The Dark Past (1948) Rudolph Maté
The Dark Past caught me off guard in a number of ways. I’m sure it happened in other films, but I can’t remember ever seeing William Holden playing a criminal or Lee J. Cobb so calm and in complete control, his voice never rising above a mezzo forte. So The Dark Past held a few (mostly) pleasant surprises.
A remake of the 1939 film Blind Alley, The Dark Past begins with a frame story: Dr. Andrew Collins (Cobb), a police psychiatrist sees a troubled young man in a line-up and thinks he could do him some good, perhaps reach him before he turns into a hardened criminal. This leads to Collins thinking back to another man he tried helping once, an escaped killer named Al Walker (Holden). Collins takes us on a journey into the past to a time when Walker – a prison escapee – and his gang invade and hide out in Collins’s country home as he’s entertaining guests. Collins very cooly cooperates and begins psychoanalyzing Walker, despite the criminal calling the doctor and his theories “screwball.” But Collins keeps delving into Walker’s psyche in ways that are interesting but were probably far more interesting in 1948.
There’s a nice moment in which Collins begins talking to Walker, asking him questions. During part of this scene, Walker glances at a chessboard and asks Collins about the game. Collins answers him, but returns to his questions about Walker. As he does this, Collins moves behind his desk as if he’s already treating Walker as a patient in his “office.” In a way, he’s manipulating Walker the same way he would’ve done in a game of chess. It’s a nice moment. (There’s also an effective dream sequence involving negative images.)
The complete package is a little too pat and a little too predictable, but still enjoyable. There’s the typical tension between Collins’s guests and Walker’s gang, there’s a suspenseful twist you can see coming a mile away, and to heighten the suspense, just throw a kid into the mix.
Yet Holden and Cobb are very good, as is Nina Foch as Walker’s girlfriend, although Foch seems far too refined and elegant to be a gangster’s moll, a fact which frequently interrupted my believability. This was Rudolph Maté’s directorial debut, which must’ve been a challenge since apparently Holden and Cobb fought like caged tigers on the set. The Dark Past isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it’s certainly worth seeing for some fine performances and occasional nice touches.
Next: Evelyn Keyes isn’t feeling so good…
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