“In a Hong Kong bar, Joan Ames and Dan Hardesty literally bump into each other, and fall in love at first sight. Joan goes back to her friends, and without taking his eyes off her, Dan leaves the bar. Outside he is arrested by Steve Burke, a policeman who has been hunting him since he escaped from San Quentin, where he was imprisoned after being convicted of murder. Steve is a sympathetic man and, after Dan saves him from drowning while they are on board a San Francisco-bound ship, agrees to remove his handcuffs. Joan is also aboard the ship, and although she seems healthy, she is actually very ill with only a short time to live. During the voyage, Dan and Joan spend every minute together, and grow to love each other deeply. They develop a ritual of breaking their glasses after a drink to symbolize their desire to live in the moment. Dan cannot bear to tell Joan the truth about himself, but while she plans a trip ashore in Honolulu, he plans to escape. Expecting just such an attempt, Steve locks Dan in the brig.
“Barrel House Betty, a confidence woman posing as a countess, decides to help Dan out. Flirting with Steve, she gets the key to the brig and passes it to Skippy, a petty thief escaping from the Chinese police, who releases Dan from the cell. Steve and Betty go ashore, as do Joan and Dan. After a romantic day, Dan is about to tell Joan about his planned escape when she collapses. To save her life, Dan gives up his last chance at freedom and carries her back to the ship. The doctor warns him that another shock could kill Joan, so he keeps his secret. Steve and Betty have also fallen in love. When Steve asks her to marry him, Betty tells him who she really is, but Steve doesn’t change his mind. Joan learns the truth about Dan when she overhears a ship’s porter talking, but says goodbye to Dan, pretending that everything is fine. They agree to meet in Caliente on New Year’s Eve even though they know that this is impossible. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, a bartender in Caliente hears a sound and turns to find the shattered stems of two glasses, broken in the same way that Dan and Joan always broke them, but no one is there.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The strength of the story is in the design of these complex, multi-layered characters, who have full histories and rich potentials. Unfortunately, the known fates of these two individuals do cast an expected dark cloud over the majority of the film, especially since we care so deeply for the characters. (And this is how you know it’s a Pre-Code: Powell plays a convicted murderer, yet we root for him from the first frame to the last.) But the film never goes overboard — pun intended — in trying to milk the melodrama of the characters and their predicaments. In fact, since the film does such a miraculous job of making us like everyone, there are times when we anticipate, as we should, that perhaps one or the other will be able to escape their life/death sentences. Alas, it doesn’t happen; and the film is much better for not giving us a happy ending in the form of a deus ex machina. It’s too grounded in humane truths to deviate from logic. And while some parts verge on sappily romantic, the film needs the quieter moments, and makes great use of them.
As usual, it would be impossible to minimize the importance of the casting. The supporting characters are all gritty and believable and perfectly Pre-Code. But, of course, much of the success of the film — at least, in its ability to reach its audience — rests on the shoulders of the two extraordinary leads. They have just as much chemistry here, if not more, than in their last teaming, Jewel Robbery. However, while that film sought playfulness in the dynamic between their characters, One Way Passage seeks truth. And it gets it. Francis, as she often does, plays the part with such a natural ease: everything she does is motivated, and her earnestness is admirable, especially since there are no cheap machinations on her part to earn our respect. She’s honest, and it’s breathtaking. And William Powell, as mentioned above, makes his character relatable and likable. So he’s a convicted murderer? Well, that just makes him all the more fascinating.
Wonderful Pre-Code film. Dramatic, layered, a pleasure to watch. Expertly cast too. Highly recommended to all Pre-Code fans.
Come back next Friday for another Francis Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!