It's the third of the four Bogart-Bacall movies, but an odd one. The original novel it's based on is presumably told in the first person, since the camera's pretending to be the protagonist and we don't see Humphrey Bogart's face for the first hour. We're seeing the action as if we're the hero. We see his hands when he picks things up and so on. Admittedly there are a few conventionally shot scenes where the protagonist's on-screen, but even then the film's careful to keep him in shadow or long shot. This wasn't a new cinematic technique, for instance having been done for the first five minutes of the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
, but for some reason in 1947 it suddenly got used in a big way in both this film and Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake.
There's a plot reason for it, mind you. Bogart's character is a convicted murderer who's just escaped from San Quentin, so plastic surgery comes into the story. Post-surgery he looks like Bogart. Pre-surgery we only see his photo in the newspaper and he looks like some boring old dude.
This is quite clever. It's a very loud cinematic device, drawing attention to itself with great noise and fury, but it does the jobs that have been assigned to it. It's a worthwhile experiment and it adds a bit of distinctiveness to what at that stage is a fairly straightforward story, but it does unfortunately have one drawback. It hurts the acting. Lauren Bacall and Tom D'Andrea can both be seen to struggle in scenes where they're having to pretend that the camera is Bogart, which is a particular problem for Bacall since her screen presence relies so heavily on personal chemistry. There are only one or two scenes where she's actually bad, but she's clearly far better once Bogart's got the bandages off and in the second half of the film that she goes from "okay" to "whoah". I really liked both of them in the unbandaging scene itself, while from then on it's fascinating to see how much emotion Bacall manages to find, since she's only got a handful of scenes and in those she's usually playing against her dialogue.
Let's face it, you watch Bogart and Bacall for the love story. This film's only doing that as a subplot, but they get it eventually and they get it right. Only a heart of stone could fail to love the last scene.
The main story though is about a man on the run, based on a novel that ended up causing a lawsuit between the author's estate and United Artists Television. The latter admitted that their TV series 'The Fugitive' was based on it, but argued that the work was public domain under the 1909 Copyright Act because it had started life as a newspaper serial rather than a novel. (They lost.) The film constantly threatens to strain credibility with the people Bogart runs into, but I managed to swallow that and enjoy it. It ends up having a good plot and I liked the way it manages to feel dangerous with what should theoretically have been a low level of threat. Policemen are scary, for instance. The key is Bogart, of course, who's playing against type so well that some viewers don't seem to have realised what he's doing and are calling it bad acting.
What he's doing is not playing a tough guy. His character here isn't a gangster or a private eye. He was sent to prison for murdering his wife, not for organised crime or anything like that. "Brother, you're sure an amateur," he hears at one point and it's true. He leaves his fingerprints everywhere, he can fall apart under pressure and you're not always sure which way he's going to jump. He's also not a very nice person. He's not in a hurry to trust people. Bogart plays all this so naturally that it's as if he'd been doing it all his life, instead of being one of cinema's most famous tough guys. I love Bogie.
I was about to continue by saying that of course the acting from everyone is great, but of course that's untrue and I should be saying that I basically like all the actors, but that some of them cope better than others with having to pretend that a 1947 Hollywood camera crew is Humphrey Bogart.
Overall this is probably too much of an oddity to be acknowledged as one of the greats, but I really liked it and of course I loved Bogart and Bacall. You can play with gay readings of Bogart's friend George, or enjoy the weird bit where anaesthetic makes you see eightfold hallucinations. It ends excellently, not just with the resolution of the romantic angle but with some less friendly stuff too. There's a great dramatic scene near the finale. I honestly don't see a problem. Maybe you might be disappointed if you go in expecting the usual tough guy Bogart and a hard-boiled gangster story, but the story that's being told is arguably more unexpected and realistic than one of those would probably have been. That's certainly true of the characters. It's definitely a good'un.