The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dark Passage

When I think of current movie stars, I'm not typically thinking of really tough guys who are willing to shake things up a bit when they take a role.  I'm typically thinking soft, pampered, egotistical maniacs who are catered to night and day, and then if they don't get what they want, bitch and moan about it until they do.  Now to be fair, saying all this I never have met any of these movie stars and for all I know they're wonderful people. But then I think about stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, guys like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and one of my favorites, Humphrey Bogart.

The ultimate tough guy who shouldn't have been.  Whatever he may have lacked in stature or just pure physical intimidation, Bogie made up for it with a presence that very few actors can even come close to duplicating.  So what about a movie with Bogart starring where for 45 minutes we don't actually see his face but know it is him nonetheless?  Then for another 15 minutes, we see and hear his familiar voice but his face is covered in bandages. That's 1947's Dark Passage, an underrated film noir that relies on a gimmick, but in a good way.  If you're a fan of Mr. Bogart, this is not one to miss.

Serving a sentence after being found guilty for murdering his wife, Vincent Parry (Bogart) is on the run having escaped from San Quentin Prison outside of San Francisco. He's picked up by a young woman, Irene (Lauren Bacall), who willingly goes along and agrees to sneak him into San Fran through all the police searches and roadblocks.  With the police combing the state for him, Vince decides he needs to undergo plastic surgery because his face is too recognizable.  His plan starts to come together with Irene agreeing to help hide him, but Vince has bigger ideas.  He didn't kill his wife and is going to do everything in his power to find out who the real killer is.  He may not have to look far though because the killer could be coming for him instead.

The gimmick here is that for the first hour of the movie we don't actually see Humphrey Bogart's face.  How cool is that, how original?  I just can't see stars like George Clooney or Brad Pitt doing that, can you? The first 45 minutes anytime Bogie is in a scene, the camera is Bogie's face.  It's his point of view, his perspective.  In these pre-surgery scenes, Parry looks like someone else, a picture we even see in the newspaper.  So really, it's Bogie...but it ain't Bogie.  Then after the surgery while he recovers, his head and face are completely covered by bandages for another 15 minutes in movie time.  It's such an original idea and so ahead of its time that I enjoyed the movie that much more just because of its originality.  It's a gutsy call to hide your star for an hour in a 2-hour movie, but it is handled so well that the movie and its story doesn't miss a beat.

Using this technique of Bogie's eyes serving as the camera certainly is a roll of the dice because if that strategy doesn't work, you've lost the viewers less than halfway through the movie.  Then when we do see Bogart on-screen, the audience is either gone or bored with a movie they have decided to stick with all the way through.  In other words, it could be too late.  The pacing can be a little slow as Parry's plan comes together, but it's never too slow.  More tension could have been added, more sense of the police closing in on him, but that comes into play more the second half of the movie.  Director Delmer Daves moves the camera around as if this character was walking around in an apartment or navigating a confrontation with an overly inquisitive driver.  Original, innovative, and ahead of its time, all positives toward overshadowing the slower moving portions of the movie.

Now onscreen or offscreen, Bogart is an ideal choice to play a character like this.  Basically, we don't need to actually see him.  We know it's him just by his distinctive, deep, gravelly voice.  And even though Bogart played his fair share of shady characters, you know, you just KNOW, there's no way he could have killed his wife so of course he's telling the truth.  He brings his typically hard edge to his role of a man who knows he's been wronged and intends to fix things no matter how long it takes.  Regular Bogie co-star and current Mrs. Bogart Lauren Bacall always worked well with her husband, and this part is no different.  She was one of the few actresses who could match him for on-screen charisma and presence.  And in a completely pointless aside that has nothing to do with the movie, Bacall looks ridiculously gorgeous here.  She always looked good, but this is a step above the rest.

All good elements aside, the execution and revelation of the actual murderer doesn't completely gel.  It feels rushed at times and thrown together.  The reveal is really obvious and somewhat surprising at the same time (if that makes sense) with just too much coincidence thrown in to keep it somewhat manageable.  The final scene on the other hand is perfect, one that was repeated almost 50 years later in The Shawshank Redemption. The rest of the cast includes Agnes Moorehead (later of Bewitched fame) as noisy neighbor Madge, Bruce Bennett as Bob, a fella with an understandable interest in Irene, and Tom D'Andrea as a friendly cabby who helps Vince.  An all-around solid film noir with some great performances from Bogart and Bacall, and some filmmaking techniques that are still worth watching over 60 years later.

Dark Passage <---trailer (1947): ***/****

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