There is No “I” in Dark Passage: The First Person Camera Technique in DARK PASSAGE
24 April 2011
In 1947, Warner Brothers released the third on-screen pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the noir Dark Passage, directed by Delmer Daves. The film was not successful with audiences or critics and still, retrospectively, is not generally regarded as a cinematic accomplishment. One of the reasons film historians and critics suspect Dark Passage fell flat with audiences is the first person camerawork, a new camera technique for the late 1940s. First person camerawork means the camera acts as the character. That is, the first third of Dark Passage is almost entirely from the perspective of the lead character, Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart). Because Parry is a convicted murderer on the run who gets plastic surgery to keep the police off his track, Daves did not want to show the audience Parry’s face until after the character’s reconstructive surgery, making the first person technique very attractive to Daves. The audience never sees Parry; instead, the audience sees through his eyes.
Historians propose the initial 1947 critics and audiences may have rejected this type of camerawork because Humphrey Bogart’s face is withheld for a large portion of the film. However, that does not account for the reason(s) Dark Passage never gained recognition with future generations. It is more likely the first person camerawork is a major reason Dark Passage disappointed crowds, but not because Bogart is absent from the film too long; rather, the problem with Dark Passage’s first person camerawork is its inconsistency.
The film opens with Vincent Parry’s escape from San Quentin State Prison, and, in the first moments of the film, the first person camera technique is not employed. Parry cleverly hides in a barrel on the back of a truck that is driving away from San Quentin. Of Parry, the audience only sees his hands gripping the top rim of the barrel. Eventually, the barrel falls from the truck, rolls down a hill, and crashes in the woods. The camera captures Parry from behind getting out of the barrel, running beneath a road’s overpass, and removing his prison shirt. There are moments, such as when the barrel is rolling, when the camera briefly takes on the first person (Parry), but not until Parry removes his shirt does the camera commit to the first person technique.
However, even when this technique is adopted by the film, there are unexpected moments when the camera abandons the first person style altogether. The first example is when Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) drives Parry over the Golden Gate Bridge. Jansen picked Parry up off the side of the road just after his escape and is driving him to her apartment where he will be safe from police capture. Parry hides in the back of Jansen’s car under a tarp so he won’t be seen. Instead of remaining true to the first person technique, the camera takes shots of the bridge, the car as it proceeds over it, and Jansen driving. Because so much of Dark Passage filmed on location in San Francisco, the director may have felt it necessary to include shots of the Golden Gate Bridge for the audience. Since Parry cannot see the bridge from his positioning in the car, the first person camera technique is abandoned to provide the audience an aesthetic thrill. Unfortunately, this begins a pattern in the film of inconsistency to first person camerawork.
The huge advantage to the first person style in Dark Passage is the audience experiences being on the run just as Parry does. The audience’s emotional investment heightens because viewers are Parry. Through the first person technique, viewers get invited in as a character in the film. Moreover, the first person style in cinema (like in literature) is a limited perspective; the audience only sees, hears, and knows what Parry does. Yet, high angle long shots of the Golden Gate Bridge are omniscient not limited, changing the viewers’ role in the film. When the first person style is compromised, the audience’s investment in the film is compromised. The inconsistent camerawork suggests indecision on the part of the filmmakers and, perhaps, a lack of understanding about the first person technique as well.
Another striking inconsistency comes in a scene shortly after Parry’s stay at Jansen’s apartment, when he takes a taxi to get out of town. Again, Daves abandons the first person camerwork. The camera is positioned in front of the driver, capturing Parry with a deep focus shot in the backseat, his face completely blacked out by shadows. Not only is the audience no longer Parry, the audience cannot even see Parry; the character the audience has been the closest to is now the character the audience is most removed from. This transition is jarring and difficult. All of a sudden, it feels as though Daves is teasing the audience by dangling Humphrey Bogart in front of viewers but not allowing anyone to see him clearly. The first person technique allows the audience to experience the film as one it its characters, but, with the sudden and seemingly careless camera positioning in the taxi, the audience’s role reverses and viewers are now forced out of the film.
To confuse matters more, after Parry undergoes plastic surgery to alter his appearance, the first person technique is abandoned indefinitely. From this point on in the film, the audience sees Vincent Parry, but never again looks through his eyes. Considering how easily Daves disposes the first person technique suggests he did not carefully contemplate the impact this technique has on viewer’s attachment to the film and how much his film would suffer from jumping back and forth between first person and omniscient.
Ultimately, the film’s inconsistent use of first person technique creates confusion and ambivalence for the audience. In fact, because the technique is so inconsistent, the use of first person camerawork in Dark Passage is a complete misuse of the technique. Although there are other factors to consider when pondering why Dark Passage failed with critics and audiences, the film’s incoherent treatment of the first person camera technique is among its greatest flaws.