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The Dark Past

The Dark Past(1949)

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teaser The Dark Past (1949)

Film noir wasn't only about the dark of night and the shadows of the soul. By the mid-1940s, it was delving into the dark corners of the mind, thanks to the cultural embrace of psychoanalysis. The results were seen in such post-war thrillers as Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), the Olivia de Havilland vehicle The Dark Mirror (1946), and Conflict (1945) with psychiatrist Sydney Greenstreet playing mind games with suspected murderer Humphrey Bogart. The Dark Past, based on the play Blind Alley (which was previously adapted for the 1939 film of the same name), arrived in 1948, a few years after Hollywood's love affair with psychoanalysis first bloomed. It follows in the footsteps of Spellbound, applying Freudian analysis of dream imagery to discover and heal the psychic scars of the past...and in record time!

William Holden receives top billing as career criminal Al Walker, the subject of this cinematic therapy session, but third billed Lee J. Cobb actually has more screen time as police psychologist Dr. Andrew Collins. The drama is presented in flashback, as Collins tells the story of his run-in with escaped killer Walker to a fellow detective as an illustration of the importance of healing psychological trauma before it has its way with the criminal mind. Hit the wayback machine to just a few years ago, when Collins was a college professor and Walker, a notorious killer, busted out of prison and into Collins' weekend home...

Holden has played devious, morally dubious, and even violent men, but Al Walker is surely the only genuine psychopath of his career. With hair brushed up like a broom (resembling Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra, 1941) and the lines of face brought out under hard lights and minimal make-up, this is not the playful rascal or charming cynic that Holden does so well. Walker is a hardened, severe, pitiless character with a sadistic streak and a well of anger and Holden plays him with a growling meanness. When we finally get our first glimpse of this notorious character, he's already escaped from jail and making his getaway in a car packed with his henchmen and his loyal girl, Betty (Nina Foch), while the prison warden is tucked in between them all as a hostage. Before the scene is over, we watch him shoot his hostage in cold blood and leave the body laying in the road. It seems unduly sloppy for a smart crook, but Walker is the kind of man who could care less that he's leaving a trail of corpses behind him. It's not the last time we'll see him shoot an unarmed man out of spite.

The heart of the story takes place in Dr. Collin's cabin on the lake, where Walker and his gang hole up while awaiting a boat to complete their getaway. They take Collins and his guests hostage and separate them into various rooms, leaving Collins alone with Walker to prod him, probe his mind, and engage in a therapy session, ostensibly to cure Walker of his debilitating nightmares. Cobb was no stranger to playing authority figures, usually flinty, hard-bitten bosses such as in Call Northside 777 (1948) and Boomerang (1947). Here he's the far more paternal type of authority figure, calming and sensitive (and maybe just a little arrogant) as he tries to draw Walker out of his defensive posture and talk about his most repressed memories. Cobb plays him with an unnatural confidence and unruffled control and he never loses his cool or his composure. You'd think being taken hostage by a ruthless killer is just another day at the office.

Coincidentally, Cobb and Holden both made their Hollywood breakthrough in the 1939 Golden Boy, where handsome young bit player Holden was cast in his first leading role and Cobb played Holden's father. According to Holden biographer Bob Thomas, that history did little to smooth their working relationship here. Cobb's constant negativity and crankiness reportedly cracked Holden's confidence and co-star Nina Foch (a sharp B-movie beauty who moved into A pictures after her success in 1945's My Name Is Julia Ross) took it upon herself to build him back up.

Rudolph Mate had a long and successful career as a top-notch cinematographer in both Europe (Carl Dreyer's exquisitely photographed Vampyr [1932] and That Hamilton Woman [1941]) and later in Hollywood (the 1937 Stella Dallas, The Pride of the Yankees [1942], and Gilda [1946], just to name a few) before moving up to director. The Dark Past was only his second feature as a director and he was still mastering the finer points of directing actors, staging dramatic scenes, and creating narrative rhythms. Mate and his screenwriters never quite smooth over the seams of the play's structure in their adaptation and their simplification of psychoanalysis is, even for 1948, glaringly facile. Deep Freudian analysis cures this Oedipal gangster drama in a single night here, and under the gun of a killer who has taken Collins and his family hostage, no less. Our doctor turns it into a kind of field hospital for psychiatric triage: mental health under fire in the criminal war zone.

Mate's strength is his visual sense. He makes the most of the split-level design of the cabin's main room in a few well-staged moments and he applies simple techniques for maximum effect in his visualization of Walker's recurrent nightmare. The abstract imagery of Holden in a fog of nothingness, where only falling rain, an umbrella and a surreal cage of iron bars break the disembodied gloom, becomes ghostly and weird when Mate reverses the image by showing it to us as a camera negative. In this form, the raindrops become dark and threatening, like black poison falling from the sky. It remains a minor noir notable largely for Holden's uncharacteristically feral performance; the actor suggests the extremes of emotional scars and mental instability through a tight grimace under a sadistic grin or a slow-burning stare under a body coiled for attack. Walker only has to prove what he's capable of once or twice. The threat under Holden's performance does the rest.

Producer: Buddy Adler
Director: Rudolph Mate
Screenplay: Michael Blankfort, Albert Duffy, Philip MacDonald, Oscar Saul, Malvin Wald, based on the play Blind Alley by James Warwick
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: Viola Lawrence
Cast: William Holden (Al Walker), Nina Foch (Betty), Lee J. Cobb (Dr. Andrew Collins), Adele Jergens (Laura Stevens), Stephen Dunne (Owen Talbot), Lois Maxwell (Ruth Collins), Steven Geray (Prof. Fred Linder).

by Sean Axmaker

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