When I completed my 2013 Western Challenge, I was pretty burnt out on the genre. Basically, I didn’t want to look John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in the face for months. I couldn’t say the same for film noir, though, because — bullshit romances aside — I generally enjoy private detectives more than cowboys. And when Mek pitched the idea of renting Dark Passage, a Bogart/Bacall noir where Bogie’s face is obscured for at least half the movie, I was intrigued enough to give it a try. “Sure,” I said naively. “I’m working on a bunch of stuff right now, so I probably won’t get around to reviewing it, but yeah, let’s check it out.”
But people, I had to review it. Because Dark Passage has problems. Serious problems.
It’s a SPOILER kind of day, people. Sorry. Not only am I going to ruin this movie for you, I’m also going to briefly discuss the ending of The Shawshank Redemption. If you somehow did not see The Shawshank Redemption on TNT, where they used to air it roughly 87 times a year, you should probably fix that instead of reading this review.
Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) escapes from prison with a big assist from passing motorist, Irene (Lauren Bacall). After getting a new face via back alley plastic surgery, Vincent decides to clear his name by finding out who really killed his wife.
1. The setup of this film is interesting, particularly for 1947. You’ve got a lead character who you hear but can’t see for the first, say, 35 minutes or so. Then he gets his plastic surgery, and you can sorta see him (his face is all wrapped up in bandages) but can’t hear him at all. That lasts for another 30 minutes. Finally, about halfway through the film, you’re allowed to both watch and listen to your protagonist. In theory, there’s something intriguing about that.
In execution, unfortunately, it’s more than a little gimmicky. Parts of the first hour are all first person shooter, but often we can see Vincent’s back as he walks away or his distant outline from a balcony view. This is okay, I guess (although I feel like the film would be better off if it fully committed to the first person perspective), but I find the long taxi ride scene frustrating.
Actually, this scene is annoying for many, many reasons, but for now we’ll focus on Vincent having a good five minute conversation whilst encased in the Shadows of Darkness. This is just silly. You’d need super artful lighting and cinematography to make such a scene not gimmicky in the extreme, and Dark Passage just doesn’t have it. For that matter, the whole idea of an unseen protagonist would work a lot better if the story actually had some kind of theme about identity, which, yeah. It doesn’t have. This is the extremely rare case where I’m actually advocating for an unreliable narrator — Vincent wouldn’t necessarily have had to murder his wife, but maybe he ought to be keeping something from both the other characters and the audience. (Also, don’t expect such a recommendation to ever happen again. I rarely champion unreliable narrators because — with a few exceptions aside — I generally hate how they’re handled.)
2. I wish I could say that the lighting or the lack of thematic resonance were my biggest problems with the movie. Unfortunately, that would be a downright, dirty lie. Dark Passage is full of so many plot conveniences and examples of Heart Knowledge that it’s hard to know where to begin. We could just dive into the Worst of the Worst — but no, let’s try going through the story chronologically, shall we? We’ll begin with Vincent busting out of prison and catching a ride with this inquisitive asshole.
As we’ll see throughout the movie, Vincent has simultaneously the best and worst luck imaginable. Every single person he encounters will either immediately become suspicious of him or will help him out in some huge and highly convenient way. In this case, Baker — our inquisitive asshole — instantly starts pestering Vincent about where he’s going and where he found his unusual looking trousers and so on and so forth until, mercifully, a Helpful News Report explains that Vincent is an escaped prisoner. Vincent immediately knocks Baker out and steals his clothes. He’s probably planning to steal the car, too, when who should come along but the lovely Irene.
3. The best thing about Irene is that she’s played by Lauren Bacall.
Irene isn’t absolutely terrible — she’s just not great. Her entire function in this movie is to help out/fall in love with Vincent because . . . honestly, I don’t even know why she falls in love with him. Vincent’s okay, I guess, but this is not Humphrey Bogart’s most charismatic role. He’s just kind of there, a warm body and a bandaged face. Bacall, on the other hand, is sharp and funny and makes Irene a lot more likable than she has any right to be.
Irene smuggles Vincent across the police blockade on the Golden Gate Bridge. Later, we’ll find out that Irene’s father was wrongly convicted of murder and died in prison, so at least she has some motivation for the crazy ass thing she’s doing for a man she’s never met before. (I know she studied his case and all, but let’s be clear: watching a trial and thinking the accused is probably innocent is hell and gone from breaking all kinds of laws by allowing him to chill in the backseat of your car and later your apartment, with not much to defend yourself if you turn out to have been wrong all along.)
Of course, it’s still wildly convenient that Vincent managed to run into his secret admirer on the exact same day he escaped from prison, but at least the movie tries to address it (in a half-assed discussion about fate), and honestly, there are worse plot conveniences in this film. Meanwhile, the Golden Gate scene is probably supposed to be tense — WILL the cops discover Vincent when they check the backseat — but all I could really think was Holy God, policemen. You’re gonna back up traffic on the bridge SO BAD. I was having flashbacks to my SFSU days and shuddering.
4. Irene leaves Vincent alone at her place while she buys him some upscale clothes. Unfortunately, that’s when Madge (Agnes Moorehead) decides to drop by for a visit. And admittedly, Madge is pretty annoying as she insistently knocks at the door and demands to be let in. That being said, I’m relatively sure that she would have left eventually if Vincent, that ass, didn’t yell at her through the door. (And what does he yell? Basically, that Irene’s busy with a man.)
Two problems here: one, Irene might not want people to think that she’s with some random gentleman caller. (She doesn’t end up being particularly bothered by this, but it’s still not particularly considerate on Vincent’s part.) Two, holy shit, Vincent, you are a FUGITIVE FROM THE LAW. You should not be announcing your presence to anyone ever. Unless Madge is actually going to kick the door down — and yeah, she wasn’t — what in the name of Baby Jesus are you doing? There is no excuse for this, none.
Inconceivably, it gets worse: Vincent recognizes Madge’s voice through the door before he yells at her to go away. It doesn’t seem to occur to him, however, that Madge might also be able to recognize his voice. Vincent, you’re an asshole. And by not keeping your trap shut, you basically got your best buddy, George, killed.
5. So, this is George.
Before we even found out that Vincent had a best friend, Mekaela arbitrarily decided that Vincent’s BFF would end up being the bad guy. Upon his introduction, I was inclined to agree with her, mostly because it seemed like George himself was in love with Vincent. And sure, that seemed unlikely, considering that this movie was made under the Hays Code, but I still didn’t quite trust the guy. Then again, there’s nothing quite like proving your innocence by being murdered with your own trumpet.
George, I’m sorry I doubted you, buddy. And I guess I’m sorry your prayers went unanswered too. See, before George bites the big one, he’s talking to Vincent about that evil wench Madge. Their conversation goes like this:
Vincent: “Maybe someday she’ll get run over or something.”
George: “That’s what I pray for every night.”
Now, Madge isn’t a particularly nice woman. For one — spoilers — she’s the bad guy! (Seriously, how mean do you have to be to kill someone with their own musical instrument? That just seems rude.) For another, as we hear about, repeatedly, Madge is SO IN LUV with Vincent, but since he never loved her back, she lied at his trial, framing him for his wife’s murder out of pure spite. And there is certainly no reason that Vincent or his best friend should feel compassion for such a woman because that’s a totally fucked up thing to do, even if she hadn’t been personally responsible for Vincent’s wife’s death. Still, there’s something about the way George says it, that he prays for this woman’s demise every night. There’s a note of such brimming sincerity that it’s a little creepsome and weird. This is only compounded when you take the movie’s casual attitude towards violence against women into account, something we’ll get back to in just a few minutes.
6. Later, Vincent gets a ride with Asshole Taxi Driver, also known as the Cab Driver of Incredible Plot Convenience. Asshole Taxi Driver — it’s shorter — starts talking to Vincent, even though Vincent is very clear about the fact that he doesn’t want to talk. I can relate — I actually prefer quiet cab drivers, myself, although I’ve never straight up said, “I don’t feel chatty,” and “It’s funny you can’t take a hint,” to one before. Apparently it wouldn’t do any good if I did, though, because Vincent’s rudeness in no ways stops Asshole Taxi Driver from starting up a pointless story about a dude with a goldfish, like he’ll get a better tip or something from doing the exact opposite of what his fare wants.
It turns out that Asshole Taxi Driver is spectacularly good with faces. It’s not just that he remembers them; it’s that he can look at somebody and figure out what kind of person they really are. Case in point: he both recognizes Vincent from the papers (despite the Shadows of Darkness wrapped around him in the backseat) and also realizes that Vincent couldn’t have murdered his wife. Vincent just doesn’t have the face of a killer, see. And Face Knowledge, like Eye Knowledge, is really just another subset of Heart Knowledge.
This particular bit of Heart Knowledge is extra special, though:
Asshole Taxi Driver: “Did you really bump your wife off?”
Vincent: “No, I didn’t.”
Asshole Taxi Driver: “I don’t figure it that way. I figure you slugged her with that ashtray because she made life miserable for you. I know how it is. I live with my sister and her husband, and they get along fine, so fine that one day he threw a bread knife at her. She ducked. That’s the way it goes. Maybe if your wife had ducked, there’d be no trial, no Quentin, no on the lam. That’s life.”
So, yes. It’s not that Vincent couldn’t have been smacking his wife around. That’s okay. That’s totally understandable. After all, domestic violence isn’t really violence at all, right? And if Vincent’s wife just hadn’t been smart enough to get out of the way, well, that’s on her, right? That’s not the same as Vincent actually killing her or anything.
I know this was 1947 and all, but Jesus Christ.
7. As the Asshole Taxi Driver implicitly trusts Vincent and his non-murderous face, he offers to hook him up with this back alley plastic surgeon guy he just happens to know. That way, Vincent can purchase another non-murderous face that the police aren’t so familiar with!
Gosh. I’ve ridden in a fair number of cabs in my life, and none of the drivers have ever offered me an illegal face change before. The only thing I’ve ever gotten out of a cab driver is a business card. I feel vaguely cheated.
Despite his terrible and utter convenience, I do actually like the plastic surgeon guy, mostly because he’s weird and kind of funny. Also weird and funny: the time we spend in Vincent’s anesthetized brain.
It’s all very Hitchcock/Twilight Zone/that one bizarre 60’s remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that I caught part of on TV one day. I wonder if anyone’s ever written a paper on the various ways that filmmakers have chosen to capture scenes that take place Inside Your Brain over the decades, like, who influenced who, which special effects changed the game, etc. It might be interesting to read.
8. After the surgery, Vincent (currently cosplaying as a mummy) goes back to his Buddy’s George’s apartment, but oh noes! George has been killed. So Vincent makes his way back to Irene’s, and they have about
two minutes a week to fall in love. This is, admittedly, longer than Hollywood couples usually spend together before realizing their Feelings for one another, but as it passes super quick in real time, their supposed romance just feels silly. Maybe especially because Irene always believes Vincent’s innocent, no matter how many people keep dying around him. Also because of the ending — but we’ll get to the ending.
9. All the heart knowledge in this movie centers around one thing: everyone knowing that Vincent is innocent. The Asshole Taxi Driver knows. Irene knows. And interestingly, Irene’s Wannabe Boyfriend and Madge’s Ex, Bob, also knows. How does he know? Psychologically.
Yes, Bob is the guy in the movie who says — with a perfectly straight face — that while he never met Vincent Parry, he knows “psychologically” that Parry isn’t a killer. Holy shit, guys. That’s — that’s AMAZING. That’s my new go-to line for everything. Of course, we do have a lot of go-to lines in this house, things that we say (and occasionally alter) for our own purposes. Don’t want to do something, like, put up the silverware? “I’m too old to begin the training.” Somebody guesses something incorrectly? “You LOSE! GOOD DAY, MADAM!” Your sister doesn’t get you the chocolate chip cookie you asked for? “YOU HAVE FAILED THIS CITY!”
This, however, will have to be something I say when I have no actual way of knowing what I’m talking about. Like, “I never met Jesus, but I know psychologically that he’d be Team Peeta.” That’s how I’m going to win all my arguments from now on.
Actually, this is even worse than I initially realized. I was so busy laughing at the line that I didn’t even realize what Bob was actually arguing until I went back to watch the scene again — Bob absolutely believes that Vincent killed both his wife and George. That just doesn’t make him a killer, somehow. Vincent’s dumb, see. Madge pestered him into killing his wife, and he panicked and killed George, and yet Vincent won’t come after Madge because, after all, he’s just not a killer.
This movie, you guys. I don’t even know what to do with it.
10. At some point, Vincent gets to take his bandages off, and lo and behold! There is Humphrey Bogart. Newly Made Man Vincent considers fucking off to Peru, but instead decides to clear his name. Unfortunately, he’s foiled in that by our spectacularly underwhelming villain, Madge.
Madge is a bad villain for several reasons. (Although it should be said that none of them have to do with acting.) One: she’s incredibly obvious. There aren’t very many viable suspects in this movie, and her motive (“If I can’t have him, no one can!”) is only mentioned about a half dozen times. She’s so obviously the bad guy that I said she wasn’t — because I just didn’t want this movie to be that predictably dumb.
Madge’s obsession with Vincent is also sort of frustrating. For one thing, I have no idea what’s so special about this guy. Like I said before, this is not Bogey’s most exciting role. He has virtually nothing in the way of personality, nor does he exactly exude wild sexual charisma. Vincent Parry is the Bella Swan of Noir.
And it doesn’t help that Madge apparently thinks of nothing but Vincent. Even though Irene ends up leaving her whole life behind for this fucker, we at least know a few things about her. Like she enjoys painting, and she had that Dead Daddy backstory, and she called Vincent out on being stupid, which, THANK GOD. Irene’s certainly not a great female character, but at least I can somewhat imagine her existing before Vincent came into her life. Meanwhile, all I know about Madge is that she’s obsessed with this dude. I can’t think of a single other thing about her. She’s not only an obvious villain; she’s a boring one.
Surprisingly, Madge never tries to kill Irene, even though she correctly guesses that Irene and Vincent have improbably fallen in love. To be honest, I’m still a little unclear on why she bothered to kill George in the first place. If I understand the movie right, it’s because his death will make Vincent look really, REALLY guilty. But I’m like, Dude, he’s already an escaped felon convicted of murdering his wife. I don’t feel like you accomplished much here.
11. None of this is the worst, though. The very worst thing about Madge is how she dies. And how does she die, you might ask? Well, I’ll tell you: by FALLING OUT OF A FUCKING CLOSED WINDOW.
It’s bad. It’s so unbelievably bad.
Here’s how it goes: Vincent confronts Madge on all the terrible things she’s done. Madge does her whole spiel on how no one will ever believe him and he can’t do anything to change it when, suddenly, she stumbles and falls through the window. Since her apartment’s on the fiftieth story or whatever, she of course dies. Meanwhile, Mek and I are looking at each other, like, “What the fuck just happened? Did she actually just trip out the window and DIE?”
Because unless you’re making an absurd comedy, your villains probably shouldn’t trip to their doom, and if they are going to trip to their doom, they certainly shouldn’t do it through a closed window. Cause let me clear: it’s not like she’s standing several feet from the window, trips on a marble, and goes headfirst into the glass. No. She runs behind the gigantic curtain (that will protect her from Vincent, somehow?) and manages to fall with such momentum and force that she completely shatters the pane. And hey, maybe glass windows were a lot thinner than they are now, but I’m still pretty sure that physics has something to say about this, and what it has to say is, “Bullshit.”
This is a hideously, ludicrously stupid death. Soap operas kill off people with more dignity and realism. This is . . . you know what this is?
WRITER JOE: Okay, so we’re going to end this happily but not too happily, right? I mean, this is noir. Vincent can’t just get everything he wants.
WRITER SUSAN: Right. So Madge will die before she can confess to the police.
WRITER JOE: Absolutely. So, how does Madge die? Maybe Vincent can push her out of the window?
WRITER SUSAN: Absolutely not, Writer Joe! That would be murder, and Vincent doesn’t have the face of a killer!
WRITER JOE: Yeah, but . . . he’s got a new face now, right?
WRITER SUSAN: I’m ashamed of you, Writer Joe. That’s not how this works at all. You have failed this city. Obviously, Madge will have to cause her own death in some way.
WRITER JOE: I guess she could kill herself, then. Like as a special little “fuck you” to Vincent. Now you’ll never clear your name, that sort of thing.
WRITER SUSAN: Hmm . . . no, no, I think it would be better if she manages to accidentally kill herself in some way.
WRITER JOE: Um, okay, but how? She slips on a banana peel, goes through a window, and splats on the ground a bazillion feet below?
WRITER SUSAN: That’s genius, Writer Joe! Only let’s cut the banana peel — we don’t want this to be cartoonish — and just have her trip over nothing. Oh, I’m so glad we figured this out!
In fairness, I trip over nothing pretty much all the time. Just not quite this spectacularly. Also, I’ve noticed that some people seem to think that Madge did jump to her death. Mek and I wondered that too, at first, if only because Death By Tripping seemed so incredibly lame — but it doesn’t seem to track. For one thing, Madge’s smug speech sounds like it’s coming from someone who expects to still be alive when the police come a’calling. For another, who doesn’t OPEN the window before they jump out of it? And possibly the most damning piece of evidence: Vincent specifically tells Irene that Madge “stumbled” to her death. That cleared up any ambiguity for me: Madge accidentally tumbled to her doom because this movie is absolutely ridiculous.
12. So, Vincent flees to
Zihuatanejo Peru, temporarily leaving Irene behind but telling her to join him later. And, of course, she does so, leaving her entire life behind, and giving them a happily ever after that I much preferred when it popped up again fifty years later in The Shawshank Redemption.
I don’t ship Andy and Red — I like them as friends, and I wish there were more movies that prioritized friendship over romantic love — but at least theirs would’ve been a love story that I could have believed in.
Some neat ideas but a bungled execution, even for 1947.
If you’re a fugitive on the run, don’t announce your presence by speaking to people you don’t need to speak to, especially when those people know who you are, hate you, and/or are completely obsessed with you.
Also, don’t stand near windows. Usually, that’s because a masked murderer or a sniper is about to kill your ass dead, but tripping is apparently a real possibility too.