More than the Warner Bros. answer to MGM's Lady in the Lake, this is Delmer Daves' paramount noir dreamscape, imaginable amid Borges' Ficciones. The subjective camera takes over as soon as the barrel the San Quentin fugitive is ducking inside rolls off a truck and down a hill; the circular framing is rhymed in a later POV shot, the glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge from the back of a car as it speeds out of a tunnel. The wrongly accused hero takes refuge in Lauren Bacall's pad, he's just a pair of arms and Humphrey Bogart's voice until also given the star's mug in a surgical switcheroo orchestrated by Houseley Stevenson, a clandestine face-rearranger ("Specialist," his office door reads simply). The doc looks like a back-alley abortionist in a Germanic silent but is really an artist in his own mind, he ponders the patient's visage ("I'll leave that nose alone. It's a nice nose") and pulls out his scalpel. The kaleidoscopic hallucination that follows is a further tip off to its expressionistic side, but Daves' baroque, forthright technique insists on "calling a spade a spade" -- the taxi driver (Tom D'Andrea) tells a story about a gold fish's ride to the Pacific the way people recount their dreams for Lynch, yet there's enough room for a vérité trolley ride down Market St. (There's a keener grasp of San Francisco here than in The Maltese Falcon.) Clifton Young contributes richly to the genre's gallery of avid weasels, while Agnes Moorehead as the wronged shrew gives it a flash of opera, going from teasing to haughty to stormy before drawing the curtains for a swan dive. A work about salvation, or, more specifically, rebirth: The deathless Bogart face is at last delivered after a proper bandaged incubation, with the drinking straw as umbilical cord and the cig enjoyed by gauze-wrapped lips as the basis for Lee Marvin's sublime headscarf joke in The Big Red One. Adapted from the David Goodis novel. With Bruce Bennett, and Douglas Kennedy. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce