Welcome to Shadowplay, the daily blog about DARK PASSAGE.
Looking at part two of DARK PASSAGE, where it all kind of goes to shit. And where Bogart actually HAS Bogart’s face, having acquired it via plastic surgery performed by seedy rhinoplasterer Housely Stevens. Would you buy a used face from this man?
“Change it back, doc, change it back!”
Spoilers from the start.
The more the movie deals with who killed Bogie’s wife, the less compelling it becomes, and not just because his real wife, Lauren Bacall, is standing right in front of us, very much alive. It’s because this is all backstory, dealing with someone we never met, and it’s of interest to us only if it can solve the true plot problem, Bogie’s being wanted by the law for a crime which, it so happens, he didn’t commit. The movie seems to totally misunderstand our requirements of it: it thinks that as long as we find out whodunnit and the guilty party is somehow punished, we’ll be satisfied. But while that kind of closure + justice is important, what the movie has set up as its dramatic problem is Bogart being a wanted man. And at the end of the movie he HASN’T cleared his name, he never will, but he gets to retire to Peru with Betty Bacall. It feels somehow unsatisfying. Maybe also because the film’s version of San Francisco was maybe one-fifth actual location footage, and Peru is a special effects and studio fantasia. It’s like ending the film in a dream sequence.
But this floundering second half is kind of fascinating in the abstract, even if it’s not dramatically engaging. One weird thing is the way Bogart keeps presiding over fatal accidents. He basically shoves Clifton Young off a cliff — very good, grim shot of Young lying crumpled at the bottom. It suits him. At this point it’s going to be impossible for him to clear his name, and he IS somewhat guilty and so the movie’s prospects are derailed. And then Agnes Moorehead somehow auto-defenestrates, without meaning to, though given her dialogue before the fact and the typically frenzied manner she brings to her confrontation with Bogie, it would have made more sense as a strategic suicide. Instead, it feels like Bogie WILLED her through the skyscraper window, even though he needs her alive. It reminds me a bit of the abrupt climax of AMERICAN GIGOLO, where at least Richard Gere gets to grab the plummeting man’s legs and TRY to stop his death-plunge (again, he needs the defenestratee to clear his name).
But a bigger similarity is with THE WALKING DEAD, in which Boris Karloff plays a Bogie-like gangster raised from the beyond who goes seeking revenge on his killers. Strangely, Karloff never lays a finger on his enemies, he just slow-walks them to their doom, backing off the edge of railway platforms and under approaching trains, etc. It’s as if he’s come back from the dead but he’s brought death with him, as an ally or as a sort of miasma that surrounds him, focussing in on those whom he directs his malevolent glare towards.
It’s like Oscar Wilde wrote: “Karloff does it with a look, Lee Marvin with a towel.”
It’s been pointed out that John Boorman’s POINT BLANK plays like a hip remake of TWD, with Lee Marvin as the gangster who may have died (John Boorman has spoken of a possible Owl Creek Bridge reading of both his Lee Marvin movies) and who wreaks revenge on his foes without actually inflicting bodily harm on them himself. Its slick visuals, rat-a-tat cutting and Donald Westlake plot ingenuity make this the most engaging of the films under discussion, and by burying Lee Marvin’s revenant status deep in subtext, it makes it more fun to unpeel. THE WALKING DEAD is a little too somnolent for me, though you can certainly argue that’s appropriate.
POINT BLANK, of course, also plays out in San Francisco and features a spectacular sidewalk dive, this one from old Dean Wormer himself, John Vernon.
“Someone has to put his foot down, and that foot is me.”
And I guess GHOST STORY has a place in here too.
Anyhow, Bogart’s affinity with sudden death in DARK PASSAGE suggests both the shifty narrator of DETOUR (people just keep dying around me, honest!) and the fatal pro/antagonists of WALKING DEAD and POINT BLANK. Maybe Boorman would suggest that Bogie dies when the San Quentin barrel crashes downhill in scene 1, and the rest of the plot is just his dying fantasy. It would certainly give a meaning to the otherwise obscure title (there’s no significant literal passageway in the plot). And it would kind of explain how Bogart becomes a helpless passenger in his own movie. The “first person shooter” opening robs him of identity, and then his every action seems to be dictated by chance meetings, with a cabbie, a detective in a diner, the guy who picks him up who turns blackmailer. And all the deaths in the film just happen, Bogart doesn’t plan them or really want them. He’s the passive recipient of a narrative.