Now, this is an interesting little film noir!
This 1948 film stars William Holden, Lee J. Cobb, Nina Foch and Lois Maxwell. William Holden is Al Walker, an escaped convict and a ruthless murderer. Nina Foch is Betty, Walker’s devoted girlfriend and partner in crime. Lee J. Cobb is Dr. Andrew Collins. Lois Maxwell, years before she would be cast as Miss Moneypenny in the first Bond films, plays Ruth Collins, Andrew’s wife. When Walker, Betty, and the gang break into the Collins home, they hold he doctor and his family hostage.
That may sound like a similar set-up to Desperate Hours and hundreds of other low-budget crime movies. And, indeed, it is. What sets The Dark Past apart from those other films is that Dr. Collins is a psychiatrist and his response is not to try to defeat or trick Walker but instead to understand him. Even after Walker kills a friend of the family’s, Collins remains convinced that he can get to the heart of Walker’s anger and help the criminal start the process of reform.
When the nervous and violent Walker threatens the family, Collins calmly offers to teach him how to play chess. When it looks like Collins might have a chance to escape, he instead stays in the house and continues to talk to Walker. Eventually, he finds out about a recurring dream that Walker has been having, one that involves Walker standing in the rain under an umbrella that has a hole in it. Collins links the dream to Walker’s traumatic childhood and he shows Walker why he feels the need to be violent and destructive. But will it make a difference when the cops show up?
The Dark Past is an interesting relic. Watching it today, it can seem a bit strange to see just how unquestioning the film is of the benefits of analysis and dream interpretation. Nowadays, of course, we know that dream symbolism is often just random and that it’s impossible for a psychiatrist to “cure” a patient after only talking to them for an hour or two. However, The Dark Past was made at a time when psychiatry was viewed as being the new science, the thing that that no one dared to question. This was the time of The Snake Pit and Spellbound. The Dark Past suggests that all any criminal needs is just a night spent talking to someone who had studied Jung and Freud. Today, the film seems a bit naive but it’s still an interesting time capsule.
William Holden is great as Al Walker. That, in itself, isn’t a surprise because William Holden was almost always great. Still, Holden does an outstanding job of making Walker and his neurosis feel real and, like the best on-screen criminals, he brings a charge of real danger to his performance. Lee J. Cobb has the less showy role but he also does great work with it. It takes a truly great actor to make the act of listening compelling but Cobb manages to do it.
The Dark Past may not be as well-known as some film noirs but it’s an interesting and occasionally even compelling film. Keep an eye out, eh?