I start viewing each Humphrey Bogart picture with a heightened anticipation, so strong is the Bogart persona in any movie. Alas, Dark Passage is one of the few Bogart pictures that disappoints. Bogart goes through the motions of an escaped con on the run trying to clear himself of a murder charge, and Lauren Bacall look great, but for a thriller the whole affair is flat.
Based on a story by David Goodis, the screenplay relies on too many implausible coincidences. The pedestrian direction of Delmer Daves (The Red House) constrains the camera of cinematographer Sid Hickox (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Possessed, White Heat), and the Franz Waxman score is sadly undistinguished. You don’t see Bogart’s face for the first half of the movie, with the camera taking a point of view angle – it didn’t work in Lady in The Lake (1947) and it doesn’t work here. The ending is lame, and the climax is ho-hum even though a dame falls out of the window of an apartment building!
Deep focus outdoor scenes on the streets of San Francisco sustain visual interest, and the hilly topography results in some great angled shots. Snappy lines of dialog enliven some static scenes, and there are interesting bit-roles that to a limited extent mitigate the film’s overarching weaknesses. Agnes Moorehead is entertaining as a closet psychopath, but her camp characterisation is out-of-place in an otherwise earnest scenario. A veteran bit-player with an expressively craggy visage, Houseley Stevenson, is great as an eccentric bootleg plastic surgeon. Tom D’Andrea as a helpful cab driver, Clifton Young as a small-time hood turned blackmailer, and Tory Mallison as Bogart’s only friend, contribute immensely in roles that are pivotal to the story. To give Daves, who adapted Goodis’ novel, due credit, the taxi cab scene is great – with Bogart’s “old” face in shadow in the back seat working so much better than the POV gimmick.
As for Dark Passage being a film noir, I suppose at a stretch you could say that there is an underlying theme of entrapment, but there are no noir atmospherics or motifs.