HE WAS his own man, and he sullenly stood apart from the Establishment, a perpetual sneer on his lips and a scowl on his saturnine face. With his bloodshot eyes, he usually looked as though he was about to explode in anger, and he always looked as though he could physically win his arguments. Care to see the size of his clenched fist? Or the impact it could leave behind?
Yeah, that was the screen persona of Humphrey DeForest Bogart. From 1941 through the mid-1950s he was one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office stars and male sex symbols. And now he’s enshrined as the King of Film Noir.
Bogie once remarked, “I’ll live as long as I’m supposed to live; then some new faces will take over and they’ll forget me after a while. That’s the way it should be.” On that point he was wrong, for the popularity he enjoyed during his lifetime was to pale in comparison to the popularity that came after his death from cancer on January 14, 1957.
It started when Casablanca, his 1942 Warner Bros. classic, was rediscovered in the 1960s and played in theaters across America for months on end. So did his 1941 crime thriller The Maltese Falcon. What audiences discovered in those years when the Vietnam War ripped America apart into opposing camps was a tough, laconic, fiercely independent, cynical anti-hero whose loyalties were blurred but who came out of those two films as a moral patriot.
Could it be that audiences back then felt that Bogie stood for all the internal disorder and confusion and dislike of authority symbols as Americans grew up in the nuclear shadows of the Cold War, and as many protested the sending of our troops to fight in the Far East?
Thus was born his after-life, larger-than-life cult image. Here was a newly rediscovered icon of cynicism, a “coffin-nail” always perched on his scarred lip as a reminder of the thing that would ultimately nail him away into eternity.
Here, for American movie audiences, was a rugged individualist who believed strongly in himself. At least that’s what his performances made you believe. If there was the suggestion of a sentimental interior that could be counted on to do the right thing for the right kind of people when the chips were down, this is what eventually gave him his humanity, and his greatness as an actor.
While many Hollywood personalities are appreciated and admired during their halcyon days, but quickly forgotten as shifting tastes and trends replace them with newer stars, Bogart was an archetypal figure who has yet to be replaced and who was destined not to be filed away in old film vaults and forgotten.
Even Bogie’s personal attitudes reflected those of his characters. “I’ve survived in a very tough, very competitive business,” he once said. “I keep working, people keep coming to see me. I’m a Scaramouche, getting everyone else in trouble. I like sticking swords in balloons. In Hollywood there are too many over-inflated, phony, self-important balloons.”
An acting career never came easy to Bogart. On several occasions he was on the brink of total failure and might easily have given up. Yet his childhood was easy-going in comparison, as he was born, silver-spoon style, to a mother who was a magazine portrait artist and a father who was a respected surgeon.
Residence in New York was a brownstone home on 104th Street toward Riverside Drive. And he enjoyed every comfort of life. He was born with class, although in later years he would say, “I sure as hell can live without class.”
The turmoil that dogged him after his teen years began when he left home in the spring of 1918 to join the U.S. Navy. The legend goes that Bogart received his upper-lip scar when he was struck by a manacled prisoner he was escorting to a naval prison, and that three attempts at plastic surgery failed to fix it.
Bogart’s first attempt to act on Broadway in 1922 was greeted by critic Alexander Woollcott as “what is generally and mercifully described as inadequate.” He was an uninspired mess during those first inept entrances, but he gradually learned his craft well enough to earn a contract with Fox in 1930 and begin the first of two attempts at a Hollywood career.
Bogart appeared in many minor roles in even more minor pictures. Up the River (1930) . . . The Devil With Women (1930) . . . A Holy Terror (1931) . . . Three on a Match (1932). He became so frustrated at his repeated failures to secure bigger and better parts that he finally returned to Broadway, where his stage career, during the grimmest years of the Depression, remained unremarkable.
That was to change in 1935, at the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway, when he starred opposite Leslie Howard in Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest as escaped convict Duke Mantee, who menaced the patrons of a desert rest stop with a sawed-off shotgun while surrounded by ugly cronies, his fellow escapees.
Audiences instantly believed that Bogart was a sadistic criminal on the brink of homicidal madness: unshaven, uncouth, snarling, explosive. The most crazed psychotic murderer any one actor could project. “I guess we’re all a lot of saps,” hissed Mantee. “I’ll spend the rest of my life dead.”
The film rights to this hit melodrama, set in the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q out in the middle of nowhere, were quickly bought up by Warner Bros. But the studio wanted its own major star, Edward G. Robinson, to play Mantee.
Just when Bogart’s career might have been shot full of holes again, Leslie Howard served as Bogart’s savior-mentor, refusing to do the movie in one of its leading roles unless Bogart played Mantee. The studio caved in, turned away from Robinson and accepted Bogart.
The 1936 movie version, with Bette Davis adding to the box office as Leslie Howard’s love interest, was the real beginning of Bogart’s film career. The Mantee image was to pursue him for the next four years as he joined the ranks of the studio’s character actors to play a string of gang bosses, con men, sniveling cowards, weasels and all-around despicable types typical of the gangster films of the period.
The best of these would be Crime School (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1940) and Brother Orchid (1941). Unsympathetic bad guys might have been all Bogart would play had not George Raft turned down the leading part of “Mad Dog” Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941).
Earle died in the bullet-riddled climax and Raft didn’t think that would be good for his screen image. (By rejecting the role, Raft would ultimately speed up his own death at the box office.) Without hesitation, Bogart accepted the role by default. James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson had also turned down the role.
By the time Bogart had brought his usual psychotic intensity to Earle, and blended in some sensitive touches in a subplot involving a crippled girlfriend, Bogart was transformed into a star. It didn’t hurt a bit to have moll Ida Lupino wax lyrically over his death in the film’s final moments by asking “What’s it mean, to break out?” Bogart had broken out all right, reincarnating himself into a superior new realm of acting. He was “free” to be a star!
Thus began the last and greatest phase of his film career, with a plethora of roles that allowed his finer qualities to emerge. This new era began in 1941 with a two-fisted interpretation of San Francisco private eye Sam Spade in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. His performance as a morally ambivalent San Francisco-based shamus included slapping around Elisha Cook Jr. and Peter Lorre, and dealing with a beautiful femme fatale (Mary Astor) and the leading of the gang, overweight jovial Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).
As for the femme Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Spade isn’t hesitation about sending her up the river because she killed his partner . . . and when someone kills your partner you have to do something about it, even if the partner was less than a saint. His performance still stands as one of the most hard-hitting of its kind, and established a hard-edged tough-guy trend in movie detectives, whether public or private.
Next up was The Big Shot (1942), in which his three-time loser Joe Berne, borrowing the nickname “Duke” from the Mantee family without asking for permission from Robert Sherwood, breaks out of state prison and schemes to put together an armored car robbery–when he isn’t in the arms of girlfriend Irene Manning, one of the hottest little numbers during this period in his career.
However, it was two years later when Casablanca became the film for which he will always be best remembered. Rick Blaine, his greatest and most romantic role, was the white-suited owner of a gin joint called Rick’s Café Americain. This world-weary cynic, who seemed to play neither side in the war between fascism and democracy, was wracked by painful memories of a love-affair-gone-rotten with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), and he was forced to choose sides despite the walls of indifferent cynicism he had built around himself.
The screenplay was by a team of writing brothers, Julius and Philip Epstein. (See the accompanying article in which I interview Julius Epstein about the writing of the script.) Oddly, the screenplay was developed day by day, and the shooting was described by one observer as “a shambles.”
Another negative note: composer Max Steiner was forced against his will to adapt an old melody called “As Time Goes By” for the film’s central theme. Yet even to Steiner’s own surprise, it became a popular choice for wartime audiences. Ironically, and Steiner never got over how wrong he had been, “As Time Goes By” became the most identifiable love them in movie history.
The Epsteins’ screenplay was brilliant in terms of its usage of cynical humor. Some of the best lines became remembered years later and have been blended into our day-to-day usage. “Round up the usual suspects” and “Here’s looking at you, kid” became expressions of irony and romance within our culture. The line “Play it, Sam” became Woody Allen’s inspiration for the title of his comedy play Play It Again, Sam. And please don’t forget the classic line that ends the film: “ . . . this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
For all its cultural contributions, Casablanca in later years would become a recognized classic of romance and intrigue with Bogart’s intense, tormented performance as the acknowledged masterpiece of all his screen performances. (Though nominated by the Academy for Best Actor, Bogart did not win.)
Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund will always have Paris. We will always have Humphrey Bogart.
To Have and Have Not (1944) is, in some quarters, considered just a mediocre adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel about gun-running in the Caribbean, but it is of historic importance for it introduced Bogart to Lauren Bacall, who became his fourth and final wife, and a major influence in turning him into a family man who would sire a son and daughter.
If there was any one role that brought the Rick Blaine persona solidly back to U.S. soil, where his pessimism could be directed within postwar American values, it was private detective Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks’ 1946 production that to this day is remembered for its risque dialogue between Bogart and Bacall, and its convoluted plot that led author Raymond Chandler to comment that not even he could figure out who committed one of the murders. It’s darkness and tumultuous undercurrents only added that much more to the Bogart personae.
Despite his marriage to Bacall, she never tried to stop him from drinking heavily or spending too many nocturnal, raucous hours at Romanoff’s Restaurant in Beverly Hills, not to mention many other Movieland nightspots and watering holes, often with his pal Peter Lorre seated at his side, putting down the drinks as swiftly as Bogart. Nor did Bacall intervene in his constant carousing, which would slowly lead to dissipation of his energies and ultimately his fatal health.
Bogart was to bring his most insightful interpretation to screen villainy in the role of Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, the 1948 John Huston-directed adventure that still ranks as one of the best action films ever made. Like Casablanca, it is enormously enhanced by an inspired score created by master composer Max Steiner that includes a “glittery” motif for the gold nuggets.
Bogart turns Dobbs from a down-on-his-luck drifter who innocently sets out to search for gold in the mountains of Mexico into a greedy, deceptive, betraying bastard about whom there is finally nothing redeeming.
Although that turned the character into the least likeable next to Tim Holt and Walter Huston’s fellow prospectors, it always made Dobbs uncompromising and unforgettable. Equally unforgettable is when Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya, in a cameo as a slimy Mexican bandido, tells Bogart: “Badges? We ain’t got to badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”
There followed an attempt by Bogart to produce and star in his own vehicles under Santana, named after a yacht he enjoyed sailing around the waters of Los Angeles. It started with a crime thriller, Knock on Any Door (1949), the first major film for John Derek, who played Nick Romano. Romano is a young guy accused of murder, while Bogart is the attorney defending him. Tokyo Joe (1949) followed with Bogart returning to the Japanese capital where he once had a bar (called Tokyo Joe’s, what else), a young daughter and a wife who might be a “Tokyo Rose” type. Offbeat and just noirish enough to hold up today.
Only two more Santana productions made it through before Bogart gave up self-producing. In a Lonely Place (1950) is the better of the two, a bizarre noir in which Bogart appears to be a murderer while he is having a love affair with a movie actress played by . . . yeah, a movie actress . . . Gloria Grahame. Director Nicholas Ray, who had also helmed Knock on Any Door, does a brilliant job of capturing a sense of doom about the romance and the uncertainty of Bogart’s true inner beast. It’s considered one of the oddest of Film Noirs.
The last is perhaps the least of the Santana efforts, although it sounds promising: Sirocco (1951) is set in Damascus, Syria, during a 1925 war between Syrians and invading Frenchmen. Bogart portrays gunrunner Harry Smith, who becomes entangled with a beautiful dame (Marta Toren) and a French colonel (Lee J. Cobb). It unfolds like a remake of Casablanca, but it never quite gels.
Bogart swung back into stronger character roles beginning in 1951 in The African Queen as Charles Alnutt, a gruff, belching, oil-stained, booze-soaked “Canadian river rat” (altered from novelist C. S. Forester’s Cockney-accented character) who accompanies a spinster (Katharine Hepburn) into the Congo in a beat-up steamboat during World War I.
While Bogart’s grubby exterior was noticeably similar to Fred C. Dobb’s, the inner core was all marshmallow, with a decent human being waiting to pop through to consummate his love-hate relationship with matrimony. It was to be Bogart’s shining hour: He not only sank a lot of Germans sailing after him–he soon surfaced with an Oscar.
In retrospect, many of his admirers feel he should have been given an Academy Award for his portrayal of one of literature’s greatest characters: Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, in Stanley Kramer’s 1955 adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. (Bogart was nominated for Best Actor but did not win.)
This military role called for Bogart to exhibit a disciplinary iron will, often unfairly, but he also had to indicate the neurotic unraveling of a naval officer trying to stay afloat in the flotsam of a collapsed spirit, cowardly at the heart. The highlights of Bogart’s performance as Quegg came during the climactic court martial hearing, and the ultimate unsoundness of the man, demonstrated by his eccentric habit of rolling ball-bearings in the palm of his hand while under extreme pressure. It was Bogart at his very best.
The Caine Mutiny, alas, was to be Bogart’s last memorable screen role, and the last time he was to appear on screen without showing signs of deteriorating health. He tried to redo the Duke Mantee type role in The Desperate Hours in 1955 by playing escaped convict Glenn Griffin, who holes up in a businessman’s home with fellow escapees. He looked gaunt and dissipated, just as he looked in The Left Hand of God (1955). The look was even worse in his last picture, 1956’s The Harder They Fall, a graphic exposure of the underbelly of the boxing world. By then he was terribly ravaged by cancer of the esophagus, which was finally to claim his soul. This was one opponent he could not sucker punch.
Had Bogart lived to enjoy his post-career success, he would have sneered at any analysis of his screen appeal, but he would have had no reason to sneer at his own films. “The only thing an actor owes an audience,” he had often said, “is a good performance.”