Saturday, March 6, 2010

Dark Passage

On paper, having Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a movie that involves a prison break, murder, blackmail, and love seems like a no-brainer call for a movie classic. And, three times out of four, you would be absolutely right. The other entries in the Bogie-Bacall catalog are fantastic. This one? Not so much.

Don't get me wrong; this is not by any means a bad film. Bogart and Bacall are their usual tough-as-nails and cool-as-ice selves, which is always fun to watch. The supporting actors are good too, particularly Tom D'Andrea as the cabbie. The pacing of the film is good, too. There aren't dull points, or areas where the director should have cut; it's barely over 100 minutes long.

The plot isn't bad either. Bogart's character is wrongly convicted of killing his wife years ago; the movie begins with him breaking out of prison. Bacall recognizes him and chooses to help him get to safety by smuggling him to her home. Bogart then gets plastic surgery to alter his face and spends his recovery time with Bacall. With a new face, Bogart has to either skip town or try to find who killed his wife.

So, what's the problem? Well, if Bogart is going to have plastic surgery to end up looking like Humphrey Bogart, then who will he look like for the first half of the film? Remember, this was made in 1947. It would have been extremely difficult to have another actor play Bogart's role and then dub Bogart's voice in over the other actor's (because a face change can be explained, but a voice change wouldn't make sense). Director and screenplay writer Delmer Daves opted to avoid this problem entirely. We don't see Bogart's face until after the plastic surgery is done; in fact, we don't see Bogart without bandages on his face until about the one hour mark. Instead, Daves shot the first half of the movie from the perspective of Bogart's character. You almost never see extended use of the first-person perspective in mainstream cinema; it's usually relegated to brief scenes in slasher pics or porno. While this movie certainly rates above most (but not all) of those movies, I just expected the POV camera work to have some other meaning. If a director allows a scene to be filmed in an unusual manner, there should be an ulterior motive, something that tells the viewer more about the character or the scene than the screenplay suggests. Sadly, this unusual camera work seems to just be a way to get around the technical limitations Daves found himself with.

Oh, and there is one problem with the plot. Bacall chooses to help Bogart because her character's father was convicted of killing her mother, and Bacall believed her father to be innocent. Bacall admits that she helped Bogart because his situation reminded her of her father's.  You would expect Daddy issues of this size to play a large part in the film, but that was apparently a motivation taken at face value in the 1940's.

Ultimately, the main weakness in this film is the fact that it stars Humphrey Bogart as a noir hero, and yet we don't get to see him act for the first hour.  That doesn't make the movie bad, but it sure limits the potential for greatness.

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