Why I Love Humphrey Bogart
"I don't like your manners." "And I'm not crazy about yours. I didn't ask to see you. I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don't mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don't waste your time trying to cross-examine me."
Humphrey Bogart is the great Noir actor. He has been in four classic Noirs with The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and In a Lonely Place. More besides, but let's keep it to a manageable figure. Bogart started as a villain and brought his shades of grey to the world of the hero. Casablanca, that great movie, sees Bogart perfect his touch for the unwilling hero. Some people think that Humphrey Bogart plays the same character in every movie, and while he does have a very distinct style this is not fair. He can play sweet, romantic and witty, just as well as he can play menacing and dark. This is why he was the quintessential Noir actor. Think of how demented and desperate he is in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and how terrifying he is in In a Lonely Place. As Roger Ebert said, yeah he might just be playing himself, but he is incredibly good at it. He can be compared with John Wayne and Jack Nicholson in this way.
The Big Sleep is my personal favourite Humphrey Bogart movie. It comes from the book by the legendary Raymond Chandler, and is a landmark movie in Noir. While I adore Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum's take on Phillip Marlowe, nobody better defined the role than Bogart. Marlowe is a character that seems to have been created for Bogart. Like Bogart, Marlowe is world weary and more than a bit cynical at times, but ultimately he has a good heart. The unwilling hero is something that, as I said above, Bogart was made to do. He looks after himself first, but he always finds himself dragged into helping out those he should probably steer clear of. The Big Sleep is, by the admission of Chandler, a slightly confusing story and it is not clear exactly what happened or why. But it doesn't at all diminish what is a truly classic film.
I love Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart together. They did four movies together, as well as a cameo in the film Two Guys From Milwaukee, including three Noirs, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and Key Largo. They had so much chemistry together. They electrify the screen in The Big Sleep, Bacall being so damn seductive and sensual. I particularly love the scene where Bogart employs the help of a bookstore woman, and shares a drink with her while he waits for a slippery and mysterious villain to appear. Bogart always had the best dialogue and he delivered it with such verve and sauce.
Key Largo is an incredible movie. It again tells the story of an unwilling hero, home from the war who just wants to pay his respect to his fallen comrade's family. He becomes embroiled in a plot by Edward G. Robinson's character to make a trade with Mafia colleagues for hard cash, after delivering them phony bills. When Bogart, Bacall and her father in law are trapped by Robinson's outfit due to a bad storm, Bogart's character must decide what kind of man he wants to be. When given the chance to shoot Robinson, he doesn't, because he doesn't want to die for one less Johnny Rocco. This is a surprising moment in the film, and one that marks Key Largo as a key Noir. Noir is all about good men who do nothing. When he must do something or face a watery grave, he does it, but not before innocent people have died.
Some question whether Key Largo is a Noir, owing to it not being set in the world of private detectives, but this is a narrow and unsatisfying definition of what Noir is. Noir is any story that tells of people who meet fated destruction or those who struggle with doing the right thing and for the right reasons. Key Largo is a Noir because Bogart's character is unwilling to stand up and do the right thing, until it is his life that is at stake. Yeah he does the right thing in the end, but after considerable damage to those around him. As someone better than me said, this is not the best movie for Bacall and Bogart's chemistry as there is no love interest between them - another interesting and unusual aspect to the film - but it is for the chemistry between Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. They are brilliant together, locked in a battle of wits and mettle. I particularly love the scene where Johnny Rocco is getting really terrified at the prospect of the storm. Bogart says "Why don't you show it your gun?" This is a truly Noir element of the script: the natural world can't be coerced or convinced to show mercy. This is fated destruction of bad people. This is Noir.
The Maltese Falcon, based on the book by Dashiell Hammett, was the first film directed by John Huston, and is just as important to Noir as any of the other films mentioned here. It stars Bogart with his pals Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, as well as Mary Astor as the classic femme fatale. It is considered by some to be the first major Noir, and it earns its reputation as a staggering, delirious and mysterious film. The story follows private detective Sam Spade as he tries to navigate a web of deceit and murder, including that of his partner. The film is full of great performances. Bogart is wonderful here, but the real stand outs are Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet's manipulative and desperate attempts to get a hold of the priceless object of the title. Lorre is just so watchable, his oily, weaselly character holding the attention of the audience with every scene he features in. It is incredible that Bogart would play both Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade. In these films, he defines what would be the classic Noir protagonist in every film that followed.
I have talked a bit about In a Lonely Place before, so let me just say that it is the greatest performance in the career of Humphrey Bogart, closely followed by The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I will talk about in a moment. In a Lonely Place follows the story of a failed screenwriter - another direct connection between movies and Noir, along with Sunset Boulevard - as he is accused of murdering a woman's boyfriend. The greatest thing about In a Lonely Place is how it examines doubt, similarly to the appropriately titled and devastating Doubt. You don't know whether he did it or not, but you do know that he was capable of committing the gravest of crimes. Bogart is so good here, playing with the audience's expectations and expertly navigating the complex story. If you are only able to watch one movie listed here, this is it.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre reunited Bogart with director John Huston, and man alive is it a beautiful movie. Bogart plays a desperate homeless man who invests his only money in the world in order to hopefully discover gold and turn his life around. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a Western but it shares a whole lot with the Noir films of Bogart's career. The same flawed, greedy characters populate the world, and Bogart turns in one of his greatest performances. Those who think that he just plays himself should watch this and see how wrong they are. It is a movie that I could watch every day, and I am going to do so today! No-one has done desperation better than Bogart here, and the way the prospect of riches and wealth beyond his wildest dreams twists him into something of a monster.
I can't talk about Humphrey Bogart and not mention two other films. The first is Casablanca. I mean of course I had to talk about this movie! Casablanca was considered during its production to be something of a B-picture. While no-one could reasonably predict the incredible success and legendary reputation of the movie, it is hard to see that those who starred in the movie did not have some sense of its quality. The dialogue is for one, some of the best in any film, ever. The performances are on point, and the chemistry between Bogart and Ingrid Bergman is the main selling point of the film. It is not a Noir, but like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre examines many of the same themes, particularly the unlikely hero. The ending is one of the greatest in the history of cinema. So touching, so surprising and destined to live on for generations. If you have, through some quirk or oversight, not seen Casablanca, WATCH IT NOW!
The final movie I am going to discuss is John Huston's The African Queen, starring Bogart with the great Katherine Hepburn. It is an adventure picture, and features one of Bogart's best performances, which he actually won the Academy Award for Best Actor, his only win. The film relies on the two lead performances, as well as a deft directing job from Huston. It is a film that manages to surprise even when it delivers an ending that seemed destined from the beginning. This is a great skill, to do what people expected, yet wrap them up so convincingly in the unraveling of the story that they somehow still didn't see it coming. I love this movie dearly, and should again be watched for how it disproves the theory that all Bogart did was play himself.
Humphrey Bogart is one of my favourite actors, and if I had to only choose one actor to watch for the rest of my life, it would be him. More so than other favourites like Bill Murray, Johnny Depp and Amy Adams, I think if I had Bogart in my cinema going life I would be happy. He is an incredible actor, with many hidden depths and a supreme charisma that makes every one of his films a thrill to watch. He is one of the coolest people to ever live, and I would give quite a lot to just spend one afternoon with him, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. Here's looking at you kid.