Whatever the secret ingredient is that fuels 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.
Long typecast in ‘tough guy’ roles, Bogart also acquired a not entirely undeserved offscreen reputation for hard-drinking and hell-raising. But he did have a thoughtful, even sentimental side. As Steven Bogart notes in his quietly impassioned foreword to this book, he 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.
Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart
Richard Schickel and George Perry
(Thomas Dunne Books)
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 reached their lowest ebb, and his sardonic humor 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 30 pounds in weight which I am sure some of you could spare.”
So it would be interesting to get Bogart’s take on today’s rapidly changing media, particularly the ongoing tussle between the traditional print outlets and the burgeoning world of amateur online critics. Esteemed film critic Richard Schickel, who supplies the first of two main essays for this book, recently stuck his elitist oar into the turbulent waters of the debate, lamenting the ‘hairy chested populism’ of the bloggers, suggesting that anyone who writes without being paid must be stupid, and issuing the imperious decree that criticism is an inherently undemocratic activity. Bloggers cannot hope to be taken seriously, Schickel suggests, because they have no critical pedigree, and enthusiasm for the subject is not enough: “We need to see their credentials. And they need to prove, not merely assert, their right to an opinion.”
Well, this book has not been written by bloggers. Schickel is joined by his colleague George Perry, former (London) Sunday Times Film Editor, who supplies a chronological overview of Bogart’s films. Neither, it must be said, can be accused of succumbing to an excess of enthusiasm for their subject. Perry’s film write-ups seldom aspire to more than a notch above a TV guide listing, and his turgid, archaic writing style makes for an oddly dispiriting read. It’s a superficial, lacklustre account of Bogart’s career, remarkable only in its inexplicable inability to find anything much to say about one of the more enduringly intriguing figures in the history of film.
Schickel on the other hand has plenty of opinions, but his tone can be a touch pompous, and he tends to hammer his points over and over, pounding the reader into submission. He repeatedly pours scorn on the notion, popularised in the 1960s, of Bogart as existential hero, and feels Bogart’s posthumous cult status is based on audience misapprehension. He flatly states that Bogart was an alcoholic, and sanctimoniously notes how cancer of the oesophagus “so often takes people who combine alcohol and tobacco in prodigious amounts.” He also seems to be fairly obsessed with class and ‘breeding’, seeing Bogart as a ‘declassed gentleman’ who so often found himself playing roles far below his rightful station.
Bogart 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 cruelest 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 labor 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 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.
The Big Sleep
Alternating currents of sweet and sour course through The Big Sleep. Film historian 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.” While making the film, Bogart and Bacall were consolidating the love affair they’d begun on set of Hawks’s earlier classic, To Have and Have Not. Their romance prompted Jack Warner to send a memo down to the Big Sleep set, 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, what Schickel calls “something appraising in his eyes, a weariness and a wariness.” 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, and as Schickel rightly says, by the time of Casablanca in 1943, the “sense he conveys of having seen it all and heard it all” was persuasive enough to make him seem “instinctively at home with his character” of Rick.
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 (a ridiculously short excerpt from which is tacked on to the end of this book), 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 fretter, the weight of the world on his shoulders but still able to shrug; interested in first editions, but a collector of ‘blondes and 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 hungover cactus—sometimes both at once.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Towards the end of his life, Bogart 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. Schickel remarks on this paranoid streak, acknowledging that it may have been a factor in attracting a 1960s college audience to Bogart’s films, offering the curmudgeonly suggestion that this sense of paranoia and suppressed rage “chimed persuasively with the inchoate anger that underlay the youth culture of the 60s.”
But Schickel does make an intriguing connection to 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 ‘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 tinpot 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. You might say they had ‘no pedigree’. 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, of which George Perry gives a reductive, slightly misleading account. He even seems to be 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 learn that some of the Ten actually were Communists. As Alistair Cooke put it, he had assumed “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 humor 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.”
And this is not only key to an understanding of Bogart, it also goes to the heart of what’s missing from this book. There’s an apocryphal story about a young film student, working on a thesis about 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, he replies “Oh sure, yeah ... 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 neither Schickel nor Perry ever seem to be enjoying themselves very much. 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).” There’s no hint of such enthusiasm here.
There’s also a curious absence of any appreciation of the little details which make 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 20 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 cherishable ‘little pieces of time’, often showcasing his wide range of unusually beguiling quirks and 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.
He could do bravura set-pieces, and deliver those unforgettable, endlessly-rewindable rhythmic blasts of staccato dialog: the ‘stenographer’ speech in Falcon; Queeg’s ballbearing-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 masterclass 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 unrivaled 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.”
The final element inexplicably missing here is any mention (never mind analysis) of the timeless quality Bogart has acquired. This failure is prefigured in the book’s cover image, a horrible soft-focus, sepia-toned version of a 1939 publicity shot, not only an unrepresentative choice in terms of Bogart’s career, but one totally at odds with his status as a thoroughly modern icon. He 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, even 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 ‘40s and ‘50s 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.
Well, this is ultimately a coffee-table book, and if we don’t get much from the text, at least we’ll always have photos, right? And here they are, the vast majority of them familiar to anyone who’s flicked through some old Bogart books (or browsed the dreaded Web). They’re sumptuously, if unimaginatively, presented—this book is never going to win any design awards. But taken on their own terms, a few do stand out, especially when reproduced at this size: the heartbreaking shot of Bogart and Bacall saying goodbye to an infant Steven, Bogart leaning out of his car to kiss the boy, the enormous Jaguar looking like something from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; the Bogarts leading the CFA delegation through Washington, when they spoke truth to power but got shouted down; a frail-looking, half-naked Bogart on the set of The African Queen, Bacall looking on attentively; Bogart bicycling through the Warners lot, hand plunged nonchalantly into his pocket.
Best of all is a shot taken during the making of The Big Sleep, Bogart still in his Marlowe clothes, leaning away from the bank of soundstages at his back to light a cigarette for Bacall who’s sitting on the steps outside her dressing room. It’s a photograph which not only speaks of that seductive meld of fantasy and reality that was the Bogart-Bacall romance, but is also, on a technical level, close to being compositionally perfect. It would make a great poster.
There are plenty of welcome opportunities here to gaze in wonder at the otherworldly, almost vampiric beauty of Lauren Bacall. But what strikes you over and over again is that fabulous Bogart face. Gloria Graeme tells a sceptical police captain in In a Lonely Place—probably the best film Hollywood ever made about its favorite 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.” And we have to give Bogart the benefit of the doubt, that his gallows humor would allow him to appreciate the fact that Publisher’s Weekly hailed this book as being issued “to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Humphrey Bogart’s 1957 death.” Something not quite right there, surely?
He certainly retained his sense of humor 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.”
Overall, this book comes across like an opportunity not so much missed as disdained. With only a few very minor adjustments, it could just as easily have been published 40 years ago. It would have been nice, for example, to have had some discussion of the influence exerted by Bogart over successive generations of actors and filmmakers, or how his 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. Instead of putting together such a staid, old-fashioned production, bloated with coffee-table prose, the publishers could have given us a truly interesting book if they’d commissioned some shorter pieces from a range of modern-day filmmakers. We can only imagine what the likes of, say, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, or the Coens might have had to say on the subject of Bogart. Or, better yet, someone like Jack Nicholson, with whom he shared an aura of ineffable cool.
If old establishment warhorses like Schickel want to dim the tide of new media blood, they’ll have to do better than this. Now, only a madman could deny that the Internet is awash with oceans of time-wasting rubbish; but stern critics of ‘the blogosphere’ such as Schickel often overlook the fact that there are occasional whitecaps of worthwhile content. There are, for example, a number of very fine literary blogs out there. Conversely, while the traditional print media may adhere to certain standards which (in theory at least) guarantee a reasonably high average in terms of quality and reliability, anyone reading an article in the mainstream press, about a subject which they have a keen interest in, and concomitant level of knowledge of, can often find it a sobering experience.
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 photo here, which typically for the offhand way in which attribution of images is handled in this book, is 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 something the human spirit can only withstand by regarding it with 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 caking of make up. Bogart’s cheerful stoicism notwithstanding, we could surely forgive him just a little flicker of a wince as this book goes fluttering by.