' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: One Way Passage (1932)

Friday, September 15, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: One Way Passage (1932)

The title of Tay Garnett’s “One Way Passage” is two-pronged, referring literally to how the movie is set almost exclusively on an ocean liner bound for San Francisco from Hong Kong by way of Honolulu but also figuratively to the plights of its main characters Dan Hardesty (William Powell) and Joan Ames (Kay Francis), he a murderer and sentenced to hang, she terminally ill and destined to die. That’s dark, man, really dark, and I’ve gotta hand it to Garnett, he honors that darkness more than I might have thought, especially with so many comic relief characters like the drunk pickpocket (Frank McHugh) and the con artist (Aline MacMahon) aiding Dan in his semi-thwarting of the police sergeant (Warren Hymer) escorting Dan to his ultimate doom. There are some plot hijinks, like Dan and Steve falling into the water, though these are kept to a minimum, and Garnett is also not entirely reliant on talking to get this early talkie through. A view of Dan and Joan through a porthole evinces a keen sense of romantic voyeurism while the camera tilting down to reveal Steve’s gun only by having the swinging saloon door conspicuously pushed open suggests the camera isn’t just there to record but get involved, turbocharging the melodramatic atmosphere.

It was both unfortunate and appropriate that “One Way Passage” was the final of six movies that Powell and Francis made together, the former departing Warner Bros. for MGM two years later, because they work well together and because the inherent sadness of the storyline underpins that professional separation. Even if it’s hard to buy Powell as a cold-blooded murderer, he evinces a roguishness while Francis’s famously real-life fatalist countenance mirrors the fatalism of her character, the bittersweetness of someone taking it all in as she comes to the end of the line. And though so many of Powell’s most memorable movies, from “The Thin Man” to “Libeled Lady,” often involved witty repartee, “One Way Passage” is sculpted less from repartee than the electrified air between Powell and Francis. Garnett likes framing them in two-shots, just letting us revel in them reveling in one another. In one shot, their cigarette smoke fills the space between them, where there’s smoke, there’s a fire, if also the dying embers of a romance that can’t last.

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