Lie still. Hold your breath and cross your fingers.
I’m not a great believer in coincidences; sure they occur from time to time but too many of them all together tend to make me suspicious if anything. That’s in real life. In the movies the rules are a little different and I’m prepared to suspend my disbelief in circumstances that might normally give me pause. Film noir, especially its more paranoid and nightmarish examples, frequently thrives on the convenient coincidence. Dark Passage (1947) really piles the unlikely chance occurrences on top of each other to the point where the plot feels extraordinarily contrived and reality appears skewed. And yet it all ultimately works, because of the chemistry of the leads and also the sensitive and assured direction of Delmer Daves.
Amid the rising wail of sirens a truck speeds towards San Francisco, its load bouncing and rattling as it goes. Inside one of the barrels is a man, a man who’s just broken out of San Quentin. This is Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) and he’s been serving time for the killing of his wife. Parry insists he was framed and seems to have some vague notion of finding the real killer, but first he has to make it into the city. His first attempt, hitching a lift with a weaselly character (Clifton Young) in a roadster, is less than successful and could easily have led to his undoing. However, fate steps in and takes over at this point when a young woman, Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), happens along and smuggles the fugitive past the police roadblocks. And here we have the first of the long series of coincidences that dominate this story. Irene followed Vincent’s trial religiously, seeing parallels with the wrongful conviction of her late father, and even wrote letters to the press in his defense. It’s just by chance that she was passing that stretch of road on the very day Vincent decided to make his bid for freedom, but that’s only the start of it. Vincent seems to be stalked by alternating bouts of good and bad luck, almost everyone he encounters is acquainted with one another on various levels, and then there’s the lonely cabby (Tom D’Andrea) with a very useful contact. I won’t go into the various twists and turns the plot takes here – suffice to say Vincent acquires a new face, learns the truth and has at least the possibility of a new beginning dangled before him. Does he grasp that possibility? Well I suggest each viewer make up their own mind on that one – I feel the ending has the kind of ambiguous quality that allows you to interpret it as you wish.
Dark Passage was adapted from a David Goodis novel (I haven’t read it but I do have a copy sitting on my shelves) by director Delmer Daves and offers up an appetizing slice of noir, where an apparently hapless protagonist finds himself sliding ever deeper into circumstances over which he has little control. Daves indubitably did his best work in westerns but this film also provides plenty of scope for the optimism that runs as a common theme throughout his filmography. Film noir tends to focus on the sourer aspects of existence so it probably sounds a little odd to speak of such a positive characteristic in this context. However, it is there – not only in the solidly hopeful central relationship between Vincent and Irene, but also in the little vignettes that add a human face to the tale. Sam the cabby and his willingness to give a guy a break just because he reckons he has a good face, Irene’s would-be suitor who ought to be bitter but shows understanding instead, the hash slinger in the diner who regrets shooting off his big mouth, and the lonely strangers in the bus station all nudge the story forward in their small ways and afford glimpses of a world where decency hasn’t yet been fully eclipsed by greed and jealousy.
At the heart of it all are Bogart and Bacall, their real life love affair as apparent as ever in their comfort around each other. The fact that Bogart isn’t actually seen for the first half hour, the camera telling the story from a first person perspective up that point, doesn’t harm the inherent chemistry either as it’s all there in the voices and gestures that we do witness. With so many unlikely events coming at us hard and fast, it’s vital that there’s a solid center to hold it all together. The two leads ensure that everything remains grounded by their honest and affecting performances. And of course there’s the ending, an aspect I was unsure how to take for a long time. The noir purist may dismiss the coda as a mere sop to those longing for a traditional Hollywood ending, and it can be viewed in those terms. It could also be read as Vincent’s dream after the emotional phone call in the bus terminal. Personally, I’ve come to see it as a nice touch, open to whatever interpretation one cares to favor depending on mood, and entirely appropriate for a director like Daves.
Dark Passage has been available on DVD from Warner for ages now and the transfer still holds up pretty well. The image is quite crisp and shows off the interior and location photography of Sid Hickox just fine. One could criticize the fact that so many aspects of the plot are that bit too convenient, and the way Daves injects his optimism into the story may leave hardcore noir fans somewhat frustrated. Overall, I find it a very satisfying experience though – it offers plenty of thrills and suspense, and lets you walk away with a big smile on your face at the end.