Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A man wrongly accused of murder seeks to clear his name. While evading the police, he comes across a mysterious femme fatale who is determined to help him. Her motives aren’t too clear at first, but she’s about the only person he can trust in a world filled with misguided cops, crooks and murderers.
What I’ve just described is the plot of many thrillers of Hollywood’s classic era, particularly those directed by Alfred Hitchcock (North By Northwest and To Catch A Thief come to mind). Take away the recurring motif of the innocent man wrongfully accused of murder, and you’ve got other classic film-noirs such as The Big Sleep, Chinatown and The Big Heat. Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage, the third of the four films Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, can be counted among them. While it is not one of the exciting or deepest of film-noirs, it is certainly one of the most audacious ever made.
What other word could be used to describe a 1947 Hollywood film starring one of the world’s most recognizable stars, whose face is not completely visible until the 39th second of its 62nd minute? A film whose first 37 minutes consists mostly of scenes shot from a subjective point of view representing said star’s vision, with only his dialogue and voiced-over thoughts to let the audience know his identity?
What could have been an ephemeral gimmick is rendered ingenious and even insightful by its use at the service of the tried-and-true “wrong man” plot and its setting in a noir universe. As the viewer adopts Parry’s point of view, they are forced to experience his sensations from the moment he climbs out of the barrel on the side of the road. Everything he experiences is experienced by the audience at the same time. The effect is particularly powerful when he – and thus the viewer – is subjected to the gaze of the other. Whether it’s the falsely innocent curiosity of a Clifton Young’s hitchhiked motorist, Lauren Bacall’s knowing, penetrating stare, or the ambiguous smile of a shady cab driver, the viewer is under constant scrutiny and cannot escape it. The identification process is effortless, almost unconscious. Like a gunless, bloodless pre-video game era first person-shooter.
Bogart’s impeccable voice-over helps the audience imagine his accompanying facial expressions, despite the fact that multiple shots of newspapers depict his character as having a completely different face.
After Parry’s plastic surgery – notable for Houseley Stevenson’s remarkable performance as a back-alley surgeon who constantly alternates between affability and potential menace – Bogart spends approximately 25 minutes of the film with his face covered in bandages. As Parry must not speak until the healing process is complete, Bogart must convey his character’s emotions through his eyes.
It is during these 25 minutes that I realized the size of the role Bogart’s eyes play in his acting. His tough demeanour and casual wit always concealed wounded masculinity and self-criticism – sometimes even self-loathing – that was best exemplified in Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece “In A Lonely Place”, which boasts Bogart’s greatest performance. Delmer Daves uses Parry’s condition to showcase this in an almost equally beautiful way. Deprived of his acid tongue and forced into hiding, Bogart has rarely been so vulnerable and his eyes express more fear and sadness than he could ever have allowed himself to show in any other condition.
When the bandages finally come off, and Bogart moves towards the mirror in a left-to-right pan, the discovery is double: For Parry, it is the discovery of a new face he will live with for the rest of his life. For the viewer, it is the rediscovery of a face they thought they knew so well, yet spent much time deprived of its sight and exposed only to eyes that hinted at hitherto unforeseen facets of Bogart’s aura. It is indeed a whole new man they see.
To talk about the film’s plot would be pointless. The film’s direction, main characters and atmosphere are its strong points, not its plot. It is worth mentioning, however, that this is probably one of the more pessimistic of film-noirs of Hollywood’s classic era. Quite literally through Bogart’s eyes, the viewer is exposed to a cruel and unfair universe filled with strange and suspicious characters who are either shady or downright hostile. Justice cannot be obtained through conventional means, and even the unconventional ones fail. There can be no other choice but to rely on luck and the kindness of fate (or in this case an overly generous screenwriter-director) to earn a happy ending.