Thanks to TCM, I got to see this deeply flawed curio this week.
You’ll be rolling your eyes throughout, but Dark Passage still serves up lots of chills, thrills and spills in a pretty stylish package.
While it might not rank as a favorite film among those who love the screen team of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, you have to admit Dark Passage (1947) has one of the great screen gimmicks of all time. For the first forty minutes of the film, you see everything through the eyes of the main character – an escaped prisoner from San Quentin who eludes the authorities while making his way to a plastic surgeon who will give him a new face. When the bandages finally come off, the audience gets their first look at this wanted fugitive as he studies himself in a mirror. And guess what? He looks just like Humphrey Bogart!
To be perfectly honest, the subjective camera technique wasn’t a new idea and had been utilized the previous year in Robert Montgomery’s innovative detective thriller, Lady in the Lake (1946). But the gimmick is still fun, and the San Francisco locations are a definite asset.
This was Bacall and Bogart’s third movie together, and they were still in the honeymoon stage of their marriage, enjoying their accommodations at the Mark Hopkins Hotel with meals at the Top of the Mark during the filming of Dark Passage. Bogie was also the highest paid actor in Hollywood (he averaged $450,000 a year) at the time, which didn’t depress him in the least.
There was one problem though. In her autobiography, By Myself, Lauren Bacall wrote, “Toward the end of shooting I became aware of Bogie’s nerves; if the phone rang, he’d tense up, didn’t want to answer it, didn’t want to speak to any except the closest. He’d noticed a bare spot on his cheek where his beard was not growing. The one spot increased to several, then he’d wake up in the morning and find clumps of hair on the pillow. That alarmed him. It’s one thing to be bald with a rim of hair, an actor could always wear a hairpiece, but without the rim it would have to be a full wig. The more hair fell out, the more nervous he got, and the more nervous he got, the more hair fell out. In the last scene of Dark Passage he wore a complete wig. He panicked – his livelihood hung in the balance. A visit to the doctor was in order. He never went to doctors. The verdict was that he had a disease known as alopecia areata – in layman’s terms, hair falls out as a result of vitamin deficiencies. He was plain worn out – the years of mistreating himself in bars and an unsteady diet had added up to this. It would grow back, but he’d need B-12 shots twice a week…scalp treatments…more food…in general, more care. That was a relief to us both. His next film was going to be The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) with John Huston, and he’d have had to wear a wig for that anyway.”
So that’s why, in the end, I find the arguments about this film’s clunkiness, its gimmickry, and its outrageous, almost shameless coincidences to be nitpicky grumblings. Not, it’s not “perfect,” but its flaws are fiery and forceful, and ultimately the film is more engaging because of them, not in spite of them. And, finally, there’s San Francisco—the noir city, contrary to claims made by those who would champion New York or L.A.—which was successfully put over in that role for the first time with this film. And done so with indelible, hypnotic effect. There’s nothing more comforting than a nightmare with a happy ending, and Dark Passage is just that.
Shades of Seconds…