Directed by Delmer Daves, Dark Passage is a film noir that focuses on the misadventures of Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) as he escapes from a high-security prison for supposedly murdering his wife. Characterized by the use of the subjective camera in the first half, Dark Passage conveys a sense of paranoia that is present throughout the narrative. Although considered a significant film when studying the film noir canon, Dark Passage brings something novel to the genre by redefining the main character, the femme fatale and the use of subjectivity.
Regarding the main character, Vincent Parry does possess some of the typical qualities found in most noir protagonists—like being a victim of a woman’s scheme—but has some distinct characteristics that make him unique. Although film noir protagonists are usually lured into the criminal world, one of the traits that sets Parry apart is the fact that he did not commit the murder he is being accused of. In fact, it seems as if Parry’s real crime is having escaped from the prison. Nevertheless, the viewer may find this act to be somewhat justifiable as it is later revealed that he has been framed. Another interesting quality of Parry is that he seems much less alienated than most typical noir protagonists. In Dark Passage, Humphrey Bogart’s character has a loyal friend, George, and seems deeply affected when he finds him dead. The connection between both characters is genuine; at the end Parry flees to Peru, which is a place where his friend dreamed of going. This aspect sets him apart from other film noir anti-heroes, who are rarely seen having any sort of meaningful relationship.
In addition to a unique male protagonist, Dark Passage’s female characters also challenge and redefine film noir conventions. On one hand, Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) could be mistaken for a femme fatale at the beginning of the film because of her looks, but as the story progresses, the audience realizes her intentions are actually good. In fact, the real femme fatale is played by Agnes Moorehead, who becomes relevant in the latter part of the film and has limited screen time. Even though Irene is one of the noblest characters, her personality is not by any means dull; she seems tough, independent and willing to break some rules. This representation of a female character is quite refreshing; it tries to avoid the virgin/whore dichotomy and presents her as three-dimensional, which rarely happens in this particular genre.
Another element present in the film that redefines film noir conventions is the use of the subjective camera. It is generally agreed upon that film noir narratives are subjective by nature, however, Dark Passage achieves subjectivity through camera work rather than through narrative structure. Because the main character needs to undergo plastic surgery in order to change his appearance, the first half of the film is seen through Parry’s perspective. By showing other parts of his body such as his hands and arms, this technique successfully manages to keep the audience engaged while adding an element of realism that many films noir lack. The use of the subjective camera in this film is not gratuitous; not only does it solve a problem, but it also heightens the sense of paranoia essential to the story.
Overall, Dark Passage is a notable example of a work pertaining to the film noir canon that redefines some of the conventions of the genre. Although preserving many traditional elements and themes like crime, betrayal, the femme fatale, shooting on location, and employing low-key lighting, this film reinvents many of them. For instance, the male protagonist is actually innocent of the crime he is being accused of and is less isolated than his noir contemporaries. Not only does he have a meaningful relationship with Irene, but he also shares a genuine connection with his friend, George. When it comes to female characters and the femme fatale, Dark Passage challenges previously established archetypes and in turn, provides a strong, yet feminine, female lead that for once is not the villain of the story. Finally, subjectivity is achieved through camera work by using first person POV, rather than relying on the voiceover/flashback technique present in many films noir.