The Dark Past (1948)

The Dark Past (1948) is one of several films noir which opens with the aerial shot of the city, and an earnest voice over describing the existential experience of the urban life, the technological alienation which is suggestive of an architectural emptiness, a nihilism even, akin to crime in its freedom.

As Side Street seems to open with the message that any one of us may be the day's murder victim as much as they may be that murder's suspect.

The Dark Past takes the more traditional Mark Hellinger informed attitude that this is the naked city, and that it's like a jungle sometimes, and this is our framing, the real life city.

William Holden plays mean as hell psychopath and killer Al Walker, a film noir apogee and the defining casting action of a style which elevated to central protagonist the idea of villain as narrative prime mover.

Holden is terrific and able to carry this. He masterminds the home invasion, probably the most stable of all noir tropes.

Crime, exposure and the City in The Dark Past (1948)

There are echoes aplenty from home invasion noir both past and future; past being The Petrified Forest with the old line posing the nervous and jumpy killer con on the run, and the cool intelligent captive who freaks the killer out by his not being scared. 

The tithe of The Dark Past leaves nothing but the taste of noir in the mouth. Dark as in noir. Past as in memory, regret, guilt and above all here - psychoanalysis.

Home Invasion in The Dark Past (1948)

Despite many attempts to shoehorn psychiatry into the common mindset and display its theorems in films noir, none seem to make a great job of it. Lee J Cobb was built to play something more substantial than a pipe bearing college professor who loves the thought of an entire evening with a hardback. 

Psycho with a sandwich? Bluff and cod psychoanalytic moves 
William Holden in The Dark Past (1948)

Stephen Geray plays the unwitting guest with his habitual continental intelligence and gets quite a decent supporting role for once. 

Lee J. Cobb and William Holden in The Dark Past (1948)

Stephen Geray tries it on in The Dark Past (1948)

It can't be intentional but there is a peculiar disconnect or loss of direction regarding the framing of The Dark Past. It is about psychiatry and goes so far as to painfully draw a complex drawing of the human mind in one of the biggest misses in Hollywood's effort to onboard the psychiatric as a concept. 

Scientific and technical illustrations of the human mind in
The Dark Past (1948)

Here though, in The Dark Past, this psychologically basic theme is dressed up in noir, blasting off with some stock standard tropes - the city from above, the cool explanatory tone, the open gulfs of alienation and lost street ends this always evokes - goes on to be a rural noir, miles from the city, and entirely and at times rather dully sticking to the home invasion structure and themes. 

Nina Foch - - comforting the psycho in
The Dark Past (1948)

What keeps it going is William Holden who is amazing in this picture; truly magnetic every second of the way. Nina Foch, similarly enthrals while Lee J Cobb ultimately cannot handle his pipe. 

A further redeeming feature of this rural-home-invasion noir is the small but well executed set. Almost a mini black and white version of the great modernist set of the interior of the Vandam house at the end of North by Northwest. And noir can be rural, but it can't be pastoral as it threatens to in a bleak way when William Holden's madness sees him staring angrily at the rainy countryside skies at night. 

Lee J. Cobb - -  film noir psychiatry in
The Dark Past (1948)

Nina Foch in The Dark Past (1948)

There are similar motion pictures in which a hostage uses psychological tactics or even as here uses psychiatry to escape. Here also to heal the psychopath too, although you can't think of too many films noir in which the psychopath is healed by anything other than death. 

Spoiler! The bars were the legs! The table was the umbrella! And of course ... the rain was blood!

The lay levels of psychiatry in The Dark Past are so low as make the experience moderately painful at times, although the second dream sequence - not the first - is excellent and worth the wait. 

Barry Kroeger enjoys himself as he does in similar roles as supporting muscle.

At the same time the cinema is the dark, and it's tales of peril are told in the dark. The fact that was never evident it seems to any producer or director of psychiatry noir, is that the medium itself ships automatically with dream imagery, theme and tempo. This kind of cinema is a dream presenting a dream. 

And surprisingly The Dark Past heralds psychiatry as better than any cop at solving the crime and capturing the killer. Which is what The Dark Past astoundingly does at its finale. 

The Dark Past is a certain unique item: a rural home invasion psychiatric criminal and penal reformation film noir set in the urban jungle. 

The Dark Past on Wikipedia

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