The risk with gimmicky filmmaking — that is, centering a movie around a novel technical or narrative concept — is that it’s easy to neglect development of other facets of the film when one component is grabbing at all the attention, and the best gimmicks are not an end in and of themselves, but a vehicle for enhancing or transforming the narrative. Some gimmicks, however, overwhlem the narrative.
The first half of Dark Passage is a gimmick, and a pretty good one. As convicted murderer Vincent Parry (Bogart) escapes from San Quentin and hides from police while awaiting blackmarket plastic surgery to alter his appearance, his face is never shown. Save for one jarring momentary shift, nearly the first 40 minutes of Dark Passage are directly from Parry’s perspective. Director Delmer Daves exploits this first-person conceit for a series of neatly composed and sometimes viscerally exciting subjective shots.
After the surgery, which culminates in a fantastic dream sequence, Bogart finally appears, albeit hiding underneath a helmet of Invisible Man-style face bandages. When the bandages finally come off, 20 minutes later, Dark Passage loses its special hook, revealing a pretty ordinary and uninteresting noir mystery. Daves, who also adapted the screenplay from David Goodis’ novel, digs a little into how every character filters Parry’s major misfortunes through their own petty laundry list of incentives, but it’s not enough to make the second half of Dark Passage nearly as engaging as its novel first half.
Lauren Bacall is on-hand with her sultry stare — as is, briefly, Agnes Moorehead — but none of the characters are compelling and Bogart spends his few free-faced moments mansplaining about other characters’ motives and actions. Some neat San Francisco scenery helps, and Daves does what he can to keep the photography as raw and immediate as possible (even utilizing some lens flare). The ending, however, is as inorganic as Hollywood pandering can get.