A movie poster for “Dark Passage.”
I first saw “Dark Passage,” the 1947 thriller, when I was in my early 20s and about to move from the UK to San Francisco.
I’d become a little obsessed with all things noir, absorbing the long shadows, morally dubious heroes and double-crossing femme fatales in “The Maltese Falcon,” “Touch of Evil,” “Double Indemnity” and dozens more. But I’d read that one movie captured the city I was about to move to like no other film. Plus, it starred two of the biggest movie stars on earth, ever — real-life husband and wife Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Except that it doesn’t, at least for the first hour of the movie. Bogart, who at the time was a bona fide global icon, doesn’t show his famous smirk and sad eyes until an hour into the running time despite him being in every scene.
The movie starts with a panoramic shot of San Quentin prison, where convicted wife-killer Vincent Parry has hidden himself in an oil drum on a truck leaving the prison grounds to make his escape. Parry rattles around the back of the truck as it drives down Paradise Drive near Tiburon until his barrel bounces off the back.
After beating up a man who identifies Parry from a police radio dispatch, a guardian angel in the form of Lauren Bacall appears from the bushes.
It’s hard to describe how mesmerizingly beautiful Bacall looks in this movie. Her glow epitomizes the golden age of Hollywood like no other star.
Lauren Bacall in 1946.
Right from the off, it’s clear that something different, and at the time experimental, is happening as the story unravels. Nearly every shot is from behind the eyes of our escaped hero, but it’s not clear why we can hear Bogie’s famous drawl but never see his face. Bacall’s Irene Jansen gives Parry a ride south through the Waldo Tunnel (now iconically adorned with rainbows and named after Robin Williams) and over the Golden Gate Bridge.
They make their way past Crissy Field to Jansen’s Telegraph Hill apartment, and it’s almost as gorgeous as our heroine. The Malloch Building is a thing of architectural wonder, still standing today at 1360 Montgomery Street. The Streamline Moderne Art Deco style, built in 1937, appears like an Airstream cruise ship jutting out over the cliff. The curved lines, silver sgraffito-painted walls, spiral stairs and nautical chrome flair surround one of the coolest elevators in San Francisco. It still glows at night and climbs up and down the Montgomery Street side of the building, a shot often repeated in the movie.
Visiting the building now is worth the 400-stair climb up the Filbert Street steps (or the narrow drive to the steep northern reaches of Montgomery). The building has been meticulously maintained over the decades and looks exactly as it does in the movie, and occasionally one resident stands a full-size Humphrey Bogart cut-out in the window.
The Malloch Building, San Francisco.
At her luxurious pad, apartment 10 in the Malloch, swing music plays as the mysterious Jansen reveals she is a true-crime fan girl who likes spending her days loitering around the federal penitentiary, and believes Parry is an innocent man — though no one else in San Francisco does. Together, the two start to flirt as only Bogie and Bacall can, and rush around the city attempting to prove his innocence.
The absence of Bogart’s mug in the first hour of the movie is made up for in some of the best footage of the city ever put on screen. Director Delmer Daves shows us many corners of 1940s San Francisco, from a neon-lit Geary Street to the shadowed sidewalk steps on Kearny to the long-gone rail car cafe, Harry’s Wagon, in the Fillmore.
The plot then takes a gloriously ridiculous turn as we find out why we haven’t yet seen our hero’s face.
On the advice of a charismatic cabbie, Parry has the genius idea to get plastic surgery in the middle of the night at the home of a scary surgeon on Nob Hill. And finally we, and Bacall, get a look at Bogart’s smile.
Bogart and Bacall’s chemistry is as sizzling as ever. The movie was the third of four movies the married couple made together in the 1940s. (A fifth was planned but was halted in pre-production when Bogart was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that would take his life in 1957.)
American actress Lauren Bacall and her husband Humphrey Bogart on the set of “Dark Passage,” based on the novel by David Goodis and directed by Delmer Daves. (Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/Corbis via Getty Images)
At the time, the face swap twist was pretty audacious and Warner Bros. used it to sell the picture. Now, it seems like a big, fun gimmick that detracts from the nuanced story of doomed lovers on the run in the closing act.
After Parry’s friend George is found dead at his apartment on tiny Florence Street on Russian Hill (just around the corner from the house at at 1001 Vallejo St. in the center of “The Matrix Resurrections”). Parry holes up in a run-down boarding house — the Kean Hotel at 1018 Mission St. That single-room occupancy hotel is still there under the same name and still in bad shape; the place was cited in 2014 for a cockroach infestation, among other things.
The movie’s attention to location detail is so accurate director Daves took a camera up to the roof of the Kean Hotel to capture a three-second shot of the city, mirroring Parry’s view from his window.
Bogie makes an escape on the Filbert Steps in “Dark Passage.”
(Big spoilers ahead for a movie that came out 75 years ago.)
After discovering that Jansen’s friend Madge (played wonderfully as a conniving spinster by Agnes Moorehead) is, in fact, the jealous lover who killed Parry’s wife, he escapes the cops to track her down to her penthouse at 1090 Chestnut St. on Russian Hill. (Check out Reel SF’s excellent run down of all the locations, then and now, in the film.) Parry manages to get a confession from Madge — proving his innocence — moments before she falls out the 13th-floor window to her death. That’s now a third stiff on Parry.
As the SFPD closes in, Parry knows he must leave the city forever, so heads to the Greyhound station on Mission and Fifth to take a bus to the Mexico border in Arizona. (The old bus arches can still be seen on the ground floor of the Pickwick Hotel, kitty-corner from the SFGATE newsroom.)
At the bus depot, Parry gets his ticket but is told his bus won’t leave until another seat is sold. In a phone call that surely influenced the “Shawshank Redemption” finale, Parry tells Jansen that if he survives a bus trip to the border, she should come find him in the little Peruvian seaside town of Piata in a few years.
It’s not the faceless Bogie, Bacall’s sultry beauty or even the stunning shots of San Francisco that make “Dark Passage” one of the most memorable films of the era. It’s the next, small scene and its poignant magic that stays with you.
Parry watches two lonely souls seated on a bench at the bus station — a desolate single mom with two small children and a lost man, both waiting alone to take buses to somewhere in America. Parry approaches a jukebox and plays the song he and Jansen fell in love to at her apartment. The song, “Too Marvelous For Words,” triggers a connection in the strangers and they start to talk — “You know we got something in common. Being alone.”
With that, the man, woman and two kids become a family and board the same bus to Arizona, allowing the driver to leave San Francisco as the cops swamp the station. Our innocent fugitive escapes San Francisco and makes it to Peru, where Jansen finally finds him sipping a rum cocktail. Seventy-five years later, it’s a finale that still makes the heart flutter.
SFGATE’s Editor-at-Large Andrew Chamings is a British writer in San Francisco. Andrew has written for The Atlantic, Vice, SF Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney’s, The Bold Italic, Drowned in Sound and many other places. Andrew was formerly a Creative Executive at Westbrook Studios.
A movie poster for “Dark Passage.”