Basic Bogart – Notes on Three Key Films

 

 

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Recently I went to Film Forum for the start of a three-week series of Humphrey Bogart films (July 16 to August 5). I saw The Maltese Falcon (1941) back to back with Casablanca (1942). I’ll see The Big Sleep (1946) later next week. I’ll bet that when most people think of Humphrey Bogart, they’re thinking of him as he is in these three films. For those people — and I’m one of them — Bogart is largely defined by his roles in these films. Audiences already knew him as a gangster in films such as The Petrified Forest (1936) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), and as great as he was later in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), The African Queen (1951), and The Caine Mutiny (1954), it’s as Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, and Philip Marlowe that he became a true icon. Though it can be argued that his sympathetic role as gangster “Mad Dog” Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941) played a big part in this process. But think of Bogart in his trench coat and hat at the end of Casablanca. That image carries a lot of weight.

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Some of the titles in the Bogart series are being shown in 35mm and others in DCP (Digital Cinema Package). I know there are many film goers who vigorously prefer seeing films in 35mm over DCP. For me, the advantages of seeing a film that looks clean and crisp, without splices, scratches, and other damage far outweigh any loss of texture that comes with the grain of a 35mm print. The Maltese Falcon is DCP and looks great, while Casablanca is a 35mm print that’s been around the block more than a few times. It’s somewhat beaten up, with some scenes that have been repaired, losing pieces of dialogue, etc. This is distracting. But I’m not going to not see a film because it’s in 35mm. The Big Sleep is 35mm, and there’s no way I’m missing that. You have to take it as it comes. (I just learned that Film Forum is showing a new print of The Big Sleep, so there shouldn’t be any problems.)

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The Maltese Falcon (1941 – John Huston, director & writer)  I love The Maltese Falcon. It’s a nearly perfect film in every way. Huston had already established himself as a screenwriter, but this was his first film as director as well as writer. The Maltese Falcon had already been filmed twice before, first in 1931 under that title, and unrecognizably as Satan Met a Lady in 1936. Both had little to recommend them. It might not have seemed promising to make yet another version, but Huston made the difference. He basically filmed the book. Most of the dialogue comes straight from Dashiell Hammett’s novel. Huston finished shooting the film two days ahead of schedule and $54,000 under budget.

The Maltese Falcon is one of those films where you can’t imagine anyone else playing the parts. George Raft was initially lined up for the role of Sam Spade, but he refused to work with a first-time director in an “unimportant” film. Bogart got the part, making this the first of five films he would do with John Huston. His Sam Spade has a gritty integrity and a strong moral complass. He is self-assured, ironic, sardonic, and always quick with a clever comeback. As Raymond Chandler once said, “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.” He can be incredibly charismatic, as he is here. The killing of his partner, Miles Archer, is the only scene in the film that doesn’t involve Sam Spade. Otherwise, the film is entirely from Spade’s point of view.

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The following clip shows Spade’s first meeting with Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). Cairo is clearly homosexual in Hammett’s novel, but that had to be downplayed in the film to get past the censors. It’s still rather obvious, though in somewhat clichéd terms.

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Spade’s first encounter with Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and his great line, “People lose teeth talking like that.”

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Another great hardboiled quote: “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”

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Another great line of dialogue comes when Joel Cairo says to Spade, “You always have a very smooth explanation ready.” To which Spade replies, “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?” I’ve been unable find a clip of this exchange, which is too bad,  because Bogart’s delivery really nails it.

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Sydney Greenstreet had acted for years on the stage in Britain and the United States, but this was his screen debut at age 61, for which he received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He’s wonderfully entertaining as Kaspar Gutman, aka the “Fat Man.” Tipping the scale at 357 pounds, he certainly fit the part. Huston often shot him from low angles to emphasize his bulk, as though that was necessary. The following scene with Bogart communicates his charm as well as an understated menace.

Greenstreet would go on to make five films with Humphrey Bogart, and a total of nine with Peter Lorre. His film career would last a little over eight years, but he certainly made an impact.

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Even people who haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon, if indeed there are any, are familiar  with what is probably the film’s most famous line, “The stuff that dreams are made of.” Of course, this comes from Shakespeare (as so much does), but no matter.

Bogart has said of The Maltese Falcon, “It was practically a masterpiece. I don’t have many things I’m proud of, but that’s one.”

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Casablanca (1942 – Michael Curtiz, director)  Roger Ebert has said that while Citizen Kane is considered to be a greater film, Casablanca is more loved. Sounds right to me. I remember seeing it with a packed house at Film Forum on New Year’s Eve in 2016. After it was over, “As Time Goes By” began to play, with a bouncing ball following the lyrics on the screen. I don’t think there was anyone in the theater who didn’t sing along. I know we did. It was such a communal experience. After all, it was New Year’s Eve, which I think amplified the strong feelings that Casablanca creates.

Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine is one of his definitive roles. An American expatriate in Casablanca who runs a popular nightclub, he has a tough, cynical, no-nonsense exterior with a sentimental streak. He’s also a tragic figure, pining for his lost love, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), whose surprise appearance in Casablanca sets the plot in motion.

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Besides Bogart and  Bergman, Casablanca has a great cast. As with The Maltese Falcon, it’s hard now to imagine any other actors in those roles — with the exception of Paul Henreid as Ilsa’s husband and fugitive resistance leader Victor Laszlo, who I think is little more than functional in the film.  Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre are all very strong. And it’s a pleasure to see French actor Marcel Dalio as the croupier in Rick’s club, having been in Jean Renoir’s great films, Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game.

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As with The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca has lines of dialogue that have entered into popular lexicon. They exist outside of the film.

“Round up the usual suspects.”

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“We’ll always have Paris.”

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Then there’s the line that Ilsa says to Sam (Dooley Wilson) at the piano in Rick’s club, “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'” Thanks to Woody Allen, this is often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam.” This is never said in the film.

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Here’s the truly inspiring scene where Victor Laszlo leads a singing of “La Marseillaise” in Rick’s club to taunt Major Strasser and other Nazi officers in attendence.

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And finally, “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “We’ll always have Paris.”

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The Big Sleep (1946 – Howard Hawks, director)  An immensely satisfying film with another definitive Bogart performance and a definitive pairing of Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Philip Marlowe has been portrayed by Dick Powell (Murder My Sweet – 1944), Robert Montgomery (Lady in the Lake – 1947), James Garner (Marlowe – 1969), Elliott Gould (The Long Goodbye – 1973), and Robert Mitchum (Farewell, My Lovely – 1975 and The Big Sleep – 1978). Considering the strengths and weaknesses of these films and performances, when the dust has settled, Bogart’s Marlowe is the one left standing. Dick Powell is good and has the necessary toughness, and I love Elliott Gould’s revisionist Marlowe in Robert Altman’s iconoclastic take on the genre, but at the end of the day, it’s Bogart.

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Marlowe meets Carmen Sternwood and the General.

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Marlowe meets Vivian (Lauren Bacall).

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Marlowe and Vivian discuss horse racing (with a helping of double entendres) at lunch.

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Marlowe hears Vivian sing at Eddie Mars’ gambling club.

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The plot of The Big Sleep gets rather complex. Per Wikipedia: “An unanswered question in The Big Sleep is who killed the chauffeur. When Howard Hawks filmed the novel his writing team was perplexed by that question, in response to which Chandler replied that he had no idea.” Myself, I don’t really care. It’s a great film. I’m not bothered by any loose ends.

The screenplay for The Big Sleep was written by William Faulkner (!), Jules Furthman, and Leigh Brackett. It’s interesting that Brackett would later write the screenplay for Altman’s The Long Goodbye, a rather different version of Philip Marlowe.

The music score was by Max Steiner, one of the greatest composers of film music.

The The Big Sleep was edited by Christian Nyby, who a few years later was the director of The Thing from Another World (1951). It’s generally assumed that Howard Hawks actually directed that film. I’m always rooting for the underdog, so as long as Nyby is the director of record, that’s who I’m going with.

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If it’s true that the popular Bogart persona was created in these three films, it’s also true that he was not limited to them. He was a real actor. At the start of this post I mentioned other films I thought he was great in. These include Sahara (1943), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), The African Queen (1951), and The Caine Mutiny (1954).

A heavy smoker and drinker, Bogart was diagnosed in early 1956 with esophageal cancer. He made one final film, The Harder They Fall, released in March of that year. I wish this had been included in Film Forum’s Bogart series, but you can’t have everything. Besides, it’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime. The Harder They Fall is a tough boxing film based on Budd Schulberg’s 1947 novel. Bogart plays Eddie Willis, a sportswriter out of a job when his newspaper folds. Financially strapped, he reluctantly goes to work for Nick Benko a terminally crass boxing promoter, played at full throttle by Rod Steiger. Benko has acquired Toro Moreno, an oversized lunk from Argentina with a decided lack of boxing skills. Through a series of fixed fights, Benko plans to sell Moreno to the public as a contender. He expects Eddie Willis to be instrumental in this.

Despite being very sick, Bogart gives a totally powerful performance as a man forced to go against his principles and integrity. In the following scene, he finally draws the line.

Humphrey Bogart died on January 14, 1957 at age 57. I was shocked when I realized how young he was.

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Just to show it wasn’t always a home run, here are two exceedingly strange films Bogart filmed in 1939: The Oklahoma Kid, a Western with James Cagney, and The Return of Doctor X, a horror film with Bogart as a mad scientist brought back from the dead. Indeed. Cagney and Bogart in films like these makes one wonder who could have thought it was a good idea. Though I’ve got to admit, Bogart looks pretty cool all dressed in black.

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Wikipedia entries:

Humphrey Bogart

Bogart filmography

The Maltese Falcon

Casablanca

The Big Sleep

The Harder They Fall

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Two books worth checking out: Noah Isenberg’s We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Film is an in-depth study of all aspects of the making of this film. The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin is an exhaustive critical biography of Lorre. Of particular interest are sections that deal with Lorre’s involvement in films with Humphrey Bogart.

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Here is a fairly insightful video that looks at Bogart’s most significant roles and what makes them tick. Running time is approximately eight minutes.

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That’s all for now. Until next time, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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3 Responses to Basic Bogart – Notes on Three Key Films

  1. Kimball Jones says:

    Good job, Ted! I love all three of these films. They are classic masterpieces.

  2. David M Fromm says:

    This was wonderful. A joy to read and remind one of great films.

  3. Vic Losick says:

    Excellent!

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