Dark Passage is all about Humphrey Bogart’s face, even if you don’t see it until well into the movie.
Bogart plays Vincent Parry, an escaped convict trying to prove his innocence in the murder of his wife. Stowed away in a barrel on the back of a truck leaving San Quentin State Prison, Parry rocks the barrel back and forth until it falls off the truck and goes rolling down a hill. From there, director Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma) cuts to a POV shot that will be employed off and on for roughly the next 45 minutes. We see what Parry sees (and occasionally his hands opening a car door or turning on a faucet). When characters talk to him, they’re talking directly to us—a technique that’s particularly potent when Lauren Bacall shows up as Irene Jansen, a wealthy young woman eager to prove Parry’s innocence for mysterious personal reasons. There’s something both thrilling and unnerving having Bacall cast those sloped eyes directly at you.
As for Bogart’s face (long and straight; there’s nothing sloped about it), it doesn’t appear until Parry undergoes plastic surgery in order to elude the police. When Irene pulls the bandages off and is instantly smitten by that rough-hewn mug, we might scoff—unless we remember what Gloria Grahame purred about Bogart in In a Lonely Place: “I like his face.” Here, Bacall sells a far flimsier romance the best she can, mostly by trading the sneaky sensuality she exuded in other collaborations with Bogart (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep) for something more akin to amorous sincerity.
As director, Daves plays a lot of games. The POV gambit goes on a little long, but he also manages a striking circular shot from inside the barrel as Parry runs away, as well as some psychedelic/kaleidoscopic effects during Parry’s surgery. The movie is also distinguished by Sidney Hickox’s high-contrast lighting and two dizzying, fatal falls (one of which involves a delightfully unhinged Agnes Moorehead). A mixture of hard-boiled intrigue and mental instability, this dark passage takes us from the film noirs of its time to the psychological thrillers that Alfred Hitchcock would make in the 1950s. Altogether, it’s a wild, harrowing journey.