Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bandaged and Born Again

Depending on whom you speak to, 1947’s Dark Passage is either foolishly “overlooked” or appropriately “forgotten.”
Not liking such critical absolutes, I would choose something between these two poles of opinion, though if forced to choose a side, I would lean toward the latter – and less flattering – of the two judgments. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the real-life couple who generally shine and sizzle in just about any film they appear, cannot rescue this workmanlike film noir.

Considering the genre we are dealing with, I was fully prepared for an opaque and bleak finale, but much to my surprise, Bogart and Bacall emerge from the rather straightforward prison-break plot relatively unscathed. When we last see them they are on a terrace overlooking a South America beach, gently swaying in each other’s arms – an art-imitating-life conclusion that feels like the result of a studio executive who made his intentions known by scrawling on the film’s screenplay draft: “B&B MUST end up happily ever after.”
Champions of the film point to its nifty camerawork and lasting influence on other directors – both of which provoke a resigned shrug from this particular viewer.
San Franciso on display
The decision by director Delmer Daves to film the first hour or so almost entirely from Bogart’s perspective – that is, with the camera literally functioning as his “eyes” – is not something one comes across that often (Lady in the Lake tried – and largely failed – to pull of the same feat for the length of an entire picture). Undoubtedly, it is a brave and innovative move, but it also robs the film of one of its best qualities – Bogart – for almost half its running time. At the same time, I have to wonder if the director really needs to spend as much time as he does showing us what it looks like to conduct the mundane business of existence – walking, entering an elevator, shaving, etc. – from his protagonist’s perspective. It is many things, but interesting is not one of them, and the end result is the audience feels trapped inside a film school gimmick that does not end as quickly and as neatly as it should.

In the meantime, though, we do get to look at Bacall.
In relative terms, she is not nearly as racy or openly suggestive in this role as she is elsewhere. Indeed, she is so demure she seems almost de-clawed. Her ticket into the action is initially presented as circumstantial – she happens to be painting nearby the place Bogart runs to when he escapes from San Quentin prison. However, during the course of the film, it is revealed she faithfully attended Bogey’s murder trial and believes he was falsely convicted for killing his wife with an ashtray. Bacall sympathizes with Bogart and aids his escape by spiriting him straight to her apartment in downtown San Francisco.
If this seems odd, that is because it is. Bacall is clearly presented as the mixed-up type who today would be caught by her friends writing letters to convicted men in the hope of marrying one of them while he was incarcerated. She is, in other words, fairly creepy despite her tame and domesticated pose. Bacall’s character also relates to Bogey because she claims her father was wrongly imprisoned by her stepmother, and thus the relationship that develops on-screen between her and her real-life husband works as a kind of Cassandra-complex run amuck, in which she replaces her departed dad with another older man.

The obvious villain
The third peg in the plot is a busybody named Madge Rapf. It was Rapf’s testimony that put Bogart behind bars, and when Rapf begins showing up around Bacall’s place, he fears the worst. This leads him to accept an offer – made by the world’s oddest and most helpful cabbie – to allow a back-alley doctor to alter his face. The result is Bogart is given a new lease on life – and a chance to resolve the plot’s pair of dangling mysteries – through a new look, although the anonymity he hoped for proves oddly elusive.
There is not much else to assess here. Clearly, this is a film about characters that are not in control of their lives – and what is worse, they know it. The decisions by Bogart and Bacall to simply take what comes and respond to it as best as possible is a powerful example of the brand of stoicism often celebrated in film noir. That fact everything ultimately works out in the end for both characters is distinctly out of step with accepted noir tropes. There is no bloody finale and no downer-ending depicting the futility of it all.
Instead, the audience is treated to a moody, almost surreal San Francisco, populated by odd characters, fog horns and sweeping vistas. It is a delight to watch, but the claim some critics make that this picture is a Kafka-like nightmare, in which an innocent man stumbles through a plot he is incapable of influencing, seems a bit much. There are some quirky moments to be sure, but if there is a metaphor here, it involves the notion of rebirth.

Both Bogart and Bacall are looking to build new lives on top of old ones that are riddled with error or regret. The title itself could refer to the inevitably violent transition a baby makes from the womb, through the birth canal to the light of the outer world. When the bandages come off Bogey’s face, he is helpless and has to be mothered by Bacall for a week’s time. He must suck his nourishment through a straw the same way a baby feeds from an umbilical cord.
Or maybe I am reading too much into all this and looking for greatness in a simplistic movie about a guy on the run from the law?
Regardless, there is neither enough metaphor nor simplicity to make this film stand taller than the name of the stars on its marquee. The villain is too obvious, the mysteries dangled too meager and the final product in no way reflects the quality of the constituent parts, all of which is a longwinded way of saying that this film is ultimately forgettable, even if parts of it are likeable.

1 comment:

  1. While I agree that DARK PASSAGE has its flaws, I think the issue here is that it's more of a mood/character piece than a plot-driven suspense film. I see it as the softer side of Bogart and Bacall, with the two of them letting their hair down, eschewing their usual insolent banter for something more tender and melancholy.