This one’s loaded, and up there with some of the great San Francisco films noir, including Thieves’ Highway and, Dark Passage‘s 1946 contemporary from Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai. Like the latter, Dark Passage includes a few of those kaleidoscope shots that disorient the viewer with a collage of somebody’s face. This is particularly effective in a film that hides the main character’s face through nearly its first half. Problems of identity make noir in part what it is, and Dark Passage quite literally embodies this rupture in Bogart’s character Vincent. Vincent undergoes plastic surgery that reconstructs his face in order to render him unrecognizable and offer him pedestrian autonomy. The viewer is sutured to Vincent’s point of view in about the first third of the film, but not primarily to hide Vincent’s pre-reconstructed face before we see it later. Rather, we enter into Vincent’s myopic perspective as a man on the run, surrounded, confused, and aimless.
Myopia is part and parcel to noir, too, and the viewer’s anchoring to a single subjective outlook creates a sense of frustration corresponding to the character. This kind of cinematic effect encapsulates the shift that took place in film right around 1945. Rather than revolving around the film texts themselves, Dark Passage illustrates a new mode, one in which the film’s effect on the viewer becomes primary and the narrative takes the back seat. Hence the kaleidoscope shots, the crooked camera angles, and the intensely subjective POV shots. (Kristen Daly’s essay, “Cinema 3.0: The Interactive Image” has plenty to say about cinema’s three phases – Cinema Journal, Vol. 50.1 Fall 2010.)
As far as noir and the city go, Dark Passage toys with the idea of the city not simply as a terrifying concrete jungle but also as a safe haven. When Vincent initially escapes from prison, he makes it his goal to head into San Francisco, which involves crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Does Vincent long for the city directly on account of his criminal status? This is doubtful, since we quickly learn that he was wrongfully convicted. The city is a kind of jungle, one in which a man like Vincent is able to find corners, nests, and rooftops to lodge temporarily. A trope within Dark Passage presents itself early and remains consistently present throughout, consistent with the image of the city as a haven: the fellow urban-dweller as friend. Vincent is assisted throughout his urban travail, by: Bacall’s character, the cab driver, the disgraced plastic surgeon, the diner operator, the stranger who asks for a light, and the hotel clerk. At numerous junctures, Vincent addresses others and is addressed by others by the name, “Friend.”
The overwhelming force that is on Vincent’s trail cannot be chalked up as “the law,” since other, more sinister, forces are also pursuing him. There is rather an overarching force that is not so much objectively large but subjectively. Granted, the newspaper headlines are dominated by news about Vincent, but in the noir world the overblown size of such headlines can be explained by the subjective lens through which we see them. So, the individual city dwellers are in fact the antidote to urban sickness, or, perhaps better, the safety nets in urban danger. Vincent’s survival depends on their help, a help they’re not only willing to offer but seem obligated to extend. An unwritten code binds them together as fellow survivors in a hilly, overpopulated, concrete desert of artificiality. Vincent’s eventual exit not only from the city but from the country reflects an ultimate inability for him to remain in a city that, at best, can only function as a haven. The rupture in his identity, the impossibility of demonstrating his innocence, and the inescapability of his own history render his bodily transformation only superficial, insufficient ultimately to survive. As with so many other noirs, the permanent haven is found in a more exotic space: South America.