A plea, and a proposal, for a worthwhile book on the films of Humphrey Bogart.
Tom Polhous: “It’s heavy. What is it?”
Sam Spade: “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”
- The Maltese Falcon, 1941
Whatever the secret ingredient was that fuelled the Hollywood dream factory, Humphrey Bogart had it, in spades. Like the eponymous Falcon, he was a rare bird, remarkable in too many ways to list. Maybe the most fascinating aspect of the Bogart story lies in the fact that he was out of synch with his own success: stardom came late, death arrived early, and he can have had no inkling of the hugely powerful cultural force his name would come to represent. For, while other legends of the Golden Age – many of whom were bigger hitters at the box office – have faded with the passing years, Bogart’s star has continued to shine, until he now seems one of the most iconic figures ever to have come shimmering off the silver screen and into our collective consciousness.
Let’s not mince words. Bogart was a genius. Where could you find a comparable figure? Not in his own field: there was no actor ‘like’ Bogart. Not in another era, because even Bogart couldn’t have become Bogart in any other time or place than 40s Hollywood. If pushed, the closest you might get would be someone like Picasso, Muhammad Ali, or Bob Dylan: a figure so singular that they transcend any sense of being the best at what they do; instead, what they do becomes defined by them.
Like Bob Dylan, Humphrey Bogart is a subject most people probably expect has been more than adequately documented over the years: after all, the man has been dead for over half a century, and he’s one of the best-known, most blazingly iconic movie stars of all time. Surely there are hundreds of Humphrey Bogart books? And who on earth could see any need for another one? Well, the reality is very different: there’s a surprising dearth of Bogart books in general, and an even more remarkable scarcity of good Bogart books. Worse still, if you were looking for a good Bogart book that does a good job of covering the films of Humphrey Bogart in any depth, you’d have to look even harder. In fact, you’d have to write it yourself.
Come now, is the situation really so dire? Haven’t there been plenty of Bogart books? Well, not as many as you might think, and those that have been written over the years have tended to be flawed at best. After Bogart’s early death in the late 1950s, he acquired a cult following, and the 1960s brought a rash of posthumous biographical publications. Reading them now, what strikes you more than anything else is the extent to which they, in contrast to their subject, seem so tied to their time: the archaic language and antiquated sensibilities feel jarringly strange to the modern reader, whereas Bogart’s films have, for the large part, hardly dated at all. In any case, none of those books were of very serious intent, many were tremendously glib, and in fact no full-length biography of Bogart was published until 1997, when, like London buses, two came along at once. Of the two, however, only A M Sperber & Eric Lax’s ‘Bogart’ was worth the candle, and so it became the standard source for reliable biographical information on Bogart. Along the way, there have been a number of excellent books on individual Bogart films; insightful and evocative character sketches; some fascinating but sketchy memoirs; and of course there’s a range of coffee-table books containing sumptuously presented images accompanied by coffee-table prose. Every now and then, the publishing industry spits out another biography, each more superfluous than the last.
All of these books – good, bad, or indifferent – suffer one peculiar flaw: they fail to focus sufficiently (or, in many cases, at all) on the reason we’re interested in Humphrey Bogart to begin with: the wonderful films in which Bogart gave such sensational performances. Even a book as good, and as thorough, as Sperber & Lax’s biography, contains hardly any examination of the films at all. Instead, we read quite a bit about the genesis of each film – the purchase of a novel’s screen rights, the search for an actress to play a key role, the ego-fuelled tussles between producers, directors, and moguls, etc. – after which we soon plunge straight into the description of the film’s opening night, and Bogart’s preparations for his next role, next yacht race, or next marriage.
The process of making the film itself is often glossed over fairly quickly, and the experience of watching the film, whether for contemporary or modern audiences, is seldom mentioned, let alone discussed or analysed. In a biography, this is understandable, if frustrating; what’s really exasperating is that this seeming lack of interest in Bogart’s films so often extends to books whose ostensible subject is the films themselves. What is the film like? Why should we like the film? How does Bogart’s performance come across? What qualities are particularly present, what moments are there to intrigue and stimulate the viewer? How do these contribute to what we think of when we hear the words ‘Humphrey Bogart’? What relationship do they bear to what we think of as ‘the movies’? The books never say.
That’s far from the only thing that’s wrong with the currently available crop of Bogart books. But it’ll do for a start, and we should now move on to discuss what might be done to redress the balance, to produce a book that does at least try to do justice to the greatest movie star of all time. So the thrust of this article from here on in will be, not just to discuss the need for a worthwhile Bogart book, but also to outline the specific form and content of what the ideal book on Bogart and his films would contain. If we could design the perfect Bogart book – the one that all true fans of Bogie’s films would want to read – what would we include?
If only to circumvent the need for a discussion that might threaten to bloat up into an almost book-length treatise in itself, and to allow our thoughts on the matter to coalesce around a few easily digestible topic headings, we shall structure this combined plea and proposal – this cri de coeur – for a proper and sympathetic critical appraisal of Bogart’s films, around a bullet point list of ‘Ten topics that’d comprise our perfect Bogart book’:
1. ‘Here’s Looking at you, kid’ -The Bogart Filmography
Let’s cut to the chase. We’re here to talk about the films. As we’ve said already, the reason we’re interested in Bogart in the first place is because he made a lot of very good films, and quite a few truly great ones. This is the crux of the matter, and the heart of the book; everything else is secondary. Such a statement should, of course, scarcely be worth making. Yet this simple, irreducible fact seems to be lost on many of those who set out to write about Bogart.
And let’s get another thing out of the way right now: films are meant to be fun; that’s why they became so phenomenally popular. There’s an apocryphal story about a young film student, working on a thesis on 1940s Hollywood, collaring an older relative who would have seen some of those old movies when they came out. Asked if he remembered, say, ‘Casablanca’, the elder replies: “Oh yeah, sure… I can remember it before it was art.” Movies are a form of entertainment. They’re supposed to be fun. Bogart movies are great fun. But the authors of Bogart books never seem to be enjoying themselves very much. Film historian David Thomson recalls seeing ‘The Big Sleep’ three times in a row, coming out of one screening and “joining the queue for the next (as if the movie were a ride on a sensational fairground entertainment).” That sort of impassioned enthusiasm is rarely expressed in the literature.
Of course, movies can be art, that option is always open; what’s not up for debate is the fact that movies are entertainments, first and foremost. So our definition of what makes a film great – what qualifies it as a ‘great film’ – is not necessarily entirely predicated on its artistic worth or cultural aspirations. Some of them, and again we are talking about the best of them, do of course qualify as ‘art’; more often than not, though, they became art by dint of being such extraordinarily great entertainments; by the accretion of significance brought about by their endurance; and as a result of being rediscovered and reappraised from an artistically slanted vantage point. None of that would have happened had they not been made and enjoyed as entertainments first.
What made Bogart’s films successful at the time, and what makes them endure today, is that they were, at least the better ones, hugely compelling entertainments. That’s what made them, and Bogart, so popular. There’s a fine yet blurry line, in general, between fun movies and cinematic artistry, and that’s one of the more absorbing aspects of film studies. Bogart movies, in particular, are hard to precisely or even accurately locate on the sliding scale between ‘frivolous diversions’ and ‘masterworks of cinema’. Again, this forms part of the reason why Bogart is such an interesting figure, and why we feel the existing literature on the subject lets him – and us – down.
Whether you subscribe to this point of view or not, you won’t find much analysis of Bogart’s films in many of the existing books. There are a few books that do a good job of covering individual films – such as David Thomson’s excellent monograph on ‘The Big Sleep’, and ‘Round Up the Usual Suspects’, Aljean Harmetz’s splendid investigation of the making of ‘Casablanca’. But the few books which do attempt to cover the entire filmography do not make a very thorough or inspiring job of it. They tend to exhibit an incongruous degree of indifference to the films. This would be a shameful way to treat any actor’s work, but when we consider how important Bogart is to the history of cinema, and factor in the extent to which he is a cherished part of our culture, this seems like negligence bordering on criminality.
Of course, we might struggle to devise a conducive format for structuring our examination of the films. There are a lot of them, for starters. In fact, the number of films for which Bogart is known, even to aficionados, is quite small in comparison to his total output. Oddly, it’s quite possible to have been an ardent Bogart fan for decades yet not to have seen even half of his films.
In part, this is due to the lengthy duration of Bogart’s Hollywood salad days. Unlike today’s actors (and even some from the Golden Age) who get ‘discovered’ and become stars in dizzyingly quick succession, it took Bogart years and years to get a firm foothold on the Hollywood ladder, and the climb from the bottom was an unusually long and arduous one. It can also be ascribed to the plentiful vagaries of the Studio System: just because you were a star, that didn’t give you control over what films you made, or when; add to that the byzantine contractual wrangles that often caused repeated delays in scheduling of roles, and this meant that studios who should have been continuously capitalising on stars’ box office potential, were fighting them to a stalemate by refusing them their favoured roles or barring them from loan-outs to other studios.
Even a major star, who’d just had a big hit movie, might nonetheless find himself forced to participate in a film so bad that it would be better to do nothing at all. This sometimes led to a star such as Bogart enduring a prolonged hiatus at the height of his fame. It’s natural that an actor has to wade his way through a lot of rubbish on his way up; but Bogart’s later years are sprinkled with clunkers too. It’s important to note, though, that there never was a bad Bogart film that was bad because of Bogart.
So let’s arbitrarily opt for a reasonable method by which to categorise Bogart’s films. While it would be a shame to leave any single film unexamined, it’s clear that Bogart’s films can be most easily categorised by dividing his filmography into a number of chronological segments. You could slice these any number of ways, but, roughly speaking, we might like to consider the following categories:
- The early, hard-scrabble years, during which Bogart found minor roles in largely forgettable films, which are interesting now chiefly because of what Bogart became;
- The rising star years, the period beginning with, say, The Petrified Forest, and culminating in High Sierra;
- The meteoric years, when Bogart became and remained a major star. During this period, most of Bogart’s best, and best-known, films were made; this era would perhaps end with ‘The African Queen’;
- The final years. In some ways, this is one of the more interesting periods, if only for its patchiness and the ways in which Bogart’s career seemed to waver and digress. It contains some very well-known films, such as ‘The Caine Mutiny’, as well as a number of highly underrated late-period classics, such as ‘The Harder They Fall’, and ‘Deadline USA’.
Any of these eras could form the basis of a pretty decent book; taken together, they amount to a mammoth task. Perhaps this is one reason why Bogart’s films as a whole have never been adequately addressed before: there is just so much ground to cover, and so much to say.
That there is so much that could be said only deepens the mystery of why the books have so little to offer. What is the experience of watching a Bogart film? What is the cumulative effect of watching several Bogart films? What was it in particular – career trajectory aside – that distinguished the good from the great ones? How did Bogart come to make so many great films in such a short time? Bogart made many great films, in which he gave some indelibly great performances. Forget about auteurs and uber-producers – it was the actors that brought audiences flocking into the movie theatres, and it’s those same actors that compel people to fill up their Amazon baskets with DVD box sets today. It may be reductive to say that Bogart’s greatest films were made great by Bogart being in them, but it’s true nonetheless.
And although Bogart sometimes gave a great performance in a not so great film, there is actually quite a close correspondence between Bogart’s best performances and his best films. While relative obscurities such as ‘Beat the Devil’ are held in cultish high regard by some, there’s also a strong correlation between the best Bogart films, and those that are most familiar to mainstream audiences today. This doesn’t always hold true, but the exceptions are notable for their rule-proving rarity: the classic example being ‘The Caine Mutiny’, a misbegotten portmanteau that nevertheless contains one of Bogart’s most powerful late-period performances.
What elements combine to make a ‘star’? How do we differentiate an admirable performance from one which is genuinely inspiring? Why do we feel so confident in recognising screen presence, but remain so tongue-tied if asked to explain or even describe it? Why do we – let’s face it – somehow love these people, or least what we see of them on the silver screen? One easy way to answer all these questions is to say that they’re more than the sum of their parts. God – like the Devil – is in the detail. There’s a curious absence, in pretty much all Bogart books, of any appreciation of the little moments that are so crucial in making great films, and great actors, so memorable. Peter Bogdanovich likes to tell the story James Stewart related to him, about being approached by a stranger who said how much he liked the way Stewart had delivered a snatch of dialog, in a film made some twenty years previously: “And I thought, that’s the wonderful thing about movies. Because if you’re good, and God helps you, and you’re lucky enough to have a personality that comes across, then what you’re doing is, you’re giving people little… tiny… pieces of time… that they never forget.”
Bogart’s personality, amplified out through cultural loud-hailer of Hollywood, came across better than most. Leaving aside the more obviously iconic aspects – the fedoras and trenchcoats and ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’ stuff – his films are still liberally studded with almost unbearably ineffable ‘little pieces of time’, often showcasing his wide range of unusually beguiling quirks and mannerisms. A handful of examples: the way he leans up against the wall and laughs indulgently along with hatcheck girl Mildred Atkinson in ‘In a Lonely Place’, saying “And what do you call an ‘epic’?”; how he pronounces the word ‘boss’ in “I don’t like people who play games. Tell your boss,” as he sucker-punches Eddie Mars’s henchman in ‘The Big Sleep’; the conflation of violence and hilarity when he slaps the ‘copper’ around the face near the start of ‘High Sierra’, before stalking out of the room with his funny little tilted walk; the mocking self-assessment of his sailing outfit in ‘Sabrina’: “Joe college with a touch of arthritis”; disarming Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s evasions in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ with “Uh, you’re not going to go round the room straightening things and poking the fire again are you?”; or just his battered and bristled face the whole way through ‘The African Queen’.
Bogart’s tenure in the Hollywood big league was cruelly short, but he packed a lot in, and contrary to received opinion, he covered quite a wide range of characters. But Bogart didn’t need to seek out contrasting roles: he could have played two identical ones in adjacent films and they might have come across entirely different. What people sometimes forget, or miss entirely, is the extent to which Bogart changed. Back in those days, actors worked a lot. Even big stars typically made two or more films a year. Yet in the short gap between one movie and the next, Bogart seemed to change a lot. Compare the Bogart who played Sam Spade in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ in 1941, to the actor who portrayed Rick in Casablanca in 1942: to the uninitiated, the actor in the latter film could pass for the former’s older brother. His face had changed, the mystery in his eyes had deepened, his speech patterns became more elastic, and his demeanour seemed to have shifted gears. It’s one of so many contradictions surrounding the Bogart mythos: “Bogart always played Bogart”, they say; but Bogart was always changing, his multifaceted aura forever in flux.
2. Well, Hello! - The Underrated Bogart
Yes, there are a lot of quite bad Bogart films. It’s easy with hindsight to wring our hands over how long it took the Hollywood juggernaut to realise what it had right under its own nose. And how could it be that so many obviously inferior contemporaries floated so easily to the surface, while Bogart’s bubble remained trapped at the bottom of the tank? We shake our heads with rueful wonderment, for example, at the idea of anyone but George Raft ever mistaking George Raft for a better actor than Bogart. Worse, we weep for the profligacy with which Bogart was sometimes wasted even after he’d made it to the top. But it’s a mistake to assume that only the great Bogart films are any good. In fact there are a fair number of underrated, relatively obscure Bogart films. Even now, the dedicated Bogart fan can discover some hidden gems – and not just from the early years.
Hell, even some of the best-known films are underrated, if only as a knee-jerk backlash against perceived over-praise. Even ‘Casablanca’, you could say, is often under-appreciated, due to being so well known and so much a part of Hollywood’s pantheon that many people don’t want to appreciate it. It’s a victim of its own success, dismissed as featherweight hokum even by Bogart fans. But it’s a much, much better film than it’s given credit for by cinema snobs, a classic case of being ‘hidden in plain sight’. This tendency should be properly explored in our book; but the main source of underrated Bogart films is the margins of his filmography. Let’s quickly mention just a few examples: quaint, heart-warming early oddity ‘It All Came True’; the slapstick comedy masquerading as a gangster movie that is ‘All Through the Night’; ‘High Sierra’ for its prototypical anti-heroics and taut atmospherics; and eternally overlooked late-period classic ‘Deadline USA’.
Bogart’s place at the top of the ‘great stars’ tree is probably secure now. Back in 1999, when the AFI named Humphrey Bogart the greatest movie star of all time, nobody squawked. He really has no serious rival in the movie icon stakes. But one side effect of all this is that his prowess as an actor tends these days to be overshadowed by his star power. If some of Bogart’s films are underrated, that’s as nothing next to the lack of recognition Bogart’s acting skills have received. Again, this should not, but undoubtedly does, need stating: Bogart was a great technical actor.
If he was underrated in his day, he’s even more underrated now. It’s one area in which his acclaim has decreased since his death. He’s more loved now, more respected, more iconic – more everything, except more recognised for being a brilliant actor. Bogart was a pro. His absolute refusal to indulge in self-solemnity meant he tended to mock just about everything else in life, aside from the craft of acting, which he took, as John Huston said “most seriously”. Even in the throes of a Grade ‘A’ hangover borne of a heavy night leading the ‘Rat Pack’ through town, Bogart always knew his lines, always hit his mark, and always nailed the scene.
He was much more subtle than is generally realised, and had far more range than is widely supposed. Bogart could do bravura set-pieces, and deliver those unforgettable, endlessly-rewindable rhythmic blasts of staccato dialog: the ‘stenographer’ speech in ‘Falcon’; Queeg’s ball bearing-rolling, ‘geometric logic’ courtroom meltdown; the ‘I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners’ confrontation with Bacall in ‘The Big Sleep’. In that film too, he gives a quiet, blink and you might miss it master class in acting with your eyes, as he enters Geiger’s house and performs a little ballet of darting glances. He could shout, smash glasses, throw punches, and pull guns. But he was really unrivalled at understated expressionism. James Agee, co-screenwriter of ‘The African Queen’ – and another man with a fatal weakness for whiskey and chain-smoking Chesterfields – was at his pithy best when he said Bogart could “get into a minor twitch of the mouth the force of a slug from an automatic.”
Bogart had range, and he was remarkably brave when it came to undermining his own image. Towards the end of his life, he played a succession of roles which veered sharply away from anything an actor might want to be personally identified with, portraying a series of characters whose frangible facades were forever in danger of cracking, revealing the paranoid, borderline psychotic underneath. Fred C. Dobbs in ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ seems an amiable drifter until greed brings out a murderous amorality. Dixon Steele, in Nicholas Ray’s ‘In a Lonely Place’, is all wit and urbanity until he loses his hair-trigger temper. And if Captain Queeg in ‘The Caine Mutiny’ never seems quite normal, it only makes his eventual breakdown all the more poignant. Bogart’s sensationally great acting deserves much more analysis and appreciation than its heretofore enjoyed.
3. ‘Say, are my eyes really brown?’ - Bogart as Comic Actor
Bogart was a great comic actor. There, we said it. Forever known as a gangster, or as the stoic loner of his most iconic mid-period roles, his comedy skills are yet another underrated facet of this deceptively complex actor. But he did a lot of comic acting – both in explicitly comedic roles and as part of films that were ostensibly much more straight-faced. Indeed, his humour came across most persuasively when he was lightening the mood of characters such as Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.
The Bogart persona was ripe with dualities; when he found a role that also offered ambiguity or ambivalence, this frequently resulted in one of his most consummate and nuanced performances. Consider how alternating currents of sweet and sour course through ‘The Big Sleep’. David Thomson observed how, despite the film’s dark and seedy themes, “it has always seemed to me, somehow, the happiest of films, so relaxed and yet so controlled: seeing it offers the chance of a rapture like that of being in love.” It’s one of several reasons why ‘The Big Sleep’ is the quintessential Bogart film: it so perfectly encapsulated these essentially Bogartian dichotomies.
This, in turn, precludes any attempt at categorising ‘The Big Sleep’. Is it a noir? Yes, and no. Is it a gangster picture? Sort of; not really. Is it an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel? Intermittently. Is it a comedy? Absolutely. In January 2011, as part of the NFT’s Howard Hawks season at the Southbank in London, audiences at the three sold out screenings of ‘The Big Sleep’ laughed loudly and knowingly all the way through.
While making that film, Bogart and Bacall were consolidating the love affair they’d begun on set of Howard Hawks’s earlier classic, ‘To Have and Have Not’. Their romance prompted Jack Warner to send a memo down to set of ‘The Big Sleep’, warning that “Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop.”
But Bogart liked to have fun. He hated pomposity, and a sense of irreverence was central to both his personality and his public appeal. He seemed to have been born with an air of wry detachment, and he’d seen a lot of hard living before securing his break-out role as big-hearted bandit Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle, in 1941′s High Sierra. By the time he came to make ‘Casablanca’, he looked and sounded older, wiser, and more quietly despairing. Still, the undertone of caustic irony was ever-present. As Rick Blaine, Bogart displays exquisite comic skills – deftly dispensing any number of deadpan lines. Bogart’s comedies, and the humour he brought to serious roles, should be more widely acclaimed.
4. ‘Maybe because I like you. Maybe because I don’t like them.’ - Bogart’s Politics
Some of Bogart’s most famous roles saw him pretending to refuse to take a stand, clinging resolutely to a position of impartiality, even though professing indifference can amount to taking sides – inaction against, say, the Nazis would amount to the same thing as complicity. Sometimes, as with Sam Spade, the audience may worry that Bogart’s oscillation between isolationist cynic and would-be good guy will culminate in irreversible moral degradation; but when he comes good in the end, we assure ourselves that we never doubted it. More usually, though, as with Rick in Casablanca, we never succumb to any serious doubts. No matter how close Rick holds his cards to his chest, we never believe that his heart isn’t in the right place: the tension exists only in wondering when he will show his hand.
Film critic Richard Schickel has made an intriguing connection between Bogart’s late-period paranoiac roles – Queeg, Fred C. Dobbs, etc. – and another famous paranoid, calling Bogart’s Queeg a “prefiguration of Richard Nixon,” his “tense rigidity masked by false good cheer,” yielding to a “descent into lunacy as the pressures of command begin to reach his quaking soul.” It’s an apt comparison, since ‘Caine’ director Edward Dmitryk was one of the so-called ‘Unfriendly Ten’, movie industry figures hauled onto the witness stand by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And of course Richard Nixon came crawling out of the very same woodwork which had been so heavily pounded upon by the gavel of HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas, Bogart’s nemesis in his biggest off-screen drama, when he became the de facto figurehead for John Huston’s CFA (‘Committee for the First Amendment’), a loose affiliation of concerned Hollywood citizens who set off for Washington with the aim of derailing the HUAC’s tin-pot fascism.
It was a noble cause, but the tide of history was against them. With the country gearing up for that macabre charade known as the ‘Cold War’, anyone taking a nonconformist stance ran the risk of being permanently stigmatized as a ‘Red’. It was a low point in Hollywood media relations, offering chilling evidence in contradiction of the notion that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Bogart and the other Tinseltowners found their fame only carried them so far, and there was an atmosphere of gleeful resentment against these pampered dilettantes who’d wafted out from their natural Beverly Hills habitat to air their muddle-headed views and meddle in matters they had no understanding of, or right to an opinion on. They received a rough ride from a rebarbative Washington press corps, who were always going to be less swayed by star power than the political variety. As Bogart himself succinctly put it, “we went in green and they beat our brains out.”
Jack Warner went to pieces in front of the committee, raving about “ideological termites” and offering to “subscribe generously to a pest removal fund.” He took a demented pleasure in piling pressure on Bogart, who as the biggest name on the CFA roster was already suffering vicious and sustained attacks from the right-wing press. Though Bogart would spend the rest of his life bitterly regretting the fact that he was eventually manoeuvred into making a mealy-mouthed ‘apology’, admitting his political naivety (but reiterating that “I went to Washington because I thought fellow Americans were being deprived of their Constitutional rights”), he held firm on his absolute refusal to issue the statement that Warner really wanted him to, naming names and denouncing the Ten. It was a complex, darkly nuanced episode, which often gets glossed over in reductive, slightly misleading accounts. You even find authors praising the HUAC with faint damnation, bizarrely referring to their ‘questionable’ actions.
Although Bogart was in some ways the quintessential ‘Hollywood Liberal’, campaigning for Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson (and taking endless flak for it), his support for the Ten was born less of some deep political analysis than a profound gut instinct. In fact Bogart was shocked to later learn that some of the Ten actually were Communists. As Alistair Cooke put it, Bogie had assumed that “they were just freewheeling anarchists, like himself.” Lauren Bacall summed up the CFA’s philosophy with characteristic elegance: “We weren’t defending Communism (which in any case had not been outlawed), we were defending something else.”
Part of that something else was democracy, freedom, and common decency; but the HUAC also offended Bogart’s innate anti-authoritarianism and facetiousness. (Raymond Chandler, no slouch when it came to abrasive wisecracks, praised Bogart’s sense of humour for its ability to convey the “grating undertone of contempt.”) Although the cause was serious, and the resulting backlash almost wrecked his career, Bogart always retained a sense of frivolity. The HUAC had to be stopped, he told a friend just before embarking for Washington, because they were out to “nail anyone who ever scratched his ass during the national anthem.”
Bogart’s willingness to, as he put it, “stick my neck out”, should be applauded resoundingly. He didn’t invent the tradition of Hollywood liberalism, but he was by far its starriest and most well-intentioned proponent. At times, it almost cost him his career; but he never lost sight of his rock-solid principles.
5. ‘That’s the Press, baby!’ – Bogart, Hollywood, and the Media
Bogart was keenly interested in literary and media matters, and his complex relationship with the press, particularly when triangulated with the equally interesting and anecdote-rich story of his struggles with Jack Warner and the other Dickensian characters who ran the system, could fill a book on its own. Bogart’s story makes for a particularly lucid prism through which to view the often pantomimic mechanics of the Golden Age studios.
He spent years fighting for better roles than the one-dimensional gangsters Warner Brothers foisted upon him, but like all other actors contracted to the major studios, he had limited scope for rebellion. Not for nothing has the Hollywood of Bogart’s day been dubbed ‘the world’s cruellest company town’. It was a central irony of the movie industry that the manufacture of escapist entertainment was so often underpinned by misery and meanness of spirit.
Hollywood insider Budd Schulberg became a Judas figure for the Studio heads when the publication of his 1941 novel ‘What Makes Sammy Run’ threatened to puncture the industry’s public image of benign glamour. Louis B. Mayer even went so far as to suggest that the New York-born Schulberg “ought to be deported.” Dorothy Parker, though – never one to mince words – praised the book for its ability to capture “the true shittiness” of Hollywood, particularly its unlovely labour relations. And Bogart’s old friend Louise Brooks, in her famously pungent essay ‘Humphrey & Bogey’, asserted that “there was no other occupation in the world that so closely resembled enslavement as the career of a film star.”
No love was lost between Bogart and studio head Jack Warner, whose character occupied a space somewhere on that hazy borderline where gaudy shades into grotesque. Like some Feudal Lord reincarnated as Al Capone, he had a taste for brutality, a passion for frugality, and regarded actors — and pretty much everyone else for that matter — as ingrate serfs. It’s well known that while making ‘The Big Sleep’, Bogart and director Howard Hawks couldn’t figure out who murdered General Sternwood’s chauffeur, and sent a telegram to author Raymond Chandler, who admitted he didn’t know either. It’s a nice piece of movie lore, but what’s less often reported is that when Jack Warner saw a copy of Hawks’s telegram, he phoned the director on the set to barrack him about wasting 70 cents on such a triviality.
Long typecast in ‘tough guy’ roles, Bogart also acquired a not entirely undeserved off-screen reputation for hard-drinking and hell-raising. But he did have a thoughtful, even sentimental side. As his son Stephen Bogart has written, Bogart was “very well-read, as was the customary definition of ‘intelligent’ before the computer age came to replace all that.” He enjoyed the company of writers and newspapermen, but kept a careful, acerbic eye on the doings of the press, and wasn’t above phoning up a reporter who’d displeased him, or dictating a statement for the papers.
His ambivalent relationship with the media, combined with a lifelong allergy to conformity, meant sparks often flew as Bogart struggled to squeeze his private self through the narrowing gap between the Studio System’s publicity machine and the roving army of dedicated, hard-nosed Hollywood gossip columnists. A typical example was his response to the suggestion that a photographer from ‘Life’ magazine might accompany him and Lauren Bacall on the train to their wedding on Louis Broomfield’s Ohio farm: “Great. Maybe he’d like to photograph us fucking.”
Bogart’s press relations during the HUAC debacle were bad enough, but they reached their lowest ebb, and his sardonic humour found its darkest hue, during his battle with the cancer which would eventually kill him. Irked by a wave of inaccurate gossip – “What are the ghouls saying about me now?” – and anxious to play down the seriousness of his condition, he issued an ‘Open Letter to the Working Press’, lampooning reports that he was “fighting for my life in a hospital that doesn’t exist out here; that my heart has stopped and been replaced by an old gasoline pump from a defunct Standard Oil station. I have been on the way to practically every cemetery you can name from here to the Mississippi – including several where I am certain they only accept dogs. All of the above upsets my friends, not to mention the insurance companies…” He admitted he’d had an operation to remove a ‘slight malignancy’, but it had been a success he said, and “all I need now is about thirty pounds in weight which I am sure some of you could spare.”
We can only speculate on what Bogart would make of today’s rapidly changing media environment, particularly the ongoing tussle between the traditional print outlets and the burgeoning world of amateur online critics. What would Bogart think of our brave new media world, with its Emails, iPads, YouTubes, Facebooks, and Blogs? All we can be certain of is that he would have plenty to say. Bogie’s Twitter feed would surely be a sight to behold.
6. ‘The whole world is about three drinks behind’ - Twenty First Century Bogart
Putting Humphrey Bogart together with video streaming and social networking may seem incongruous; but despite dying several decades ago, and having been a key component in a type of cinema that is itself a thing of the past, Bogart is in many ways a curiously timeless icon. To our list of inadequacies inherent in all current Bogart books must be added their unaccountable inattention to the intriguing phenomenon whereby Bogart – a man who, it should be noted, was born in the 19th Century – has taken on an unmistakably modern lustre which, as we have moved past the 20th Century and into the 21st, has not dimmed but in fact seems only to shine ever more brightly. What is it about Bogart that has kept him seeming so relevant?
Bogart’s persona has percolated down through the various strata of neo-noir – from Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’, to Robert Altman’s ‘Long Goodbye’, to any number of Coen Brothers films, culminating in 1998′s ‘The Big Lebowski’. His influence is heavily felt yet difficult to track. In as much as this subject is ever discussed at all, it’s generally restricted to a bland enumeration of Bogart references in pop culture, and the inevitable mention of the briefly voguish invocation of Bogart’s smoking habits, with fervent marijuana smokers exhorting their compatriots not to “Bogart that joint”. What would Bogie think about that last one? Probably, he was too much of an old-school alcohol devotee to be interested in dope, but we like to think he’d be amused to find that his name had become a verb.
Bogart used to jokingly refer to himself as a ‘last Century boy’, having been born on Christmas Day 1899, and the joke had a ring of truth to it due to the gentlemanly, chivalric aspect of the Bogart persona. But if he seemed something of a throwback in his own era, the nature of this anachronism has undergone a 180 degree polarity adjustment, so that in retrospect Bogart now seems to have been far ahead of his time. Despite the unassailable greatness of the Golden Age (and let’s be clear: the American cinema of the 30′s, 40′s, and 50′s was the medium’s peak in terms of both art and entertainment), it can sometimes seem an unreachably distant era, blurred by the passing years. While some of its stars now seem frozen in time, buried under snowdrifts of changing cultural tastes, Bogart stands out crisp and clear as a gunshot on a winter’s morning.
7. ‘Go ahead and talk!’ - Discussing Humphrey Bogart
We are talking about our ideal book here, right? Well, it would be great to include some discussion of the influence exerted by Bogart over successive generations of actors and filmmakers. So we’d aim to interview a few modern-day movie people. This might ultimately prove an elusive ambition, but in an ideal world we’d love to hear from the likes of, say, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, or the Coen Brothers. Or, better yet, someone like Jack Nicholson, who has in common with Bogart the rare dual role of movie star and actor. We’d also like to undertake in-depth discussions with some of Bogart’s more simpatico critics and film historians.
Sadly, so many people who worked with and knew Bogart are long since passed away. Most importantly, though, the two people who we’d most like to talk to are both still very much alive, namely Stephen Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It would be tragic if we could not persuade them to donate at least a little time to talk about Bogie.
8 . ‘Well from here they look like books’ - Biographies and Bibliographies
Not every Bogart book is a dead loss. Far from it. Even the bad ones usually have something worthwhile to offer, and only the very worst contain nothing of interest. Our ideal book would include an annotated bibliography, offering a brief synopsis of what’s good about the better Bogart books. There are quite a few obscure ones which, while flawed, still offer compelling reading. A prime example would be Ezra Goodman’s ‘Good Bad Guy’, an acidic account of Goodman’s research for a Time magazine profile, much of which consisted of trying to keep up with Bogart’s alcohol consumption and stave off his verbal barbs.
We’re not writing a biography. For one thing, we’re most interested in the films. And in any case, the best Bogart book that exists is a biography, by Sperber & Lax. Of course, even that book inevitably suffers from the syndrome that afflicts almost all biographies: the early, dreary bits. Let’s face it, unless your subject is, say, Leo Tolstoy, then a detailed description of their parents’ origins is never going to make for a racy read. So our ideal Bogart book would confine the biography to a short thumbnail sketch, which could even be shunted off into an appendix. We tip our hat here to the redoubtable Marc Almond (singer with arch 80s posters ‘Soft Cell’), whose autobiography, ‘Tainted Life’, begins with an admission that these early bits are always dull, and a recommendation that the reader skip to “the sex and drugs, which begin in Chapter 3″.
But Bogart didn’t act in a vacuum. So we would offer biographical sketches of some of Bogart’s most notable co-stars, with particular regard to how they interacted with him. Some of his co-stars are nearly as iconic as he is. Ingrid Bergman, for instance, has an almost supernatural aura. We’d cover Bergman, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and so forth. But modern audiences should also be familiarised with a few of Bogart’s less famous compatriots. Who wouldn’t want to learn a bit more about Peter Lorre, Pat O’Brien, or Elisha Cook Jr? It would be worthwhile, in particular, to take a look at some of Bogart’s more interesting second-tier leading ladies, such as Ida Lupino, Ann Sheridan, Gloria Grahame, and Mary Astor.
Bogart’s relationships with these fabulous ladies, on and off-screen, have not been much documented. For instance, any movie book – never mind a Bogart book – could benefit from some discussion of Joan Bennett, Bogart’s friend and neighbour, whose blameless role in an unpleasant scandal wrecked her career, until Bogart refused to make the ‘We’re No Angels’ unless Bennett was given a part. There’s also a plethora of interesting bit players, who often crossed paths (and swords) with Bogart repeatedly, co-starring with him in multiple minor roles.
Ultimately, of course, we’d keep coming back to the wonderful Lauren Bacall, who not only made up half of history’s greatest Hollywood love story, but was – and still is – a sublime actress in her own right. Would Bogart have been able to achieve what he did without Lauren Bacall? It’s doubtful.
9. ‘You’re not quite what you seem, are you?’ - Bogart’s Hidden Complexity
How iconic is Humphrey Bogart? Look at the cast of characters populating Gottfried Helnwein’s ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Bogart. You may consider this pastiche of Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ to be aesthetically suspect; but you surely cannot quibble with the iconography. A natural fit for this role Bogart may be, but the iconic overtones of the Bogart persona can sometimes work against him. Many Bogart fans disdain iconographic treatments of Bogart, feeling they trivialise him, serving only to obscure his value as a great actor. They do have a point, but surely it’s churlish to resent, say, Woody Allen’s use of Bogart’s ghost in ‘Play it Again Sam’?
It’s become the prevailing myth of Bogart’s career that ‘Bogart always played Bogart’, but this is at best a chronic over-simplification. Bogart had such a powerfully transfixing screen presence, and inhabited roles so persuasively, that audiences (and some critics) simply assumed that the only way an actor could be so convincing was to play roles which were just shades of himself. In ‘Epitaph for a Tough Guy’, his clear-eyed essay on Bogart, Alistair Cooke ponders not only the duality of Bogart’s character, but the fact that ‘duality’ was in his case “perhaps a misleading word. It implies a split, or running conflict, between the movie character and the private character.”
There was an unusually rich and complex relationship between Bogart the man, the characters he played, and that accretion of elements – real and fictive – which made up the uniquely compelling Bogart persona. He found aspects of himself in some of his more potent roles, and certain facets of those characters – Rick, Marlowe, Spade, etc. – found their way into Bogart’s own personality. Of course, plenty of other stars exhibited this ebb and flow of characteristic between person and persona; but in Bogart’s case the process was unusually opaque, making it particularly difficult to judge in which direction the traffic was heavier, or on which side of the ill-defined dividing line a given personality trait originated.
Add to this the further complexity of the Bogart persona being itself composed of a patchwork of overlapping dichotomies: the sensitive tough guy; the sentimentalist cynic; the romantic loner; the neutral interventionist; the idealistic nihilist; the cheerful pessimist; the high-class lowlife; the insouciant neurotic, the weight of the world on his shoulders but still able to shrug; interested in first editions, but a collector of ‘blondes in bottles’ too. People said he had no range as an actor, but he could be smooth and elegant as a Cole Porter lyric, or rough as a Mexican burro – sometimes both at once.
10. ‘Who could like a face like this?’ - Bogart’s Unique Physiognomy
“The only exception I know is the case
When I’m out on a quiet spree
Fighting vainly the old ennui
And I suddenly turn and see
Your fabulous face”
- Cole Porter, ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’
Was there ever a man with a face as fabulous as Bogart’s? His face was his – and the world’s – good fortune, always the same yet forever changing. Leafing through books filled with photos of Bogart, what strikes you over and over again is that wonderfully unique Bogart face. Gloria Graeme tells a sceptical police captain in ‘In a Lonely Place’ – probably the best film Hollywood ever made about its favourite subject, itself, and in which Bogart gives possibly his greatest single performance – that she noticed Bogart because “he looked interesting. I like his face.”
It’s a face that’s a lot easier to like than describe. Even when laughing, it was always freighted with a certain wistful quality. Herman J. Mankiewicz captured this well when he said Bogart carried such “a sadness about the human condition” that he “would have made a superb Gatsby.” Ironically, it was around about the time F. Scott Fitzgerald was falling off the bottom of the Hollywood ladder, issuing on his way the famous dictum that there are no second acts in American lives, that Bogart was proving him wrong by finally, after a decade of scrabbling for third billing, getting a grip on the upper rungs. But it was to be a tragically short second act.
In typically colourful language, Francois Truffaut described something deathly about the Bogart face, even in life: “His clenched jaw indubitably reminds us of the grin of a cheerful corpse, the last expression of a man who is about to die laughing.” He certainly retained his sense of humour right to the end, when the cancer got so bad that he had to be lowered down from his bedroom in a dumb waiter, to sit for an hour or two in the afternoon, sipping a martini and chatting with close friends like David Niven, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn.
He didn’t like people tiptoeing around the nature of his illness: “What’s everybody whispering about? It’s a respectable disease – nothing to be ashamed of, like something I might have had…. the way people act, you’d think that cancer was as bad as VD.” His journalist friend Joe Hyams, who sometimes drove him to hospital for treatments, was just one of many who recorded how bravely he coped with the pain and indignities of the illness: “The chemo was a bitch – a bitch. I would ask, ‘How’d it go?’ and he’d say, ‘Shit.’ And that would be the end of it… He never complained.”
Bogart himself almost certainly didn’t know how special he was, and of course he never knew the pleasure of being a Bogart fan. He breezed insouciantly through his scenes, trailing an invisible nimbus of whiskey-scented resignation and sardonic amusement. What he had amounted to so much more than mere ‘screen presence’ or run of the mill Hollywood charisma; it was more on the order of a kind of existential verve. He carried this quality as easily as he wore a rakishly tilted fedora, and as the years went by it intensified, coalesced, and formed a sort of pop cultural critical mass.
Nicholas Ray said of Bogart, “He was much more than an actor. He was an image of our condition. His face was a living reproach.” There’s a well-known photo of Bogart, often captioned as being from ‘In a Lonely Place’, whereas it is in fact a publicity still. But that’s no matter – it could still stand as the archetypal noir image: Bogart driving in an open-top car through the LA night, one hand on the wheel while the other lights yet another cigarette. It’s a look that’s so effortlessly expressive of a kind of world-weary, rueful derision – as if Holden Caufield had grown up, moved to Hollywood, and sprouted a face like a Rembrandt self-portrait. The eyes are squinting, maybe against the wind, maybe against all the sickness, sadness, and bullshit in the world, the lines around them only made more starkly apparent by the thick caking of makeup. Bogart’s cheerful stoicism notwithstanding, we could surely forgive him just a little flicker of a wince as his inadequate bibliography goes fluttering by.
Like The Beatles, Bogart is so well known that people think they know him pretty well. Many people probably think they don’t need to watch Bogart’s films any more, that those old movies have nothing new to teach them. They’re wrong. The Bogart book we’d like to write would stand as a reminder of, and a celebratory salute to, a man whose impact on our culture amounted – appropriately enough for someone born on Christmas Day -to a kind of secular miracle.
The Maltese Falcon ends with a line that brings just the right touch of the amorphous to its noir denouement, a wistful allusion to “the stuff that dreams are made of”. Bogart, whose own inspired coinage that crucial closing phrase was, still is the stuff of which dreams are made. Stars with that degree of lustre simply don’t exist any more, and cinema as a popular art form capable of generating that sort of iconography is long dead too.
Overall, the lack of a decent book on Bogart’s films feels like an opportunity not so much missed as disdained. With only a few very minor adjustments, a lot of the books that do exist could just as easily have been published decades ago. Bogart the man died young, but the actor, the star, and the magic he brought to our world will burn brightly forever. That’s something worth celebrating, and worth documenting properly. We need to write this book to remind ourselves that, come what may, we’ll always have Bogart.