Humphrey Bogart is still on top after all these years.
The American Film Institute named him the greatest male star of all time, Warner Home Video recently released a wonderful 24-film, 12-disc boxed set called “Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection” and he’s the subject of a new biography, Stefan Kanfer’s “Tough Without a Gun: The Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart.”
Kanfer’s title comes from a letter Raymond Chandler wrote to his publisher upon hearing that Bogart had been cast as Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.”
“Bogart can be tough without a gun,” Chandler wrote. “Also he has a sense of humor that contains the grating undertone of contempt. Alan Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article.”
Actually, Bogart came from a privileged family. His father was a Yale-educated New York physician, his mother a leading commercial illustrator. Expelled from the prestigious Phillips Academy because of disciplinary problems, he ended up on Broadway in the 1920s playing mostly preppies, including one who may have been the first to utter the immortal line, “Tennis, anyone?”
Early on he wasn’t a critics’ darling. Reviewing the 1922 play “Swiftly,” Alexander Woollcott wrote that Bogart’s acting was “what is usually and mercifully described as inadequate.”
It wasn’t until he was cast as the thug Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest” (1936), the movie version of the Robert E. Sherwood play he starred in a year earlier on Broadway, that Bogart became Bogart.
Cynical, gruff, with a sliver of sadism in his smile, Bogart was remaking himself into what would become the classic anti-hero of 1940s movies. The character was epitomized by his roles as a Dillinger-esque gangster in “High Sierra” (1941), the private eye Sam Spade in John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) -- his first real A-list film at the ripe age of 41 -- and Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” (1946).
But Bogart didn’t need to be uncouth and unshaven to be an anti-hero. He could also do it in a tuxedo.
Perhaps his most iconic role is the nightclub owner Rick Blaine in “Casablanca,” where his cynicism turns out to be the thinnest of veneers for his romanticism. This mixture of scorn and chivalry accounts for much of Bogart’s lasting appeal, although thankfully he never overplayed his soft side. He could be uncompromising.
A kinder-gentler Bogart would not have thrown over Mary Astor at the end of “The Maltese Falcon.” And certainly, if Bogart was intent on preserving a sympathetic image, he wouldn’t have played the paranoid gold prospector in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) or the strawberry-snooping Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny” (1954).
Both “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” were directed by Bogart’s frequent collaborator John Huston, who understood perhaps better than anyone else the dark depths Bogart was capable of reaching.
Huston also recognized the comic side of Bogart in a way few others did. His grimy, cigar-chomping riverboat captain Charlie Allnut in “The African Queen” (1951) won him an Oscar. “Beat the Devil,” although its commercial failure severed the Bogart-Huston connection, is his most audaciously funny film.
Bogart is an international icon. Among the intelligentsia in France he has long been the poster boy for a kind of trench-coat existentialism. One of the most memorable moments in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (1960) comes when its footloose hoodlum, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, looks up at a movie poster of Bogart, smooths his lips to mimic the actor’s snarl, and mutters “Bogie.”
Bogart may have epitomized the romantic loner but the romance always took precedence over the loneliness. His pairings with Ingrid Bergman (“Casablanca”) and Katharine Hepburn (“The African Queen”) are highpoints in movie romance.
And “To Have and Have Not” (1944), where he met his future wife Lauren Bacall, is maybe the sexiest onscreen wooing in Hollywood history. By the time they made “The Big Sleep” two years later, they were twin luminaries.
Bogart died at 57 in 1957. It was a relatively short career, but none burned brighter. Here’s looking at you, kid.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).