Whenever there’s mention of first-person POV camera, the word gimmick is never far away. 1947 was both a very good and a very bad year for this device, what with Robert Montgomery’s epically awkward opus The Lady in the Lady proving that the technique could be used as a murder weapon. It kills the movie and slays our patience.
By contrast, Dark Passage, another 1947 film noir, arguably handles the extended first-person camera gimmick better than any other movie before or since. Director Delmer Daves deploys it for maximum dynamic impact without slavishly restricting perspective.
The POV effect works most thrillingly during the opening sequence, a masterclass in economical storytelling. As the barrel carrying San Quentin escapee Vincent Parry rolls down a hill, the audience rolls down the hill with it, peering out of the circular opening at the blurry vegetation whizzing by outside.
Of course, we have no background on this as-yet-nameless, faceless jailbird. He might be a vicious serial killer for all we know. In real life, we seldom get the facts we need when we need them. Noir loves to imitate life by cutting out the exposition, by throwing us into scenes for which we are narratively (and thus morally) unprepared.
We have no choice but to identify with this escaped criminal since, for the moment, we are him. We go where he goes. We see what he sees. We feel the strain of his flight to freedom in every shaky advance of the camera.
Bogie’s voice-over enhances the authenticity of the perspective. Instead of the cool detachment of many noir voice-overs, Parry’s breathless, mumbly comments, as he psychs himself up and wishes he had a cigarette, sound like something a man on the run might plausibly mutter to himself.
However, even during this opening, (and until we see Bogie’s escaped convict transformed by plastic surgery), Daves wisely and seamlessly inserts shots that could not possibly align with the POV of the main character, like this one of Parry staggering out of the barrel, visually confined by both the barrel’s rim and the bridge.
The POV camerawork does dominate, though, creating an artificial long take by hiding cuts in rapid pans that also give the sequence a frantic dynamism. Once Parry hitches a ride with a smarmy stranger, the POV binds us to the convict even more by cultivating our dislike for the driver. How dare he look at us that way! Wrong as it is, I savor the visceral impact when the-viewer-as-Bogie punches the inquisitive schmoe right in the kisser.
Finally, the camerawork defies our expectations by refusing to show us the star’s face, a pretty audacious move for studio-era Hollywood. As Bogie remarked, “I can just hear Jack Warner scream. He’s paying me all this money to make the picture and nobody will even see me until it’s a third over.”