Bogart and Bacall. Those three words always bring a smile to my face. They point to an enchanting onscreen chemistry than spanned four movies and eventually into their offscreen lives. Bacall’s beauty and saucy smarts was always the perfect match for Bogie’s cool tough guy. “Dark Passage” was the third movie that the headline-grabbing couple made together and at the time Bogart was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. The great Delmer Daves directed and wrote the screenplay for this clever film noir that had several unique tricks up its sleeve.
This film opens with a tense and brilliantly crafted jailbreak. Actually we never see the inside of San Quentin but we spot a man hiding in a barrel being driven off in a truck. Just down the road from the prison the barrel rolls off and the man is loose. Through a number of cool bits of camera trickery we never see the face of the escaped convict although we do hear his voice. Instead everything in this opening sequence is shown to us in first person. This treats the audience to a number of tricky perspectives that Daves pulls off beautifully. We learn from a radio alert than the convict’s name is Vincent Parry (Bogart) and he’s wanted for the murder of his wife.
Parry is picked up by a mysterious young woman named Irene Jansen (Bacall). We learn that Irene is sympathetic towards Parry after believing he didn’t get a fair shake during his trial. She sneaks him past roadblocks and into San Francisco where he sets out to find his one and only friend George (Rory Mallinson). He also connects with a back-alley plastic surgeon who attempts to alter his appearance. Now keep in mind, up to this point we still haven’t seen Vincent’s face. Bogart works in the shadows or strictly through voice work from the first person perspective. After the surgery we finally see him only in full facial bandages. It’s not until about an hour in that the bandages are removed and we see Bogie’s mug for the first time.
We see the few central players during the first half of the film but it isn’t until Parry’s new face is revealed (in the image of Bogart) that the story changes direction. It becomes Parry’s quest to clear his name and to find out who really killed his wife. While the unfolding mystery is an interesting shift it is also a weakness. For such a dramatic setup, the revelation itself is pretty lightweight and how things unfold seems a little too on the nose. It’s not that it’s awful, but there was clearly room for a stronger and better conceived mystery.
Despite that, “Dark Passage” is still a wonderful movie because of the cool and stylish camera work, the great San Francisco locations, and the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. There are also some really nice supporting performances from Bruce Bennett, Tom D’Andrea, Agnes Moorehead, and Rory Mallinson. “Dark Passage” sometimes gets lost in the conversations about Bogart and Bacall’s collaborations, but it’s a clever noir that does several things to set itself apart. It may soften up a tad in the third act but it is still a ton of fun.