Mystique: Humphrey Bogart, the Peak Years
From hard-boiled Sam Spade to cynical Rick Blaine, from wise cracking shamus Philip Marlowe to down-on-his-luck Fred C. Dobbs, Humphrey Bogart created a gallery of unforgettable characters. Appearing in over 75 films, spanning 26 years, Bogart left an indelible mark on American cinema.
Humphrey Bogart’s early career was hardly noteworthy. His roles ranged from rich playboys to seedy hoodlums. In the film The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart, on the insistence of his Broadway co-star Leslie Howard, re-created his role of the cold-blooded killer Duke Mantee. The film was a huge success and gave a tremendous boost to his career. Although his immediate roles remained constrained to the hoodlums, and malcontents he had portrayed prior to The Petrified Forest , he remained steadfast in his pursuit of excellence.
By 1941 Humphrey Bogart was on the verge of cinematic prominence. His subsequent and now celebrated roles were about to garner Bogart the acceptance and adulation he so desperately craved. A recognition he relished, as he set out fortuitously to create the now famous “Bogart ” mystique, which would dominate the screen for the next decade. He was to remark later that there were few things about which he could feel genuine pride, and the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, was one of them.
The Maltese Falcon
Director John Huston, in his first directorial effort, and many feel his best, credits Bogart with the films amazing success. But Huston’s script and electric direction also contributed. As author of the screen play John Huston made every effort to remain faithful to Dashiell Hammett’s novel. Names, murders, and intrigues turn up quickly in this tale of an assortment of characters in search of a fabulous jewel encrusted crown.
In spite of the expertise behind the camera, the use low-key photography and Thomas Richard’s efficient editing, it’s the memorable characterizations on the screen that truly stand out. Mary Astor’s Brigid O ’Shaughnessy is a striking picture of feminine deceit and betrayal. Beautiful, unmerciful and cunning, she is able to shed tears on command. Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut, plays the bloated Kasper Gutman, the man behind the search for the elusive bird. Huston accentuated Greenstreet’s huge bulk by shooting from low angles, allowing him to monopolize certain key scenes. But it is Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade that remains classic in its construction. Cynical, he still maintains his code of ethics. He is brash, but not foolhardy. He is courageous, but not without fear. Where people, especially woman, are concerned he demands loyalty and truth. He can spot a phony a mile away. He listens to Astor’s long alibi with a straight face and then smiles, telling her, “you ’re good, you ’re very good!” This is the film role that molded the image we remember of Bogart through the early years of the forties an image elaborated upon and reinforced in Casablanca, and one that all Bogart fans remember with great affection and admiration.
Casablanca (1943), a screen classic, has become the representative picture of the 1940’s. It owes its success to a gallery of fine performances and to their almost miraculous interplay with each other. Directed with flawless skill by Michael Curtiz, the plot, in a screenplay by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, revolve around an assortment of characters coming into Rick’s Cafe, a night club and focal point of intrigue in Casablanca.
Bogart plays the cafe owner Rick Blaine, a former soldier of fortune who has grown weary of the gun running and fighting, and who is now content to sit out the remainder of the war in neutral Casablanca. The facade of his cynicism begins to weaken as he is haunted by visions of his Paris past, and the beautiful woman (Ingrid Bergman), he still loves and rancorously remembers. He is tormented by the bittersweet memories of his past love affair, memories triggered repeatedly as the strains of As Time Goes By, come from Sam, (Dooley Wilson), his piano-playing confidante. Bergman re-surfaces and is now married to an underground leader (Paul Henreid). She needs the exit papers, believed to be in Bogart’s possession that will guarantee her and Henrieds flight to freedom. He refuses her the papers, recalling his heartbreak in Paris. She explains to him that she had been married to Henreid all along but believing him to be dead she fell in love with Bogart. He weakens and helps get Bergman and her husband to safety.
The magic that developed between Bogart and Bergman made a new romantic figure out of the former tough guy. It helped him perfect the portrayal of the ideal man who all men wish to emulate. Casablanca brought Humphrey Bogart his first Academy Award nomination (he lost to Paul Lukas for Watch On The Rhine), and it won Best Picture for 1943.
The Big Sleep
Having done justice to Hammett’s Sam Spade it was just a matter of time until Warner Brothers got around to casting Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The Big Sleep (1946), is an incredibly complex detective thriller that defies comprehension in a single screening. Bogart is hired to track down a blackmailer, but quickly finds himself immersed in multiple murders, assorted double-crosses, and wanton mayhem. Even though one could hardly understand what was happening, Howard Hawks’ brilliant direction, and a well-chosen cast combine to secure the viewer’s interest. Concise dialogue by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett help to create memorable scenes eliciting the subtleties of Chandler’s novel. When Bogart enters the case he receives his instructions in a suffocatingly, humid, hothouse. The subtle humor and suggestive by-play of Bogart’s quick flirtation with bookstore clerk Dorothy Malone, and all of his encounters with Dorothy Malone, are a millennium ahead of their time. If The Big Sleepwas a flawed jewel, it nevertheless was an important contribution to the Bogart mystique. Within a year Bogart’s famous “image” period would come to an end.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Having had his day as an idolized star and romantic leading man, it was time for Humphrey Bogart to get down to the serious business of acting. Up until 1948 it had been Bogart playing Bogart in various shadings.The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) is indisputably one of Bogart’s best films. Re-united once more with director John Huston, the film tells of the greed, distrust, and hatred of three down-on-their-luck wastrels who team up to search for Gold in Mexico. Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs is an amazingly complex creation whose slow disintegration into paranoia was brilliantly managed on camera. He is a born loser with no potential for change, suspicious, unfeeling, savage, and easily corruptible, he seems destined for a tragic fate. Tim Holt plays Curtin, a man who like Bogart, is tempted but whose conscience will not permit him to exercise his corruptible desires.
Walter Huston, John Huston’s father, plays Howard, a toothless old codger, who knows all along what will happen when they find the treasure. Filmed on location in Mexico. It is mainly the interaction of these three men from their first meeting and uneasy partnership through their final confrontation. The result, a Bogart performance whose luster seems to brighten with every screening. The film won three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston, leaving Bogart still in pursuit of the elusive statuette.
Since his death forty years ago, Bogart’s persona has become more steadfast than it ever was during his lifetime. Be it Woody Allen’s alter ego in Play it Again Sam; (1972), or George Segal’s, woeful The Black Bird (1975), a dreadfully, unfunny rip-off of The Maltese Falcon, the Humphrey Bogart mystique will be forever entwined in the American psyche.
Mike Rosenberg’s sterling Tribute, contains hundreds of images, and many anecdotes about Bogart. A must see for even the most incidental fan.