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

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With the public fascination with Freud and his works, the 1940s marked a literal explosion of pyscho-babble in films after a few tepid toes in the water towards the end of the 1930s.

1948 marked yet another entry into the genre, with a pseudo-noir entitled The Dark Past.  The casting is pretty strong, with William Holden in the lead as an escaped convict who holes a family hostage in their home while awaiting to further his on escape.

The psychobabble come in as the owner of the house is a former college psychiatry professor, played by Lee J. Cobb. Cobb.  In support is Nina Foch as Holden’s girlfriend and an accomplice in his escape.   Also, as we continue our unofficial listing of James Bond connections is Louis Maxwell, known better as the indubitable Ms. Moneypenny.  He she is merely the professor’s wife.  It isn’t a big part.

Given the extremely short running time of a mere 75 minutes, there little time for fluff, yet there is remarkably little meat on this bone.  Cobb and Holden get the deserved primary share of screen time, but the plot is undynamic and almost immediately Cobb has not only identified that Holden has a few mental issues, but has also diagnosed and cured them as well.

There is some very good interplay between the Professor and Escapee some of the inherent cheesiness of the dialogue.  Especially engaging is a scene where Dodd offers to teach Holden chess as a means of relaxation; Holden’s tense grip of the chess piece is symbolic of his nature.  He wants to make a move, but simply can’t.  Of course, Holden ultimately calls chess, like most else in Dodd’s home, “screwy,” which has its own role to play in the later stages of the picture.

And there is still time for a nice final confrontation with the police as well to boot.

It is hard to see how this played overly well on release, although perhaps being the bottom part of a double bill didn’t hurt.  The general themes had, even by 1948, been done numerous times on screen.  Take Hitchcock’s Spellbound, The Snake Pit, Blind Alley (which this is a remake of), and the later The Desperate Hours.

It has all been done before and since.  And for the most part with a better sense of execution.  Mate’s direction is nondescript, unlike many of the later and better pictures he would be associated with, such as Union Station and The Violent Men.  In Mate’s defense, this was only his second feature.

The work of Holden and Cobb is quite good together.  Cobb is plodding, methodical, and almost pedantic in his interactions with Holden though one suspects even he didn’t think much of the thirty second psychoanalytical lessons he was forced to spout off.

Holden is the true star here and this was the first time he was given a bit of space to stretch himself beyond the ‘smiling monkey’ roles of his extremely early years.  Perhaps he is overacting with his repeated facial contortions and bulging eyes, but I found the effect fitting and in context with his character.  Of more historical import is how this role may have influenced his later casting only a few years later as Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd.

The Dark Past isn’t fine art, but it doesn’t come to the party dressed like it either.  It knows it is a ‘B’ picture, but it also still has redeeming qualities.  Overlook the tired and worn plot and the Freudian intrusions and focus instead on Cobb and Holden, who both do admirable work- even with less than ideal material. (And again, this is perhaps to my reckoning the first significant role of the ”William Holden” who became a star.)

Rarely does The Dark Past come through TV, though TCM rarely will play it.  It is one of those films almost forgotten, as it is not yet available on DVD, though perhaps there is hope through one of the many MOD programs now running.

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0 thoughts to “The Dark Past (1948) with Lee J. Cobb and William Holden”

  1. My mother – who is Holden’s junior by six months- has never been able to overcome William’s death and still mourns him…

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