For an iconic film star whose mere mention of his name deluges classic film buffs with a euphoric rush of refinement, Humphrey Bogart also was a mystery—an actor whose presence you have acquainted yourself with many times but still find yourself bewildered with each repeat viewing of his work.
He starred in four films with his muse and screen partner in crime, Lauren Bacall. You ask most fans to name those films and they will most likely name The Big Sleep first. I’d posit that they would list To Have and Have Not or Key Largo second. Most will scratch their heads fishing for the last title…
That title, which was their penultimate (and one of their best) outing, is the 1947 gem Dark Passage.
Bogart’s Vincent Parry, a convicted wife murderer, escapes from prison in search of clearing his name. One of Parry’s moves to avoid capture is to receive facial cosmetic surgery. So, for the first hour of the picture, we do not see Bogart’s face. Before the character goes under the knife, we see the world through Parry’s eyes (with the exception some shadow shots and scenes with his head sheathed in bandages). In the post-modern era, a film utilizing the first-person perspective would not come across as totally unique, but in a time where the star was bigger than the picture, it rang rather unconventional—and much to studio boss Jack Warner’s dismay.
In the early hours of escape, he comes across an unlikely ally: Irene (Bacall), a woman of means who is more than willing to help him evade authorities and solve the murder mystery that led to his false incarceration. She has moxie, she has class—Bacall always brought an otherworldly and a beyond-her-years maturity to her early roles, probably which is why the age gap between her and Bogart had a mute effect on their chemistry.
The plot thickens when Parry visits an old friend for assistance… only to have someone else murder that friend and leave the main character further mired in suspicion. The rest of the movie features the greatness of noir where shadows live and breathe, and the human heart beats fraudulent… tightening the clock and laying the hooks into the intrigue of it all. And once we get to know Irene, her motivations for helping, and perhaps falling in love with Parry, become more apparent.
In addition to that Bogart Bacall onscreen magic, two other players managed to make the film glisten:
Irene’s friend Madge, portrayed by the forever amazing Agnes Morehead, manages to pack such a sucker punch considering her very limited screen time. She always had an over-the-top nature that somehow appeared subdued at the same time, forever a straight story doubling as an enigma.
Clifton Young plays Baker, a guy who innocently at the beginning gives the hitchhiking Parry a ride—only to suffer blows and have his car stolen from Parry once the car radio broadcasts an announcement warning drivers of an escaped con. In a plot twist, he later discovers Parry post-facelift, and he has evolved into a menacing extortionist. Young had appeared as one of the Our Gang secondary cast members, and this movie served as an example that some child stars had the chops to develop into great adult actors—however, his life was cut short four years after this film.
Another major star of the movie is San Francisco—where many of the scenes were richly filmed on location. A city that has the perfect mix of sinister spirits and age-old beauty made a rather perfect addition to a film of this caliber.
I remember finding out on IMDB that Bacall’s apartment used in the movie is still there today and features a cardboard display of Bogart—visible from the outside to passerbys. The location’s listed as 1360 Montgomery Street. So, for my next California visit I will definitely be stopping there.
As a film geek obsessed with then and now shots of Hollywood’s golden era, I was delighted to find a website featuring San Francisco locations which has a whole page devoted to Dark Passage. I highly recommend you check it out.
© Brent Lienard