DARK PASSAGE (Delmer Daves, 1947)

The 1940s was Hollywood’s principal decade of noirs. One of the finest examples is Dark Passage, a dark descent into questions of identity and of innocence or guilt.

The story here, from a David Goodis novel, fascinates. Wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder, a San Quentin escapee, Vincent Parry, in the dead of night undergoes plastic surgery; the new identity this provides allows him to sleuth about in an effort to restore to his former identity a good name. (Tacitly motivating many fictional detectives is the need to determine the identity of the perpetrator of a specific crime in order to absolve themselves, temporarily, of a general feeling of guilt owing to their sense of complicity in humanity’s “dark side”—Original Sin, as it were.) In his on-the-lam adventure, Parry is offered many a “helping hand”—for instance, by the cab driver who, recognizing him and gleaning his innocence, arranges for the operation, the plastic surgery, free of charge; but a mocking hand of fate at every turn obstructs Parry’s quest for exoneration by striking down one soul after another who might help reveal the actual killer’s identity. Parry—“Alan” now—ends up, as a result, hunted by the police for a second murder that he didn’t commit—the accidental death, in fact, of the last person who might have proven him innocent of the first murder. Indeed, the very process of Parry’s attempt to prove this innocence has led to a number of other deaths, including (self-defensively) one by his own hand. In Alan, then, the idea of Vincent’s innocence has been muddied; far from San Francisco, in Peru, awaiting his girlfriend’s arrival, Vincent/Alan must therefore remain flypapered by guilt regardless of his claims of innocence.

Doubtless the film’s main reference point is the Second World War only recently ended. Like Parry “innocent,” the United States, along with the other Allies, had been attempting to “prove” Axis guilt by defeating Germany and Japan. However, the experience of war leaves no participant unmarked. War, however righteously entered into and waged, corrupts; it’s the reflection of a fallen world. With a “cold war” refreshing the point, America thus had to deal with one of its signature periodic “losses of innocence.”

Delmer Daves wrote and directed Dark Passage, and he did both splendidly. The film’s first part employs a subjective camera perspective; we see everything through Parry’s eyes. The year before, Robert Montgomery used the exact same technique in another work of crime detection, Lady in the Lake; but there it’s all show, an empty if dazzling style inviting conversation. Daves, on the other hand, uses the device expressively, creating a brooding, powerful sense of the hunted man’s vulnerability, his constant exposure to potential discovery and to physical danger. Also, Daves draws on the devices—deep shadows, phantasmagoric distortions, multiple images—from such silent German films as Karl Grune’s brilliant The Street (1921) and Ernö Metzner’s Uberfall (1929) to evoke a fractured, ambiguous and tormented world; unmistakably, a sunlit streetcar ride recalls the transplanted German expressionism of Friedrich W. Murnau’s American Sunrise (1927). Overall, though, the film that Dark Passage most resembles is Viennese-born Edgar G. Ulmer’s American Detour (1945), a noir whose riveting sense of fatalism discloses the imprint on Ulmer of the historical lot of the Jewish people, including its most recent chapter of woe, the Holocaust. (Ulmer made films in Yiddish in the late 1930s, including the haunting The Light Ahead, 1939.) Daves’s film bears the same preoccupation with chance and fortune, and a similar sense of a dogging shadow. For all its borrowings, though, Dark Passage holds together as something distinct, alert—and it in turn helped define another film; for the same repressed tenor, the same engrossing fateful monotony would reappear in France twelve years hence, in a masked assault on reactionaryism, Georges Franju’s remarkable Eyes Without a Face (1959)—a title that Daves might have used for his film.

The acting is first-rate. Giving his tricky lead role an absorbing grandeur (as Pierre Brasseur would his, in the Franju film), Humphrey Bogart is excellent. (Here is a key to understanding the role: Vincent never did love his wife; therefore, his guilt over her death helps determine his inability to prove his innocence.) In Bogart’s hands, the convicted wife-killer on the run who is desperate to prove himself innocent emerges as a full and driven character. (This is something that Harrison Ford was unable to achieve in Andrew Davis’s worthless The Fugitive, 1993, as much a descendent of Dark Passage as of the TV series based on the Sam Shepherd case.) Moreover, warmer and more alluring than anywhere else, Bogart’s young, beautiful spouse, Lauren Bacall, is Irene Jansen, the girl who so believes in Parry’s innocence that she hides him from the police. (Irene’s father, who died in prison, also had been convicted of wife-murder—wrongly, his daughter believes; but, slyly, Daves doesn’t let the matter rest.) And best of all—brilliant, in fact—is Agnes Moorehead as Madge, Irene’s friend and, at one time, perhaps Parry’s mistress. Moorehead’s portrait of jealousy accumulates into one of ferocious sexual greed. Madge is a nasty person; that much is certain. But Moorehead’s delicately nuanced acting, supported by the ambiguous context that the film provides, leaves one wondering whether Madge is really guilty of all that in her final moment she confesses to or is simply saying what she thinks might save her life.

Even more than Bogart’s, Moorehead’s is the character one keeps coming back to.

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