Happily ever afters have been a hallmark of Hollywood filmmaking since day one. The hero saves the day. The lovers become engaged. We are all very familiar with Hollywood endings. There is nothing wrong with a happy ending. To this day, the happily ever afters draw huge crowds and make a world of moviegoers smile. But what if that happy ending comes at the expense of the film’s mood and power? Sometimes a happy conclusion is not the right conclusion. Sometimes a film can be successful in engaging its audience, in stimulating thought, and in getting under each viewer’s skin, but then mitigate all of its good work with a contrived finale. Just before reeling us in and going for something special, it lets us off the hook. Dark Passage (1947, Delmer Daves), a film noir from the post-World War II era of Hollywood, is one such film. Starring the super pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, its ending is sweet, romantic, false. To be fair, the idea of a Hollywood ending is not necessarily uncharacteristic of the genre. The Big Sleep, Murder, My Sweet, The Blue Dahlia, and Laura all conclude with the guy getting the girl and everything working out okay. However as sweet and cheery as their endings may be, I do not believe that they undermine the tension built through the first three quarters leading up to them. Film noirs do not have to be accountable to any one kind of plot solution. Like any genre or style, some endings are more effective than others. Some are tragic and sad, some poignant and powerful, others are happy and romantic, but all that really matters is whether or not the film earned its ending. Does the ending feel satisfactory; is it believable? In the case of Dark Passage, the ending is a hard sale because the majority of the film was gritty and bleak.
From the start, this picture moves fast and forces the audience to catch up. Humphrey Bogart plays an escaped convict Vincent Parry looking for revenge of some sort and Lauren Bacall is Irene Jansen, the woman he trusts. Eventually why he was in jail is revealed (framed for murdering his wife). Eventually why Irene is helping him is revealed (she has an interest in wrongful convictions, and she thinks Bogey is innocent). Eventually everything is revealed. Unlike another Bogey and Bacall picture, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, this one resolves in a tidy manner in terms of plot and motives; everything makes sense. However until that end, until the orderly finish, this film lives up to the connotation of its title. There is an episode involving plastic surgery (personally I find the idea terrifying enough even without the creepiest doctor ever), a violently possessive woman, dark streets, and mysterious people. There is murder, complete facial changes thanks to plastic surgery, very few, maybe one or two trustworthy characters, suicide, and how does it end? With a big romantic hug between Parry and Irene in beautiful Peru. I think the filmmakers missed a chance at a truly grim classic.