Dark Passage (1947) as locus of film noir

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In 2008 I scratched out some notes on the Bogart and Bacall vehicle Dark Passage in my longhand journal. Those notes seemed just a little too conspiratorial for me, and I did not follow up on them, until they came to mind in the past few days, when I read some other perspectives on film noir that prompted me to reconsider.

What I had written in 2008 was an interpretation of Dark Passage as an allegorical condemnation of the anti-communist witchhunts that began in the US during the later 1940s, and that have never really subsided since that time.

I saw in the film’s first person ‘point of view’, as it was called in the 1940s – the camera showing us what the protagonist sees rather than the actor portraying the protagonist – an earnest attempt to propose to us, the audience, that we are the fugitive. An innocent man accused of murder whose redemption hinges on others telling the truth, but encountering instead a spiteful and relentless persecution, ameliorated only by a handful of decent people, willing to believe in fairness and having the courage to act on that belief, even at great risk to themselves.

This was undoubtedly the situation faced by the real and imagined American communists in the 1940s and ‘50s. Ostracised, shunned, even hunted, at risk of incarceration, or exile, and never to be recognised as patriots whose crime was a vision for America’s future less avariciously larcenous than the one which has dominated ever since.

That was in fact the denouement in Dark Passage: the fugitive can find peace and happiness only in exile, without ever being exonerated. An experience imposed on so many Americans by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that it’s hard not to be disconsolate about the realisation of just how many others must have collaborated with these snitch-driven purges.

This was not at all how I had interpreted the film the first time I saw it, in 1977, at the Hampstead Everyman in London, a cinema that exists to this day. It was part of a Bogart double bill, and I was impatient with what I saw as a slow, ponderous pace, lacking action or the tough guy antics I had expected from Bogart. I saw it again a few times in the 1980s and 1990s, each time thinking I was missing something, and that understanding it was unfinished business for me.

When I did finally have a strong reaction on that evening in 2008, I was suspicious of my interpretation because I was very ill and was subject to an altered consciousness created by medication. It was an intense, anxiety-inducing state of mind, sometimes making it hard for me to tell apart powerfully bad dreams and consciousness. A state of mind in which I played out my own forms of noir in a way that might have made me ‘tune into’ what I saw with a highly receptive subjectivity, which struck me afterwards as perhaps too singular and personal to hold any universalisable insights.

However, in some casual research on Kansas City Confidential (1952) I came across a 2007 essay by Geoff Mayer, ‘McCarthyism, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the Caper Film’, in which he argued:

… it was virtually impossible to produce films with overt, or literal, liberal sentiments after 1947–1948. Such films were replaced by a cycle of so-called caper films, which, in some cases, continued film noir’s ability to critique various aspects of capitalism—even if this critique was heavily camouflaged by generic conventions (p. 63).

Towards the end of his essay, Mayer quoted James Naremore who accented my own feverish 2008 interpretation:

‘…after 1947, many leftist filmmakers were treated as outlaws, and it is not surprising that they made some of their best pictures from the point of view of criminals’ (p. 66).

These passages made me look again at my notes, and to reconsider my perspective on the effects of prevailing political conditions in the US, their effect on Hollywood, the validity of recognising allegorical meanings in film, and the influence all of this might have had on film noir specifically.

I am not proposing that political persecution is a necessary pre-requisite of film noir, but that it fits thematically into what I regard as a period of a particular kind of socio-economic disenfranchisement in the US, and serves quite organically as the end of the parallel rise and fall of film noir. That period marks the destruction of any viable left wing politics in America, meaning to me that film noir was essentially a working class discourse, populated mostly by pedestrian characters thrown into turmoil by economic and social circumstances beyond their control. Moreover, it is a turmoil uniquely American in its expression through film noir, which is why I regard the cinema proper of film noir to be solely American and limited to the 30 years between the 1930s and 1950s.

Bacall, Goodis, and Bogart in 1947.
Bacall, Goodis, and Bogart in 1947.

In that context film noir represents and requires a subjectivity of struggling Americans being alienated from their own societies and their own initial optimism. I see film noir as reflecting the American experience of traditional, naïvely optimistic and ethically grounded assumptions being overturned by a succession of disasters, culminating in the cold war period, during which there were persistent and neurotic doubts in the minds of many Americans about their nation’s position in the world, and their own place in such an insecure vista of external threat and internal oppressiveness.

It was a mindset fuelled by a massive population shift from rural to urban areas during the Great Depression, where poverty-stricken, unemployed farm workers rubbed shoulders with immigrants from every part of the world who were no better off. It was a crucible of traditions, languages, cultures, creativity and cynicism about the loss of idealism and the reality of previously unimagined, but now concretely experienced corruptions in every part of the world, particularly during and after WWII, and tightly focused in crowded low-rent tenements ruled by dog-eat-dog realities and the real gangsters Hollywood loved to throw on the silver screen in the guise of James Cagney, Edward G Robinson, Paul Muni, George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, and their contemporaries.

This was a milieu that bred hard-nosed realists suspicious of the official propaganda about the American dream and fripperies like Hollywood musicals and carefree comedies, turning often to the cheap pulp paper magazines filled with luridly descriptive horror stories, escapist science fiction, and the core of film noir – ‘hard-boiled’ crime stories.

It was an atmosphere of Americans being alienated from each other and their own society, breeding its own peculiar patois, interspersed with immigrant slang and exemplified by the rapid-fire ‘hep’ talk of tough crime fiction protagonists. These protagonists, regarded as disreputable and morally reprehensible by bourgeois arbiters of public standards, were cheered along by ordinary men and women who recognised in bourgeois standards a hypocrisy that did not conceal the reality in which the biggest gangsters of them all were the men in expensive suits occupying public offices and talking a morality they readily abandoned behind closed doors.

I imagine this was a mood of agnosticism driven by too much experience of broken ideals, bad fortune, and contrived inequities that simply didn’t match public propaganda about the American mythos, including truth and justice, let alone the promise of everyone being able to succeed. I’m guessing it was a mood too preoccupied with surviving ‘today’ to make grand plans for ‘tomorrow’, but not quite desperate enough to reach for the existential angst and despair of European philosophical schools dealing with similar realities.

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The rat race of city life, driven by the amorality of American gangster capitalism, and not yet the affluence of the post-war boom, also made it an era of suspicion. Who was trying to swindle you, not whether they were doing it. Who were ‘the other’ next door, being they really were foreigners. What evil shit were the cops up to, who really were on the take. Who owned city hall and the legislature, which really were in the hands of gangster cartels. And then also: what were the commies up to, and was your neighbour one of them? Or would your neighbour say you were one of them? I wonder how much of that thinking today underpins the hysterical overreaction and police-state terror and repression justified on the basis of … ‘terrorism’!

This is how I see the audience subjectivity that drove noir, and the artistic sensibilities that delivered these reflections of harsh, real life to their audiences. To a large demographic of struggling men and women who had seen the depredations of war and the demeaning devaluation of their efforts for their country even as others prospered by being lying, thieving, murdering bastards.

It is almost precisely the subjectivity and language I see in David Goodis, the author of Dark Passage, who was an alcoholic Philadelphia writer focusing principally on losers and the seamy side of his city experiences. It is tempting to see in Goodis an earlier, far less successful version of James Elroy, infused with what the bourgeoisie would call the underside of city life, and telling it in a narrative style suited to that milieu. Goodis died aged 49, of cirrhosis, leaving behind a body of work that included pulp fiction and Hollywood scripts of which he was as dismissive as the American public.

With Goodis, the underworld is only a point of entry to the inner one. As one character in his book Street of No Return remarks, “In the final analysis, we’re all ashamed of something.” Time and time again, Goodis located this near-cosmic dissolution in the story of a fallen man wandering a purgatory called Philadelphia, contending with some combination of drink, a woman, the past, and a crime he hasn’t committed. And if, to use one of the author’s favorite metaphors, the numbers always seem to add up the same way, one senses a broader design in the way these inexorable story arcs feed back to the same vicious circle (Goldberg, 2008).

It is in this sense that Goodis’s prose spoke to the everyman and everywoman striving to make ends meet in the grubbier city streets from New York to Los Angeles. And what men and women they were. Returned veterans who had seen the worst men do to each other, and the lies about the rewards for fighting that terrible war. Women who had fended for themselves as factory workers and the heads of their families, standing against all the crude sexism and exploitation they suffered at the hands of bosses, landlords, bankers and even other women who refused to accept their independence.

Such people had every right to be cynical, and to believe only what they could personally apprehend, rather than being ‘ennobled’ by fantasising about the themes pandered in shallow propaganda and artless political lies that served only to immiserated them further.

It was this realistic, cynical subjectivity that was necessary among Hollywood producers and artists, as well as audiences, to make possible the creation of films noir – not as deliberate confabulations, but as cultural artefacts whose circumstances reflected the attitudes and lives of their creators and audiences.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that either Goodis or writer/director Delmer Daves were harassed by HUAC or other McCarthyist thugs, but they could hardly have been unaware of the events surrounding HUAC’s closed sessions in May 1947, and the public ones in November of the same year. Dark Passage stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were highly visible opponents of the witchhunting. They famously spearheaded a delegation of the Committee for the First Amendment which protested publicly in Washington in October 1947, a month after Dark Passage was released (Bogart was later forced to recant his independent views and his support for suspected friends and colleagues by collaborating with HUAC in return for not being blacklisted like so many others).

In light of these circumstances my 2008 interpretation – Dark Passage as a pointed comment about becoming a fugitive in one’s own society – seems more credible than it did when it was only an uninformed personal reaction.

Looking into the structural details of the film, it is worth noting that Daves had no real noir pedigree prior to Dark Passage, but did a capable job of building tension and layering meaning in the script, as well as heightening the anxious mood of the piece with some San Francisco streetscapes that would have seemed unusual, or even alien, to Americans not living there, including shots of a cable car being turned, a paranoid Vincent Parry (Bogart) climbing the steep and rickety-looking Filbert steps, and low-angles of the modernist Malloch Building. A sinister note was injected by Bogart’s heavily bandaged face, seen instead of the ‘point-of-view’ after Parry’s plastic surgery, and by cinematographer Sidney Hickox’s simple but effective shadowplays. Looking at Hickox’s résumé it is interesting to note that he had captured Bogart in a number of other films since the 1930s, including San Quentin (1937), The Return of Dr X and King of the Underworld in 1939, and, of course, The Big Sleep (1946). He was sympathetic enough to avoid showing any signs of Bogart’s alopecia areata-driven hair loss during the shooting schedule. Perhaps Bogart’s distress at this rare genetic disorder added to his halting performance, which was uncharacteristic of Bogart, but quite fitting for the Parry character.

Technicalities aside, however, it is the story and its allegorical meaning that carries the film’s uneasy and foreboding tension.

Parry does what any rational protagonist would: escape from a captivity imposed by a perversion of the law through deliberate lies and a carelessness about seeking truth and upholding justice. A close analogue of asserting as foregone conclusions the unspecified and unfounded acts of subversion implied by HUAC and McCarthy as necessarily arising from association with socialist or communist organisations and their members. Worst of all, war-time propaganda probably led many people to think of socialism as a political ideal allied with America’s values, the way Stalin’s USSR actually was allied with the US in the war years, and was shown to be in Action in the North Atlantic (1943, featuring Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Massey), among other propaganda films of its kind.

Parry’s justifiably paranoid state as a hunted criminal while trying to get the truth of his circumstances is so relentlessly anxiety-laden that today’s audiences might not understand the paranoia of being condemned to the status of outcast, missing its quality of a fevered nightmare, which was nevertheless no secret to people who had lived under the Nazis, and then Allied occupation armies.

My own subjectivity in 2008 notwithstanding, that feel of feverish, angst-ridden nightmare is a powerful visual device that may be one of the hallmarks of film noir. It seems particularly potent when used to suggest or reinforce the idea of ‘the other’ as imposed on oneself instead of strangers, in an almost schizophrenic psychological contortion, mostly brought on by a rupture between observable reality and public political narratives. It is the loss of membership or inclusion in one’s own society, and a consequent alienation from one’s own values, ideals, and confidence. As such it functions not just as a critique of external realities, but of one’s own rôle in them.

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Agnes Moorehead as Madge Rapf, the jealous and maliciously vindictive murderess, and Clifton Young as the mercenary blackmailer, Baker, play superb metaphors for all the informants who collaborated in terrorising their fellow Americans; they are untrustworthy, amoral, and forever suspect as lacking the redeeming human qualities that recede to just out of reach in noir sensibilities.

Conversely, Bacall as Irene Jansen, but especially Tom D’Andrea as Sam, the taxi driver, are the ordinary decent people of middle America who believe in a fair deal, and are prepared to risk their own security by making sure Parry gets it. The idea that such common decency and solidarity still exists is what makes American film noir quite different from the French interpretation of it as a reflection of inexorable and unremediable existential despair.

The plastic surgeon, played so memorably by craggy–faced Houseley Stevenson, stands in for the covert support received by some blacklisted Americans, who were able to continue working pseudonymous as writers, artists, and artisans, the way Dalton Trumbull delivered award winning scripts, even winning Oscars, under assumed names.

Parry’s escape to South America might be anti-climactic, but certainly resembles the experience of many Hollywood figures driven out of the US by the hysterical anti-communist smear campaigns, like Carlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, or Jules Dassin.

So, in spite of the notionally happy reunion of Jansen and Parry in the closing moments, it is not a victory so much as an accommodation with injustice, and a surrender, accepting the injustice as immutable and retreat as the only possible response. That is possibly the most noir vision of Dark Passage, film noir more widely, and of America altogether.

It seems to be an unshakeable mark of America’s true character that the psychotic mindset of the Salem puritans is indelibly imprinted on the nation’s institutional and public psychology, destined to re-appear forever while the nation persists with its failure to separate political and economic power, or religion and the institutions of state.

Credits

Warner Brothers, 106 minutes, black and white.

Written and directed by Delmer Daves, from the novel by David Goodis. Produced by Jerry Wald. Cinematography by Sidney Hickox. Music by Franz Waxman.

Starring Humphrey Bogart as Vincent Parry, Lauren Bacall as Irene Jansen, Agnes Moorehead as Madge Rapf, Tom D’Andrea as Sam the cabbie, Clifton Young as Baker, Houseley Stevenson as Dr Walter Coley.

References

Goldberg, M. (2008, 11 August). No exit: Adapting the dissolute, interior noir of David Goodis. Moving Image Source. Retrieved from http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/no-exit-20080811

Mayer, G. (2007). McCarthyism, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the Caper Film. In G. Mayer and B. McDonnell (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Film Noir. London: Greenwood Press, pp. 62-69.

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