Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Weak Acousmêtre in Dark Passage

Dark Passage (1947) is the minor entry among the four feature films starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, by no means up to the standard of The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Key Largo. The screenwriting is somewhat pedestrian and the characterizations too obvious (except for an implausible taxi driver who can't seem to decide whether he's a gangster or a Good Samaritan), but the film's greatest weakness is that it asks the audience to believe that a man we see in a photograph with a full, square face can speak like Humphrey Bogart and, even worse, can have an hour's worth of plastic surgery so that he comes out looking and sounding like -- Humphrey Bogart. On the other hand, the leading and principal supporting roles are well-played by veteran actors, the cinematography is clean and crisp, and Franz Waxman's underscore is both skillful and effective.

Still, the film has some definite pedagogical uses. Bogart's character during the first half has some of the attributes of an acousmêtre, Michel Chion's "acoustical being" defined by sound rather than physical presence. (We discuss the acousmêtre in HtM, ch. 3.) Bogart's shadow man, however, lacks some of the most salient traits of the acousmêtre and so makes for a good comparison with, say, the Invisible Man. The combination of visual and aural point-of-view, starting just before 00:03:00, is also a point of interest, as is extensive use of offscreen sound, which divides duties between aural pov (hearing what Bogart hears) and helping the audience locate his body in relation to the frame. Reasons for the formal distribution of diegetic music, nondiegetic music, and repeated ambient sounds (sirens, motor noise, and boat horns) during the first 20 minutes are worth exploring, too.

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