If no one wore a hat like Spencer Tracy, I’ll lay down a similar hand cards by saying that no one held a gun like Humphrey Bogart. The first time I saw Dark Passage, I wasn’t sure how much I liked the third film Bogie and Bacall made together. I classified it as many critics had after its release — good, but not great. I can understand their points of view, as some audiences were unhappy with the fact that they did not see Bogie’s face until an hour into the movie. Filmed in what I imagine was venturesome at the time, the first half of Dark Passage is shot almost completely from Bogie’s point of view, possibly affecting those of his critics. I’ve probably seen other Bogie and Bacall films in my life, but this was the first of which I had a clear memory, and although I didn’t know how I felt about it at the time, now it finds its way into my DVD player two or three times a month.
Dark Passage follows Bogie’s Vincent Parry, a convict who escapes from San Quentin in the film’s opening scene. Always willing to lend him a hand, Miss Lauren Bacall, in all her gorgeousness, enters as Irene Jansen, an artist who begins to help Vincent for reasons unknown. She hides him in her apartment, buys him new clothes (including a hat, of course!), and even nurses him back to health after he undergoes plastic surgery. Because the first half is filmed from his point of view, we are truly in Vincent’s head, and although I’m thrilled to see one of my favorite actresses, I don’t trust Miss Bacall right away. What’s more enjoyable than a femme fatale? Very little, I feel, except perhaps a potential femme fatale. “Lie still, hold your breath, cross your fingers” is what she tells him as she smuggles him across the Golden Gate Bridge. What a voice!
Because we’re experiencing it all through Vincent’s eyes, it’s easy to fall for Bacall along with him. Since I wasn’t quite sure of from where her character’s generosity stems, that element of danger only heightens that thrill reserved specifically for film noir. That glimpse of Irene through Vincent’s eyes also gives us a peek at Bacall through Bogie’s eyes; a bit of that truth of which I’m so fond! At first I wondered what kind of gamble was made when the studio decided on this filming technique. From what I’ve heard, the idea of not seeing Mr. Bogart’s face for half of the film did not thrill Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, but they were too far into filming to turn back. Tagging along in Vincent’s head reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books from good ol’ childhood. The concept of control — mixed with a complete lack of it — draws me into a film that the majority seems to consider pretty mediocre.
Far from mediocre is the always-enjoyable Miss Agnes Moorehead. If that “how do I know that name” light is flashing in your head, just add about a pound of eye makeup to the above photo, and soon you’ll see of my favorite characters (and names) staring back at you. Best remembered as Endora, Samantha’s mother on Bewitched, Miss Moorehead always had that X-factor found only in a handful of actors and actresses. It’s more than just a witchable… sorry, watchable quality; it’s that unspoken effort that goes into making something look so effortless. Madge Rapf, Miss Moorehead’s character in Dark Passage, certainly is not the most likeable of women — she’s that person in your group of friends whom nobody really likes or wants around, and yet somehow she’s always there. You know, the type who wears leopard print but doesn’t have the personality to pull it off, although she’s convinced herself that she does. While her character may not succeed with the leopard print, Miss Moorehead certainly succeeds in pulling off “not pulling it off.” She’s an added bonus to the film, and surely Bogie and Bacall deserve nothing less than stellar from their supporting cast.
To me, Dark Passage is such a “movie.” Watching it is like watching the birth of film clichés, left and right, which I understand may not appeal to some viewers whose eyes roll with little effort. Vincent keeps getting lucky in his unlucky situation, flying under the radar with the help not only of Irene but also with assistance from a plastic surgeon. As soon as he wakes up with his face covered in bandages, we’re finally out of his head and become more of a viewer than a participant. At this point, I feel like I’m now in everyone else’s head, watching Vincent and trying to predict his next move. All I know for sure is that eventually Bogie will point a gun at someone. This movie also treats me to some of my classic film favorites — filmed mostly on location in San Francisco, it has some beautiful scenes of the city and its bridges. One little gem is a “One Way” street sign that is bordered completely with light bulbs. Behind it is a sign for a parking lot that costs 25 cents for the day. And so integral to the plot is Irene’s phonograph, a word that is just as soothing to me as the imagined sound it produces.
Part of me assumed that after riding around in his character’s head for an hour, Bogie would be less intimidating when he finally gets a revolver in his hand. Nope, I should have known better — when that hat and gun team up with that deep voice of his, who wouldn’t feel a bit unnerved? Well, probably not Miss Bette Davis (as reports go from the set of The Petrified Forest), but the rest of us fall victim to an avalanche of emotions when that gun molds itself to Bogie’s hand. Frightened, excited, relieved, worried, and yes indeed, intimidated. Bogie is as confident with that gun as Bacall is when she gives that look of hers, both weapons able to level anything in their paths. But it’s not just the gun, the hat, or the look that draws me happily into the world of Bogie and Bacall. Finding truth within fantasy is a bit easier with an off-screen couple, since the chemistry is almost always there from the opening scene. Bogie, Bacall, and Dark Passage prove this point to me every time.
Some movie couples aren’t always so natural, and sometimes that’s precisely why their film works so well . . .