One Way Passage (1932, Tay Garnett)
You can have Brief Encounter and Intermezzo. This is my gushy old-movie love story. Its premise is deceptively simple but ingenious: William Powell is a cocky criminal, convicted of nothing less than murder, being escorted by cops on a cruise to San Francisco, where he’s slated to be apprehended and executed. Permitted to float about the ship with a slightly loosened leash, he falls hard for the luminous Kay Francis, whose fate has also been set: she’s deathly ill and it’s likely this will be her last trip. She’s unaware that he’s a prisoner, he’s unaware that she’s dying, and they make a pact to meet again — one that they can’t possibly fulfill. Doesn’t it give you the best kind of soap opera goosebumps just thinking about that!? Powell and Francis are the stuff of Hollywood dreams here, lighting up the screen with ambiguous but unceasingly romantic — and subtle — performances. In 67 minutes, One Way Passage moves from lofty romance to guilt-ridden crime and back again, all seamlessly.
One reason the film is still so viscerally effective despite its age is that its own background characters serve, in some ways, as its audience. Even without all of the information we have, they sense the gravity and tragedy of this love affair brewing before their eyes. Frank McHugh’s constantly intoxicated con artist, Aline MacMahon’s hopeless romantic who’s a dry run for Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve with her put-on classiness, and Frederick Burton as a grave doctor all would’ve been Oscar nominees if the support categories had existed yet in 1932. (My god, the studios and directors were efficient back then. You can scarcely believe this seamless, slick production dates from the first three years of widespread sound.)
More than one character realizes in the face of what happens here that love and life itself are more important than this or that triviality, but the film feels no need to state it outright. Instead it just speedily and beautifully emphasizes the simultaneous fleeting nature and permanence of the romance it documents — and as a result, likely tells the viewer more about his or her own life than the lion’s share of modern or classic movie romances. Passage‘s tearjerking bleakness is actually somewhat comforting. Even if the aim of Warner Bros. and director Tay Garnett in putting this together was simply to reel people in with its heartachey stars and rhythmic kisses and dances, they never make this an undignified parody of human emotion.
The script by Wilson Mizner and Joseph Jackson is just about perfect, weaving its two parallel stories together so that they sporadically affect and gradually redefine one another. There’s wit and sparkle to the dialogue, but that’s secondary to its overall air of sweep and sadness, even if the early scenes involving Powell’s convict running afoul of his cop oppressors are quite amusing, while the climax that has him endlessly dodging the authorities and his new girlfriend to no avail — he wants to spare her, also to no avail — have the balletic timing of a screwball comedy, only faltered and with stress in place of laughter. It says something about the Warner template of this era that they could make the audience feel so badly for a conficted murderer, while never really glossing over his crime or making it “cute.”
That’s because more than anything, the film is respectful of the idea that impossibility has its own despairing romance. There’s no need to make Powell a great person except for the duration of this cruise, when he will do his best to seem like the guy he wishes he was for this lovely and kind woman he’s met. Like the film itself, the idea of travel and the dreaded future that awaits at the other end strip people, relationships and philosophies down to their barest essence, hence everyone in the film seems to have some sort of personal epiphany.
My one carp with the screenplay is that I wish Francis’ character was better developed. We unfortunately see her contrasted with the spectacular work Aline MacMahon does here as a devious fake countess, and her easy side-eye charm makes the constantly fainting and ill female lead seem like she belongs in a different movie, for all her wide-eyed optimism and good humor about her condition. Nevertheless, Francis gives a solid performance and is utterly believable as a person for whom someone would fight a knowingly impossible battle. Powell, meanwhile, is SO MUCH BETTER (sorry, all caps are warranted) as a romantic lead here than in The Great Ziegfeld. Even taking his comedies and detective pictures into account, this could perhaps be his finest moment on film.
One Way Passage is sorely underappreciated today, and it’s hard to discern why. It’s so quick and elegant you just want to hug it, if and when you’re lucky enough to see it, and it leads to an ending that is truly heartbreaking in the most unforced and lovelorn way. It’s such an innately appealing film that it’s stunning Warners has never gone to town with remaking it, or even so much as issuing it on video apart from their Archive line of burn-on-demand discs. I would advise you to pick that edition up if romance films appeal to you even the least bit, as this is in the top tier of those that Hollywood has produced.
[My computer doesn’t let me take screenshots from Warner’s DVDRs, sadly, so I had to illustrate this review with publicity stills gleaned from the internet. Apologies.]