Dark Passage (DVD)

Humphrey Bogart made the transition from gangster-movie heavy to romantic leading man in the early '40s, but his style hardly changed at all: He remained gruff and worldly, true to his background as a silver-spoon baby who hated the pretensions of his class. Under contract to Warner Bros., a studio known for scrappy adventure movies with a social conscience, Bogart inevitably broke out. Pieces of his biography are spread across a handful of new Warner DVDs, parceled out in the 10-minute featurettes that accompany They Drive By Night, High Sierra, To Have And Have Not, and Dark Passage. (The hourlong making-of piece on The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre disc released earlier this year reveals even more.) The movies themselves tell a story of the studio's transition from ripped-from-the-headlines proletarian melodrama to wartime romance and film noir. Raoul Walsh's 1940 social study They Drive By Night features Bogart as the luckless brother and partner of short-haul trucker George Raft, dealing with rented trucks, shoddily secured loads, unsafe highways, and graveyard shifts. The story becomes jangled once Raft takes a job working for Alan Hale, drawing the romantic attention of Hale's unstable wife, Ida Lupino. They Drive By Night has a rich plot, a wonderfully bizarre climax, and strong evocation of workingman blues, though Raft's proto-Bogart moves suffer some with the actual Bogart glowering and sweating alongside. Raft was going to play the lead in Walsh's 1941 gangster film High Sierra, until Bogart reportedly convinced him that the part of a sentimental ex-con doomed by his criminal associations would be demeaning. Then Bogart grabbed the role for himself, creating a decent, gentlemanly armed-robber who's a sucker for fragile beauty. Lupino returns, playing a lovesick moll who can't get Bogart's attention because he's drawn to clubfooted teenager Joan Leslie. As with They Drive By Night, Walsh pays as much attention to domestic tensions and underclass financial woes as he does to the stunning final mountainside shootout. Bogart became a star after High Sierra, and within the next two years made The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Howard Hawks inevitably tapped Bogart as the lead for his 1944 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's To Have And Have Not, which screenwriters Jules Furthmann and William Faulkner fashioned into a mini-Casablanca (dressed up with such classic lines as "Was you ever bit by a dead bee?" and "You know how to whistle, don't you?"). Bogart plays a Martinique fishing-boat captain who runs a rescue operation for the well-paying French resistance, while Lauren Bacall plays a con-artist lounge singer who smolders one moment and resembles a gawky teenager the next. Hawks runs through his standard obsession with communities of risk-taking men and the women who can't help but love them. The plot's a plugger and the characters are sketchy, but the spoken words are the music to which Bogart and Bacall fall in love, onscreen and off. The duo married the following year, then re-teamed for The Big Sleep in 1946 and Dark Passage in 1947. Dark Passage is usually ranked as the least of the four Bogart-Bacall collaborations, but it's a practically perfect little noir exercise, with Bogart as a prison escapee tracking his wife's killer. Writer-director Delmer Daves shot the film's first half through the protagonist's eyes, a gimmick which implicates the audience. Once the character has plastic surgery and emerges as Humphrey Bogart, the film reverts to a more conventional style, though it maintains a pervasive sense of inescapable guilt as Bogart is continually forced to answer benign questions that he fears will reveal his true identity. A few months ago, Warner packaged Bogart's The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, along with The Adventures Of Robin Hood and Yankee Doodle Dandy, in a DVD box set labeled "Warner Legends." Those movies are undeniably great, but these early Bogarts–in their lean depiction of lumpen men struggling to transcend circumstance–are the Warner legacy.

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