10 January 2011
So You Want to Start Watching Bogart Films, An Introduction
Humphrey Bogart (1899 -1957) was not a conventional film star. He did not boast the handsome mug of Clark Gable, the charm of Cary Grant nor the grace of Burt Lancaster. Neither was he the sort that audiences could easily relate to such as James Stewart, Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda. He just didn't look like the guy girls wanted to date or mothers would adopt. At best he was a fellow guys would have a beer with. But Bogie did possess what all the greats do: a unique style that audiences loved. A lot. He could do evil in his sleep. The face and the voice sold it. But he was perhaps most interesting as someone on the proper side of the law. He was in many respects the forerunner of the anti-hero. Never a goody two shoes. There was no sentimentality to a Bogie character. Sure he'd fall for the girl, but she fell just as hard, if not harder.
Most of all Bogart was just damned interesting to watch and benefitted from getting and taking roles in films with good scripts and the best directors and co stars. But he made every project better for his presence. It took a long time for Hollywood to utilize Bogart properly. For the beginning of his career Bogie was the king of the B movie, often playing the same sort of bad guy. But by the 1940's he was not only getting starring roles, but often as a romantic lead wooing and winning the likes of Mary Astor, Ingrid Bergman, Ida Lupino and Katherine Hepburn. He ultimately appeared in some of the the most memorable films of the 20th century.
The Petrified Forest (1936) It should have been the film that catapulted Bogie to stardom. As Duke Mantee he gave a highly mannered performance as a John Dillinger-like gangster. Mantee was a departure from the type of thugs Bogie usually played. Unshaven, unabashedly mean and speaking in slow measured tones. The rest of the cast was led by Bette Davis and Leslie Howard.
The Roaring Twenties (1939) Much more the typical Bogie gangster. Fast-taking, cynical vengeful and with a sadistic streak. Bogie is playing second banana here to star James Cagney, as he did on several occasions. His darkness helps make this Michael Curtiz film one of the best of the gangster genre.
They Drive By Night (1940) This is a very different Bogie and one well worth seeing. His career was on the verge of a big back through. Here he plays, of all things, a hard working truck driver. George Raft got top billing and the contrast between them is never more evident than here. Raft was one trick pony, but Bogart's on screen charisma was becoming evident. Before long he was not playing second banana to anyone.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) This is the film that made Bogie a perennial leading man. His interpretation of the detective Sam Spade (he was the third actor to portray Spade) defined the hard boiled detective for generations to come. The film itself is considered a classic and while Bogie is only one reason why, he's the biggest reason. Spade was tough, sardonic and dead smart. Sure he won the girl but his first loyalty was to his dead partner and the law.
Casablanca (1942) Bogie's Richard Blaine is one of the most iconic film roles ever. Blaine is wonderfully contradictory. At first unwilling to stick his neck out for anyone, he then risks jail while giving up the great love of his life for the cause of the 21st century. Sometimes forgotten in discussions of this great film is what a wonderful performance Bogie gave. It certainly cemented his place among the top leading men of his time.
The Big Sleep (1946) Again Bogie is playing a detective of literary fame, this time it's Philip Marlowe. While he possess many of the same qualities of Spade, Marlowe is a slightly softer, gentler and certainly more humorous gumshoe. The Big Sleep was the second film pairing of Bogie and the actress Lauren Bacall who became his second wife. They had a wonderful chemistry that mixes well with the byzantine plot of the Big Sleep.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) My favorite Bogart performance (and I like a lot of them). Far from being a hero or a conventional bad guy, he starts off as an ordinary joe (Fred C. Dobbs) who's down on his luck. But this is a film about how greed and paranoia can consume the human soul. It's the soul of Dobbs that is the victim and watching its consumption makes for a helluva film. John Huston directed and his father Walter co-starred.
The African Queen (1951) It's a shame that Bogie had to win his Best Actor Oscar for this particular performance because he beat out the much more deserving Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire). Still his turn as Charley Allnut is final proof to any doubters that the man could act.
The Harder They Fall (1956) Bogie's last film. To watch it is to watch the man die. By the time it was filmed the lung cancer that would kill him had done much of its work. Still he gives a strong performance as sportswriter in this powerful look at corruption in boxing.