a person living in shadows, having to change their identity. The idea of being falsely accused of an action you didn't commit.

Having seen "Dark Passage" three times now, it has grown on me more and more after each viewing. I like Bogart, who could play the hero and the murderer in movies. I like the inventiveness of the first person perspective gimmick. I enjoy the banter between Lauren Bacall and Bogart. I like the set-up to the surgery. I like the ending. I appreciate it didn't go in another direction. The more "safe" and "happy" ending. And I think Bacall steals the show.

Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske on September 16, 1924 in the Bronx, New York, to a Romanian-Jewish mother and a Polish-Jewish father. When Bacall was a teenager she became a fashion model appearing on the cover of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue.

At age 17, in 1942 Bacall made her Broadway debut, after taking classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in a walk-on role in the play "Johnny 2x4".

In the 1950s onward Lauren Bacall became much more selective about the roles she accepted and kind of went away. Also, Bogart died in 1957, which was a struggle for her to deal with, though she did remarry to Jason Robards, another wonderful actor. Their marriage lasted from 1961 until 1969.

It wasn't until later on in life her career came into something of a second wind. At the 2010 Academy Awards she was given an honorary award. It is a shame this ceremony is no longer part of the telecast. It would give younger audiences the opportunity to discover some great names from Hollywood's past. Her career started moving again in 1996 when she was given a role in the Barbara Streisand film, "The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996), which was kind of an update on the Spencer Tracey / Katherine Hepburn vehicle "Without Love" (1945). For that movie, Bacall won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She was considered a favorite to win the Academy Award that year for best supporting actress as well, but, "The English Patient" (1996) swept that year.

Besides her work with Humphrey Bogart she appeared in such films as "How To Marry A Millionaire" (1953) and John Wayne's last movie, "The Shootist" (1976). In more recent years she was in Robert Altman's "Ready-To-Wear" (1994) and Lars von Trier's masterpiece "Dogville" (2004).

Lauren Bacall was a wonderful talent who will be missed by film fans all over the world. She could play the elegant screen beauty but she had a bit of the street smart tough girl in her. It was a nice and interesting contrast. A movie such as "Dark Passage" displays these traits. To quote a song, which plays repeatedly, in "Dark Passage" she was "too marvelous for words".