Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Dark Passage(1947)

[Major spoilers to follow. Not sure if you care about them for a movie that's almost 70 years old, but, fair warning.]

The plot of Dark Passage is so full of coincidence, based so much on the same four or five people in San Francisco constantly bumping into each other, that it would be easy to criticize the film for indulging deus ex machina to tell its tale. And that reading would be, in a way, correct; the film is slightly ridiculous on its face, and its hard to completely swallow the string of coincidences. But then, every movie requires a certain amount of contrivance to push the plot into motion, and to then keep it in motion. And those coincidences do happen in real life, from time to time. For example, until about 12 years ago I had never taken a trip out of my home state without running into a good friend in some random city or airport. Running into a high school buddy I hadn't seen in years on an unexpected overnight layover in Minnesota? That happened. A guy I'd just shared an Eastern Religions class with the previous semester on a trip to visit family in Florida? Yep. And so I'm willing to buy, at least for the sake of the story, that everyone Vincent Parry(Humphrey Bogart) meets in Dark Passage is either a friend or an enemy with some previously-unremarked-on history between them.

I'm not sure the film was intended to be read as anything other than a literal thriller, but I'm about to read a bit more into it anyway. I'm fairly sure Delmer Daves and everyone involved on the film merely thought they were making a brisk crime film, but I think I can see glimmers of something else buried in there as well. One thing I've noticed a lot in watching so many films noir in such a small period of time is the use of travel. People in noir movies seem to drive a lot more than in other films. There are more scenes set in cars cruising through nighttime cities, more plots that involve trying to escape to somewhere, with pivotal scenes set in or around hubs of transportation. Trainyards, docks, airports. Travel represents two seemingly opposed ideals in film noir; the idea of freedom and the idea of predestination. Noir characters are invariably trying to escape some web that's been spun around them, to clear their name, escape the law, escape the devious women and violent hoods that surround them. But the basic irony is that no matter how much travelling they actually accomplish, they're still stuck, because all of those vehicles go to the same place. All roads lead to Rome, or in film noir, all roads lead to Reckoning.

Professor Richard Edwards, who is running the online course on film noir that I am taking part in, which has named and inspired this entire series of posts, called the first module in the course 'Entering Noir Country.' That suggests another idea that had been bubbling just under the surface; that these films exist in their own separate world. I don't mean in the general sense that all fiction resides in it's own unique world, I mean very simply that these films take place in what could be seen as a parallel, or possibly internal, world. These characters live in enclosed cities that hold the impression that if you were to leave through one street, you would immediately find yourself re-entering the city from a street on the other side. Sometimes the enclosed city can span an entire continent, but the outcome is the same; the characters are trapped and will keep treading the same ground over and over again. It's why even though Joe Sullivan in Raw Deal drives across country and boards a ship leaving the country, he still ends the film back where he started in a battle with the mob boss he had been trying to escape from. This would explain why in most noir films the plots and characters are so tightly entangled, like the difficult-to-map plot of Murder, My Sweet, where Phillip Marlowe's separate cases turn out to be not so separate at all, and all feature the same three or four people in different configurations. It's because there are no other people, at least none that matter. There are no other places, at least none the characters can get to. Noir is like a purgatory for it's characters, and we get the idea that once the credits roll and the curtain closes they'll simply reset their positions and start the whole thing over again.

Dark Passage seems to realize this about film noir. Seems to distill those feelings and heighten them. Vincent Parry(Humphrey Bogart) escapes from prison and makes it to San Francisco with the help of sympathetic Irene Jansen(Lauren Bacall), despite initially having trouble with a driver too nosy for his own good. Vincent has never met Irene, but coincidentally she was at his trial every day, and wrote letters to the editor about Vincent's mistreatment. All of this is explained away as sympathy for Vincent's plight because her father had been wrongly convicted of murder and died in jail, but there are some big coincidences to come. From this point on the movie is about Vincent Parry's race to find a way out of the country. He never seems too concerned about clearing his name and finding his wife's real killer, but he needs to get out. To this end he meets a remarkable number of people willing to help him and willing to believe with no evidence that he's actually innocent. Irene, despite her being so invested in Vincent's case, simply happened to be driving buy when she ran into him during his escape. Then there's the cabdriver who immediately recognizes Vincent, but says he knows a doctor that could give him plastic surgery to help him avoid the cops. Then there's the doctor himself, who isn't sure Vincent is innocent, but trusts the cabbie. That's an enormous amount of luck for a prison escapee on his first day out, and even luckier that they happen to be 3 of the first 4 people he meets on the outside.

On the opposite side we have Vincent's enemies. That nosy driver from earlier returns, tailing Vincent in order to either claim the bounty on him, or extort thousands of dollars from Irene. Irene's friend Madge becomes something more than a nuisance, as it's revealed she had a much bigger part to play in Vincent's imprisonment than anyone realized. Consider this another humongous coincidence; Irene, completely independent of any other factors, fixates on Vincent's case, then also coincidentally happens to be driving past the exact stretch of road where Vincent just happens to be escaping from jail, and then her best friend happens to also be the true killer of Vincent's wife. What are the chances? How is it that out of the 16,000 people in San Francisco in 1947, Vincent keeps running into this same handful. Also a danger to Vincent are the police, of course, who are always a vague threat around the edges of this movie. But the thing is, the threat of arrest never seems that present. Nosy-Driver doesn't really want to send Vincent back to jail, nor does Madge. They all seem to exist simply as roadblocks. Dark Passage is a movie about stasis, about being stuck in a web with the same few people, and as such these characters never destroy Vincent, they simply conspire to keep him stuck where he is. Every attempt he makes to leave the city is blocked, and he's constantly forced to return to Irene's apartment as the one safe place for him in the city.

Dark Passage then exists as a quintessential movie about Noir as a place, and becomes, to my current, not-at-all-comprehensive knowledge, the only one where true escape is possible. Sure, there are other films with happy endings; A Woman on the Run, Deadline at Dawn, Journey Into Fear, all these end with happily embracing couples setting off on a life together, their brief nightmare over. But they haven't truly escaped, they still exist in the same place, the same world where all their troubles began. Vincent Parry in this film achieves what no other noir character has; a true, honest to god rebirth. He makes it through the dark passage and emerges into the light, as a literal new man(or as literal as humanly possible), in a literal new place, with a literal new life. And he escaped because he wasn't focused on revenge, or uncovering secrets. He was focused on escaping from the world of cyclical abuse and tragedy, and he won.

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