It’s a better film than Lady in the Lake that presents a far less convoluted plot and utilizes first-person camera quite a bit more effectively. Although there is no commentary on the DVD I saw last night, the behind-the-scenes featurette narrator described the “first-person camera” technique with that term, which really does convey enough information to make “ontogenic” comparatively obsolete.
Delmer Daves’ treatment of his storyline is significantly less pedantic and literal (fundamentalist) than Montgomery’s, and Dark Passage (according to the featurette narrator) benefited greatly from the use of a much smaller camera. Bogart’s role as Vincent Parry is made instantly more sympathetic by means of Parry’s spoken-to-nobody narrative, a trait that’s later explained in the film as a habit he picked up in prison. Whether talking to himself (and to the audience) or to an on-screen character (in the familiar voice of Humphrey Bogart — like radio-cinematography) this device crystalizes and differenitiates several of the viewer’s Bogart-expectations from the viewpoint of this story’s specific protagonist. We not only see the world through Parry’s eyes, we also hear his thoughts, and that’s a vitally important literary dimension stripped from the reductive Montgomery cinematic variation of (a very literary) The Lady in the Lake.
Now that I have a couple of mainstream Hollywood experiments in first-person camera to compare with one another, the first, most obvious stumbling block in both films is the choice of the white, male protagonist as the one-and-only empathic POV from which each story is shot. I have absolutely no problem gazing into the deliciously classy mystery known as Lauren Bacall, but I’d actually much prefer to see this story shown from the perspective of Irene Jansen, Bacall’s character.
Hanging out for the past several years at erotic photographic websites and forums, I’ve come to the conclusion that the women photographed are used primarily as projections screens for familiar male erotic/romantic fantasies. The moment in The Matrix when the hot, openly-inviting blonde in the hot red party dress arrests Neo’s attention electrifies the first-person presence with an empathic lightning bolt, but its a device that operates on the locker-room level of conversation, like smalltalk between guys. “Did you see the sash on that one?!” How it feels to be a beautiful woman in public space composed largely of eyeballs, urges, contempt and lurid imaginations locked upon your every gesture — seems like a universe of fascinating stories Hollywood hasn’t bothered to tell, empathically nor otherwise.
The most fascinating aspect of Sex in the City, for me, was the long-desired opportunity to sense mundane reality from the perspective of four attractive women, who converse with unprecedented candor. The show never quite managed to provide the intimate glimpse I wanted from the high-heeled moccasins of an unqualified sexual-attention-target, but Dark Passage didn’t even try. I wish it had. Ultimately, the primary strength of the film resides in superior casting. Bogart and Bacall do very fine work (that inevitably pales by comparison with To Have and Have Not), but the first half of the film belongs to Tom D’Andrea as the cab driver, who hands the film off to his exact-opposite; Agnes Moorhead’s toweringly bitchy performance as the incredible Madge, the unopened lock within which sits the riddle that drives the action and the heart of the film.
Casting 1946/7 San Francisco as the backdrop also works wonders for me, in that LA locations are less resonant (for me) in the noirs of the very same era, and the recognizable/articulated LA intersections don’t drip with the same desire to physically contextualize Ft. Point, Hyde Street, Powell & Market…, and the theoretical seven hills between the Ferry Building and Ocean Beach that Sam, the cabdriver, alludes to in the story he relates to Parry in the midst of the formation of an amazingly strong empathetic bond between two strangers, a theme that’s repeated throughout the film, and contrasted with relentless interrogations.
While Daves’ camera treatment of Parry is vastly more lyric and sympathetic than Montgomery’s take on Chandler’s material, it’s worthy of note that the corpse of Parry’s closest friend, George Fellsinger, is photographed in coverage from a point far beneath the floor (that’s magically turned to glass) in another yet alternative camera technique (extremely steep angles [that invariably tell their very own stories]) I’ve been longing for decades to see employed by innovative filmmakers and photographers.
The visually sympathetic treatment of the fugitive protagonist is counterpointed by the battery of grueling, relentless, spontaneous interrogations that intensify the identification of the audience with Parry, while the forces that move the women in the film seem permanently condemned to be utterly mysterious; Miss Jansen’s wealth and idealism are superficially explained, but Madge Rapf’s psychotic persistence (and fall) bleeds unexplained madness through every frame of a film that traces Parry’s dogged determination to reveal the truth about his wife’s murder, while leaving a trail of dead people that terminates in Peru in one of the Hollywood’s strangest (and yet most spiritually satisfying) “resolutions” to a murder mystery, ever. Dark Passage is one very peculiar film.
I liked it a lot, largely because, as the featurette narrator says, there are fascinating secondary characters everywhere you look in a film that makes a good deal more emotional sense than The Lady in the Lake, and also did very little business at the box office. Go figure.
Just as Focus is a film about (antiSemitic) intolerance that derives from the personnel manager’s story (that starts and ends early) in Gentleman’s Agreement, I like attempting (and failing) to reframe these classic films from the alternative perspectives of other characters locked forever in place in these narratives. Madge’s motivations are probably beyond my comprehension, but Irene Jansen’s feel like they belong to somebody I already know. The nearest thing to an example of the tree I’m barking up is evident in StopLoss, a film in which male comradeship is exquisitely characterized by a female director (Kimberly Pierce) with, unprecedented sensitivity and empathic eloquence. Also, go figure.