Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Dark Passage (1947)

This is hands-down my favorite Bogie and Bacall film noir, and there are three reasons for this abiding love. First off, it's underrated. When people think of Bogart and Bacall films, the three that immediately pop to mind are The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Key Largo, all of which are excellent and memorable, but I think Dark Passage is just as good. Secondly, the film uses an innovative film technique to conceal Bogart's face for the first half of the film because his character is supposed to get plastic surgery to change his face. Bogart physically acts these first scenes, but the camera always shoots him at an angle that hides his face or opts for the first-person view. The only way we know what he's supposed to look like before the surgery is from newspaper clippings that use another actor's face. So the film gets points for challenging cinematography. Third and finally, Dark Passage takes the cake for having one of the most accurate uses of San Francisco and Bay Area geography ever put to film. In fact at the one point where I thought the perfection had been spoiled, one of the characters yells out that they're going the wrong way - my only complaint is it took him so long to figure it out.

The film starts out at San Quentin State Prison, about fifteen miles north of San Francisco in then-rural Marin County. Sirens blare because the dangerous murderer Vincent Parry has just escaped, and the camera then follows the fugitive while never actually showing the actor's face. He gets rid of his prison shirt and tries to hitchhike to the city, only to be picked up by a woman who knows exactly who he is but still offers to hide him in her car. This scene is filmed entirely on-location, and when you drive northbound on US-101 today, you can retrace their steps with your eyes. Their drive back south to SF retraces the highway with exact precision including the Golden Gate Bridge and the tunnel leading up to it.

Bacall then drives him back to her home on Telegraph Hill - another scene unequivocally filmed on-location - where he discovers her motive for helping him is that her father was falsely accused of murdering his wife on the same kind of flimsy, circumstantial case that convicted Parry. She offers him money and a disguise, but Parry rightly figures that with his picture plastered all over the paper, the only way to travel truly incognito would be to change his face via plastic surgery.

He does this, and intends never to bother Bacall again, but when he finds his only other confidant has been murdered, he is forced to impose on Bacall until his face can heal from the surgery. While convalescing, Parry has a long time to contemplate both his friend's murder and his own sorry plight. He figures the killer must have been the same person who murdered his wife, but he has no way to prove it. His only choice, therefore, is to flee the country before the police track him down through the fingerprints, which remain the same even though his face has been changed. In the meantime he has also fallen in love with Bacall while listening to the great jazz standard "Too Marvelous for Words," but dares not take her with him to lead a fugitive's life.

There's enough surprises in the plot that I dare not reveal anything else. Bogie and Bacall sparkle as usual in their roles, and Agnes Moorhead is wonderfully sinister as the dangerous jilted woman. There's also a wonderful moral dilemma to grasp with as more and more evidence piles up against Bogie and he is drawn to more and more desperate means to avoid unjust imprisonment.

This film, however, more than any I've ever seen remains special because it shows the Bay Area as it is instead of insulting the intelligence of its native citizens with incongruous geography and locations that don't remotely resemble the actual environs they're trying to depict. I know I am not the only person to complain about Hollywood treating their native city in this way, so on behalf of all those people, I offer Dark Passage as an example that yes, sometimes the film industry can get it right.

I give this movie a 8.4 out of 10 for innovative photography, great acting and a great story, and enviable geographic verisimilitude.

Buy from Amazon:
Dark Passage (Snap Case)The Big SleepTo Have and Have Not (Keepcase)Key Largo (Keepcase)

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