Friday, August 19, 2016

'Dark Passage' - Satisfying Summer Film Noir

After a busy work week punctuated by the nearly non-stop media coverage of Donald Trump's incremental steps toward uncharted political implosion, last night I really needed an escape from the dark side of American politics.

As some of you who stop by here may recall, Film Noir is one of my favorite movie genres, and for me there's nothing like turning down the lights and retreating into the black and white celluloid world of the 1940's - 1950's to explore the darker side of human nature as Hollywood did so effectively.

The 1947 classic Dark Passage was waiting in my mailbox in the familiar red envelope provided by Netflix's DVD service when I got home - I do the unlimited streaming package with Netflix, but I also recently re-enrolled for the "one disk at a time - unlimited" option again as Netflix offers a pretty impressive selection of classic and foreign films on DVD that aren't available on its streaming service.

As the link above will explain in far more detail than I'm capable of expressing, Film Noir has many definitions, but it's most recognizable characteristics are story lines that revolve around some of the darker, more complex aspects of human psychology and behavior; crime, deceit, mystery, betrayal, violence, fear, greed, cynicism, hopelessness and obsession are all typical themes.

From the technical standpoint, Film Noir often features unconventional framing shots, innovative uses of light, camera and screen perspective that (for the most part) were shot in black in white; personally I think director Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 masterpiece Rear Window is a good example of the refined Film Noir genre shot in in color - though some might characterize it as "neo-noir".

From the American Hollywood perspective, Film Noir (which many critics agree began in the late 1940's) is a reflection of a much more somber post-WWII worldview resulting from the collective psychological impact of the experience of living through The Great Depression and the mass destruction of world war.

In the same way that graphic television crime procedurals like Criminal Minds or NCIS became hugely popular after the events of September 11, 2001 as a way for people to try and make sense of the psychological motivation behind heinous acts of violence and terror, in some ways Film Noir became a vehicle for audiences to use cinema not just as entertainment, but as a means to examine and process the massive human suffering the world experienced between 1932 and 1945 by probing the darker aspects of fictional screen characters.

Aspects not seen in splashy musicals or screwball comedies.

Writer-director Delmer Daves 
Writer-director Delmer Daves had proved himself an able screenwriter on films like Petrified Forest (1936) and Love Affair (1939), and later as a director on successful films like Destination Tokyo (1943), and he was tapped by Warner Brothers to adapt the novel by prolific writer David Goodis after actor Humphrey Bogart read the book and brought it to Jerry Wald; one of the top producers at Warner Brothers (he produced the 1945 hit Mildred Pierce which won Joan Crawford an Oscar which she famously accepted from her bed.)

Bogart obviously recognized good material, and he knew the role of Irene Jansen in Dark Passage would be perfect for his new wife, former model Lauren Bacall.

Bogart and Bacall had lit up the screen with their smoldering on-camera chemistry in To Have And Have Not in 1944, and according to film historian and critic Leonard Maltin, Warner Brothers was eager to pair the two actors in another film to capitalize on their popularity with audiences.

After her star-making turn in To Have And Have Not, the studio was itching to put Bacall back up on the screen.

But she was not happy about being cast in her next project Confidential Agent in 1945, where she played an English woman opposite Charles Boyer; she was still a young actress and was clearly miscast for the role, and the film was something of a misfire.

Her next film with Bogart, the Film Noir classic The Big Sleep (1946) was a huge hit, and Bogart, who was fiercely protective of his young wife and her career, felt that Dark Passage would be an ideal project for him and Bacall to do together as the part suited her looks and temperament - and so it became the third on-screen pairing for the real-life couple.

Delmer Daves pushed the boundaries with Dark Passage in a number of ways.

For example he persuaded Warner Brothers to allow him to film on location in San Francisco to take advantage of the amazing outdoor shots that are so critical to the film's story line at a time when Hollywood directors (influenced by Italian neorealism in films like The Bicycle Thief), were looking to begin stepping outside of Hollywood studio sets and lots to add an element of realism to their films with real exterior shots.

Bacall nurses Bogart after plastic surgery in Dark Passage
More famously, Daves also used an unusual first-person camera technique for the first third of the film; showing much of it from the perspective of the main character Vincent Parry played by Bogart.

The plot is classic Film Noir.

In the opening sequence Vincent Parry escapes from San Quentin Prison and by (Hollywood) chance is soon picked up on the side of the road by the beautiful Irene Jansen, who smuggles the escapee into San Francisco to hide him in her swanky apartment.

Parry was jailed for the murder of his wife, but he was framed for it. The lovely (and helpful) Jansen turns out to be the daughter of a wealthy San Francisco man who had also been wrongly convicted for the murder of his 2nd wife - and he died in San Quentin.

Jansen had attended Parry's trial and believed in his innocence, so she's not only happy to help Parry hide from the law, she's also in love with him.

Parry decides to get plastic surgery to alter his face with the help of a cabbie he befriends, so for most of the first 3rd of the film, the camera perspective is from Bogart's character - we hear his voice, but we never see his face until it heals after the surgery and Bacall's character dramatically removes the bandages to reveal the Bogey we all know and love.

Agnes Moorehead as Madge in Dark Passage
Studio chief Jack Warner was reportedly not happy that Bogart, one of Hollywood's biggest stars, isn't actually seen until much later in the film.

The rest of the film revolves around Parry trying to track down his wife's killer and clear his name.

While some of the plot elements do defy belief, the performances by an excellent cast, including Agnes Moorehead as a loopy femme fatale, make you forget that.

By no means is Dark Passage a "great film", but it's brilliant must-see Film Noir with a really well-written story, beautiful cinematography and fine performances by Bogart and Bacall and the supporting cast.

So if you get the chance to rent it, or see it's going to be on Turner Classic Movies, by all means give it a watch - it's well worth the time and a great "San Francisco" film if you know the city and enjoy seeing brilliant shots of the City By the Bay in the 40's.

Well I'm off to a party at my friend Geoff the Economist's house in Princeton; and I'm taking Uber so it will be a fun evening not having to worry about drinking and driving.

If you happen to be home on this streamy summer Friday, turn down the lights and check out some classic Film Noir to keep cool.

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