One Way Passage

One Way Passage ★★★★

Part of a trip back to 1932.
Full viewing digest for that year here.

Pretty remarkable how much plot One Way Passage packs into just over an hour, without feeling overstuffed. I'm not surprised by the Screenplay Oscar, though I am surprised that this unpretentious but casually elegant moral drama isn't more readily available. William Powell is always welcome, and Kay Francis, yet again finding trouble in paradise in 1932, feels well cast as a sweet-souled aristocrat with a Wings of the Dove-y sword hanging over her head. There's a B-plot with Warren Hymer's unexpectedly conflicted cop, whom you initially expect to be a mere plot device, and a C-plot about two other grifters on the same ship as Powell and Francis. That storyline eventually knits and purls itself into the other two plots, which themselves start out cuffed together and then separate for a while but can't stay that way. The manner in which these story threads are never as bonded but also never as discrete as they might appear in any one scene reflects this deceptively smallish movie's larger notion of life.

Warner Bros. would be an unlikely studio to milk this story for Grand Hotel-style emotionalism, though they might have; the script feels like a libretto, and even at that, it might've been approached as comedy or tragedy, or as high- or low-aiming melodrama. But, keeping closer to Warner's brand, director Tay Garnett lets the ethical and existential implications of the plot speak for themselves, thickening the atmosphere just enough to suggest words unsaid and wider reverberations but mostly letting his skilled cast play their attractions, impostures, and literally life-and-death dilemmas in a key surprisingly close to real life.


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