May 20, 2020

The Poetry of Mystery: Watching “Dark Passage” in a Dark Time

By Stuart Mitchner

Picture a poet who makes a living writing thrillers. He’s on the run in San Francisco, having been falsely convicted of murder, and his face is all over the papers. Escaped Killer On the Loose. A rich, beautiful, sympathetic woman who followed the trial and has good reason to believe he’s innocent gives him shelter in her deluxe apartment overlooking the bay.

That night he flags down a taxi driven by a friendly, worldly, wise-cracking cabbie who immediately recognizes him. The cabbie knows of a genius plastic surgeon who can give the poet a new face that very night for $200. “Not only that,” says the cabbie, “this guy is a bit of a dark poet himself, he can mend your mind while he’s fixing your face.”

The first thing the doctor asks the poet is “What sorta face do you want?” He has a gallery of possibilities. “I could give you middle period T.S. Eliot. Or I could do early Robert Frost.”

“Nah,” says the poet, “How about Humphrey Bogart? Can you do a good Bogie?”

“Sure, all the time. Everybody wants to be Bogart, but I thought you were a poet.”

“I make a living writing thrillers,” says the poet. “I thought the cabbie told you. Anyway, Bogart is a poet.”

“Funny, now that I think of it, you talk just like him,” says the doctor. “You’ve got his voice.”

“So do you, doc. Everyone should sound like Bogart at three in the morning. That’s what I want to hear as the drug kicks in. I want a film noir mood. Voices speaking soft and low. The sound of coffee and cigarettes, sheltering in place while the world goes mad.”

“Right, but when you’re going under, you want poetry. I usually say a few words. To see folks through. Something mildly hypnotic. Sounds like you don’t want clarity. You want to mask the meaning. Give it a touch of mystery. Just the thing to be hearing as you flow down into darkness. Wallace Stevens always works. Like ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ — by the fifth blackbird, you’re on your way. Now… just close your eyes.”

But the poet has a line in mind. It’s the line that began the whole adventure, it’s been obsessing him, like an itch he can’t scratch. “You know ‘Mending Wall’ — ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall —’”

“There’s a masked line if ever I heard one. What’s the something? And why the double talk? Is it does or doesn’t? It’s a strange poem.” The hypodermic needle flashes in the light. “That line, what is it, ‘Before I wear a mask I’d like to know what it was keeping in or keeping out.’ Well, here goes —.”

The poet’s plotting out a new thriller based on that line of Frost’s about the neighbor “with a stone in either hand … moving in darkness….” Too late, he’s submerged in the doctor’s black coffee Bogart voice, swirling down the dark spiral, “something there is that doesn’t love a mystery … a dark movie on a lockdown afternoon that sends the pandemic groundswell under it…” Yes. that’s it, that’s where it all began.

Locked down, self-quarantined, sheltering in place behind drawn shades, my wife and I have been watching films touched with the poetry of mystery, of crime, of femmes fatales and private eyes, shadows and light, dark corners and dark passages. New or old, made in the 1940s or 1950s or the 1990s and 2000s, these films and series add mystique to our daily lives in a time of masks and menace.

For the older movies, we look for a mixture of feedback and information in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. The contrast between the detached language of the various contributors and the mayhem and murder running through the subject can be downright comical, or when the language diverges from the spirit of the action, merely frustrating. The entry on a family favorite like Dark Passage (1947) reduces it to “an interesting film that carries its basic premise too far. The exclusive use of the first person point-of-view camera for the first half of the film is somewhat unsuccessful in invoking the physical existence of a protagonist.” Summing up, the writer declares that Dark Passage “ultimately lacks much of the internal structure of human weakness and fatalism central to the complete film noir.”

The “complete noir!” — as if that were some kind of standard when the nature of the thing is that’s it’s never complete, never really solved or clarified, always trailing clouds of uncertainty — like the time we’re living and dying through in the spring of 2020. Hoping for a response closer to the spirit of the film, I turn to Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies, and find her arrogant dismissal of a “Bogart-Bacall bummer … an almost total drag,” because “with his head bandaged, Bogart can’t do much except nod appreciatively while Bacall feeds him through a glass straw. In moments of stress, she dilates her nostrils; he’s so trussed up he can’t even do that.”

It was Kael’s “trussed up” travesty of Dark Passage that inspired this column’s opening fantasia on the film noir classic Delmer Daves made from the novel by David Goodis.

Being Bogart

The studio heads at Warners were understandably peeved at the notion of investing a small fortune in the highest paid male star in Hollywood (Bogart averaged $450,000 a year), for a picture in which his face is not seen for the first hour; and even then all you can get for your money is 20 minutes of the white-masked victim of the plastic surgeon’s handiwork (“The artist in me wishes he could see what a nice job I’ve done,” says Dr. Coley, “but I never will.”). Again, I have to quote from the same entry in the Film Noir volume: “Audience identification is weakened” by the fact that the character’s “voice and narration is so easily recognizable as Bogart’s.” Therefore we know what he really looks like all along. “A less well-known actor or less identifiable voice might have been better suited to this visual premise.” But what matters is knowing it’s Bogart all along, that’s the whole point, the beauty of vicariously seeing through his eyes and speaking with his voice brings us closer to film noir oneness with the actor right up to the moment Dr. Coley’s white towel descends on his/our face seconds before the drug is injected; it’s the essence of intimate cinematic submersion

The Goodis Version

The plastic surgery sequence alone deserves a place in the Film Noir Hall of Fame, with almost every word of dialogue taken directly from the novel. What makes the scene so powerful, however, is the cinematography of Sid Hickok, the direction of Daves, and Houseley Stevenson’s portrayal of a doctor who had perfected his own “special technique” — before he was kicked out of the Medical Association. When Bogart’s character admits some apprehension about the operation, Dr. Coley tells him “We’re all cowards. There’s no such thing as courage. There’s only fear, the fear of getting hurt. And the fear of dying. That’s why human beings live so long.”

Goodis puts the apprehension into words, with the stress on face: “He kept his eyes closed. Then things were happening to his face. Some kind of oil was getting rubbed into his face, rubbed in thoroughly all over his face and then wiped off thoroughly. He smelled alcohol, felt the alcohol being dabbed onto his face. Then water running again. More clinking of steel, more cabinet drawers in action…. He decided it was impossible for Coley to change the face so that people wouldn’t recognize it …. He decided there wasn’t any sense to this, and the only thing he would get out of it was something horrible happening to his face and he would be a freak for the rest of his life. He wondered how many faces Coley had ruined…. He felt a needle going into his face. Then it went into his face again in another place. It kept jabbing deep into his face. His face began to feel odd. Metal was coming up against the flesh, pressing into the flesh, cutting into the flesh. There was no pain, there was no sensation except the metal going into his flesh…. With every minute that passed something new was happening to his face.”

“Too Marvelous”

Given the star-power-for-the-ages of the actual Bogart-Bacall off-screen romance, it’s worth noting a key change in the music the couple bonds to. In the novel, Bogart looks through her record collection, noticing “a lot of Basie. The best Basie. The same Basie he liked.” After looking approvingly through titles like “Swinging the Blues” and “Lester Leaps In,” Bogart puts “Texas Shuffle” on the turntable. The music “clicked with the fact that he had a cigarette in his mouth, watching the smoke go up, and the police didn’t know he was here.” The record was still playing when Bacall came back into the room. “She smiled at him. She said, “You like Basie?” “I collect him.” But that was before San Quentin.

In the film, their song is Jo Stafford singing “Too Marvelous,” a choice Goodis surely approved of, as have generations of filmgoers, whether in the movie houses or at home, “sheltering in place.”

For more about Goodis, see “On the Streets of Philadelphia — Discovering the Noir Universe of David Goodis,” in Town Topics, Nov. 26, 2014.