Warner Archive Instant
Dark Passage has a lot going for it, so much so that you might think it would be included in discussions of great noir films. It’s not, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad picture, not by a long shot.
The film stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, in their third and penultimate film, coming after To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) and before Key Largo (1948). With Bogart and Bacall, you’ve certainly got two big positives. Add to the mix a story based on a novel by David Goodis, and Delmer Daves, already a veteran director and screenwriter. Plus it doesn’t hurt having great supporting performances by Agnes Moorehead and Clifton Young.
But while Dark Passage is good, it never really emerges as great. The first and perhaps biggest problem is in the film’s initial set-up. We see everything from the point of view of Vincent Parry (Bogart), a man falsely convicted of killing his wife. As the film opens, Parry escapes from prison with the hopes of clearing his name and finding his wife’s real killer. He evades capture until he’s picked up by a young woman named Irene (Bacall), who sneaks him to her San Francisco apartment. The Parry point-of-view is awkward, but we’re not supposed to see his face, at least not until after he’s had identity-changing plastic surgery. Bacall carries the first half of the film and while she’s effective in the role, I never really embraced the credibility of Irene’s story or motivation.
Other elements of the film are equally hard to swallow, such as how Parry finds a plastic surgeon and the death of one of the characters near the end of the film. And while Bogart seems a bit tentative throughout much of the film, Clifford Young is excellent as the driver who initially picks up Parry, not knowing he’s given a ride to an escaped convict. You can see in Young’s eyes that he’s processing everything, thinking just short of one step ahead at all times.
As good as Young is, Agnes Moorehead, as Irene’s friend Madge, is even better. We quickly learn that Madge is a person used to getting her own way and could create some real trouble for both Irene and Parry. Moorehead is remembered mostly for her role as Endora from the TV show Bewitched, although she was one of Orson Welles’s principal actors in his Mercury Players. She made her film debut in Citizen Kane (not a bad place to start, but where do you go from there?) and frequently gave impressive performances. Moorehead’s portrayal of Madge is full of fire, venom and just plain evil. She flat-out tells you what she thinks and doesn’t give a rip what you think of it.
Although it has problems, Dark Passage is still an enjoyable film noir, mostly due to its performances and a good use of the San Francisco setting by Daves (who was born there). It’s definitely worth a look.