Following the recent Delmer Daves series at Anthology Film Archives as well as the Criterion Collection's home-video release of 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal, I thought it was timely to take another look at his 1947 film, Dark Passage.
There’s something about San Francisco that makes people act a little peculiar. Not everyone, of course, just people in movies like Dirty Harry, Petulia, Point Blank, The Sniper, and Vertigo. Here, vigilantism, revenge and psychological neuroses and disorders are on display. Maybe it’s the hills?
Delmer Daves has a different depiction. In Dark Passage, only the lonely seem to occupy the city, drifting in and out of the movie as if in a dream.
Adapted from David Goodis’ novel, and the third collaboration (of four) between husband and wife team, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Dark Passage follows Vincent Parry (Bogie), a man running from the law for a crime he didn’t do – murdering his wife – and starting a new life with Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), his San Francisco savior. We first see him breaking out of San Quentin by hitching a ride on the back of a truck, concealed in a barrel. What’s surprising though, is that we never get to see Parry’s face. In fact, we only see it more than halfway into the film. Before that, the film is from the perspective of Parry, with POV shots. Characters address the Parry-camera, but such a technique isn’t as cumbersome or tedious as the mainly POV film, Lady in the Lake. Unlike Robert Montgomery, Daves isn’t beholden to the device, switching back and forth between the more “objective” shots (for lack of a better word) and the POV shots before abandoning the technique completely. In either type of shot though, we hear Bogart’s voice, but do not see his face. Indeed, Dark Passage offers the viewer a character that has the voice of Bogart but doesn’t look like Bogart (initially).
Parry’s appearance doesn’t remain fixed either. Instead, his face undergoes several transformations. At one time or another, his face appears as a shadow, some void and unknowable abyss; a criminal/public face emblazoned on newspapers; a healing face wrapped in bandages; and finally, the face of a star, of Bogart.
For as many faces Bogart wears, there are as many people coming into contact with him. A cheap hood, the nicest cabbie you ever met in your life, a disgraced surgeon, and a detective are just some of the people who interact with him. All try to identify Bogie. Despite his shape-shifting face, they sense who he is, a man on the run, from some fear of reveal.
It is these trace characters drifting into and out of the film that are active and Bogie that is passive, partly due to the POV shots, which emphasizes an observational mode of cinema. It’s as if Daves is trying to circumvent the demand of the narrative playing out between Bogie and Bacall, offering a glimpse into these other lives swirling around Bogie.
Although I’ve seen only two of his other films, perhaps this is Daves’ sensibility – creating a world in which major and minor characters interact as part of a larger community. Bertrand Tavernier seems sure that this is so. In Film Comment, he wrote a feature on Daves, in which, at one point, he compared him to John Ford. “Both directors reject solitary heroes, favoring characters who are integrated into a community (as distinct from Hawks’s small groups that are cut off from the rest of the world even as they crisscross it),” he said. “They work with and for this community, and those who ignore it are challenged and questioned.” Daves’ characters are thus defined by being in or out of a community. In Pride of the Marines, John Garfield joins a league of disabled, WWII veterans, sounding off about what the future could possibly hold for them as they integrate back into society – GI Bill? (Un-) employment? Broken Arrow is no more than a series of negotiations between Apache Native Americans and white settlers, attempting to live in harmony and stop the bloodshed between them.
With Dark Passage, Daves is sensitive to a community of strangers seeking companionship. “Don’t you get lonely up here, all by yourself?” Bogie asks Bacall about living by herself in an apartment. “I was born lonely, I guess,” she replies. Near the end of the film, at a bus depot, Bogart overhears a conversation between two strangers, a middle-aged woman with two kids and a man -- alone. As they chat, the man says, “You know, we got something in common. Being alone.”
From this last bit of dialogue, a romance blossoms between two people who just happen to be sitting next to each other. It’s as if Daves just offered a snapshot of an alternate narrative. “To understand is to love,” Daves once told Tavernier. It’s a testament to Daves’ all-embracing cinema then that he can divert from the narrative between Bogie and Bacall to focus on these people orbiting the main characters, without seeming tangential. Under San Francisco’s night skies, the outsiders, the loners, the midnight-oil burners come out and cross paths with one another.