Dark Passage is Bogie and Bacall’s penultimate film together, coming after To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. It’s a film that seems to divide their fans and those who enjoy film noir, due to its subjective camera perspective for the first half of the movie, as well as Bogie’s more subdued performance.
It tells the story of Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) who has escaped from San Quentin after being convicted of murdering his wife. Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), a young artist whose, it is later revealed, father was wrongfully accused of murdering her mother, decides to help Parry. After undergoing reconstructive facial surgery, Parry sets about trying to discover who really murdered his wife. But it won’t be that easy, as a city wide manhunt mounts and the venomous Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead) who testified against him at his trial, seems on the verge of discovering that Irene is helping him.
I personally enjoy Dark Passage very much, even though it is overshadowed by The Big Sleep and Key Largo. But it is fascinating in its exploration of the wrong man premise from a different perspective. Rather than going on the run across the country like in an Alfred Hitchcock film, Parry spends the whole movie in San Francisco and as Bosley Crowther wrote in his review of the film, the city is an important part of the story and filmed incredibly well. This is most clear when Parry comes up against a would be blackmailer, and they drive to somewhere near the Golden Gate Bridge. A dramatic turn of events is heightened by the setting. I won’t give anything away, but when you watch the movie you’ll appreciate how the city is as much a character in the story as any of the actual people.
Dark Passage is also noteworthy for the way that it constructs the story in an almost dreamlike fashion. This is most clear when Parry has the reconstructive facial surgery. This sequence reminded me a bit of the one in Spellbound, although it isn’t quite as fantastic. But it uses this dreamlike structure to show the strained mental state of its protagonist, who it is implied, but never fully stated until the end, the victim of a frame up. Delmer Daves’, who also directed the film, script may be a little slow for those who enjoy the more fast paced film noir; but this more ponderous pace and unfolding serves the story well, as it gives the audience time to get to know the characters and understand their motivations.
It’s a film that is heavy on atmosphere and light on serious plot, as it does not have the usual flashbacks and forwards of the film noir genre. The main drive of the film is Parry trying to avoid capture with the help of Irene, and trying to uncover who murdered his wife. Much of the film is actually taken up with Parry’s recovery from surgery, which may sound boring, but which actually helps to build the tension of the story. When things do eventually getting go in terms of Parry’s efforts to clear himself, they really get going, with him coming up against a suspicious police officer and finally confronting Madge, who turns out to be even more poisonous than first presented.
Whilst this is supposed to Bogie and Bacall’s movie, Agnes Moorehead steals every single scene that she is in. I’m a huge fan of Moorehead’s radio work, especially her appearances on Theatre’s Outstanding Theatre of Thrills, Suspense. Dark Passage could quite easily have been one of the show’s episodes, and Moorehead gives another brilliant performance, proving why she was so successful in both formats. As Madge, she is one of the most venomous, conniving characters that you will see in a film noir. If she had slithered through a scene I wouldn’t have been surprised. The way that she eventually gloats over Parry is truly disturbing and spellbinding. Although Madge is not one of the leads in the film, Moorehead once again shows why she had a career that included multiple genres. Thanks to her thrilling performance, the final act of the film is tense and quite shocking, especially in terms of what happens to her character. She almost makes you forget that Bogart is even in the scene with her.