Dark Past, The (1948): Rudolph Mate’s Psychological Noir Thriller, Starring te Young William Holden, Lee J. Cobb and Nina Foche

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In one of his few screen roles as a villain or criminal, William Holden gives a competent performance as the dream-shackled gunman, ruthless, nervous and dangerous guy, in The Dark Past, psychological noir thriller directed by Rudolph Maté.

The other major cast members include Nina Foch and Lee J. Cobb.

The film is a remake of Blind Alley (1939), also released by Columbia, and based on a play by James Warwick.

Lee J. Cobb plays Police Dr. Andrew Collins (Lee J. Cobb), a detective who believes he can help turn a young suspect away from crime.

Through an extended flashback, he illustrates his statement with the story of how he came to work for the police.

While Collins (also college professor), his wife, and son head to their vacation cabin, convicted murderer Al Walker (Holden) escapes from prison after capturing and killing the warden.

Collins is entertaining guests when Walker, his girlfriend Betty (Nina Foch), and two partners break in and hold the family hostage.

With the servants tied in the basement and the others upstairs guarded by Betty, Collins observes Walker’s behavior downstairs closely.

When Fred Linder (Steven Geray), a friend of Collins, comes to return a hunting rifle, he tells Collins about the prison escape but notices that Walker is hiding in the room. Pretending to leave, Linder grabs the rifle, but Walker struggles with him, wounding Linder.

Collins has noticed that Walker is drawn to his books on psychoanalysis. Betty, who watches Collins while Walker sleeps, tells the professor that Walker is prone to nightmares (visualized in images) where he is standing under a leaking umbrella with a paralyzed hand, trapped behind bars.

When Walker awakens, Collins suggests analyzing his dreams. With guidance, Walker remembers scene from his childhood, where he hid under a table and witnessed his father shot by the police. The trauma was intensified as Walker had told the police where to find his father. His hand was covered with his father’s blood, leaking through the table above him.

Per Collins recovering the lost memory will ensure that his nightmares do not return and that he will no longer be able to kill.

Meanwhile, one servant escapes and notifies the police. Walker seems ready to shoot it out, but cannot pull the trigger.

At the end, when the tale returns to the present-day, the detective agrees to let Collins analyze a young suspect.

Reflecting Hollywood’s obsession at the time with Freud and psychoanalysis, The Dark Past is too simple in its discussion of the subconscious.  There’s a lot of exposition, which underlines the film’s label as a thriller.

There’s good tension between Walker, who grudgingly complies with the doctor’s ‘screwball’ tactics, and Cobb’s unflustered scientist, who is dedicated to “curing people not killing them.”

This was the second teaming of Holden and Cobb after Golden Boy, in 1939, which marked Holden’s feature debut.

Nina Foch is competently restrained as the gangster’s moll, who learns he’s suffering from an Oedipus complex.


William Holden as Al Walker
Nina Foch as Betty
Lee J. Cobb as Dr. Andrew Collins
Adele Jergens as Laura Stevens
Stephen Dunne as Owen Talbot
Lois Maxwell as Ruth Collins
Berry Kroeger as Mike
Steven Geray as Prof. Fred Linder
Wilton Graff as Frank Stevens
Robert Osterloh as Pete
Kathryn Card as Nora