Though Humphrey Bogart is a cult figure today, popularity came relatively late in his career as an actor. Trained on the stage, he spent a decade in mostly "B" movies for Warner Brothers Studio before becoming a star with "High Sierra" (1940) and "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). Astonishingly, Bogart was offered these roles only after George Raft turned them down, but once Bogart achieved success in these movies his career rose steadily.
Soon after his death in 1957, Bogart became an unconventional hero in the United States and Europe. His world-weary, morally ++ ambiguous character reflected the attitudes of the 1960s and made him a favorite in campus film societies. In the early 1970s, Woody Allen paid him homage with "Play it Again, Sam," and television commercials re-created blurred images of Bogart to sell Venetian blinds, khaki pants and airline tickets.
From the late 1970s, videocassettes provided millions of new viewers with their first look at Bogart's most famous films. In 1996, Entertainment Weekly produced a special issue ranking the 100 greatest movie stars of all time. Bogart was No. 1.
But after 40 years of cult status, the tough-guy Bogart image has become overexposed. It's as if he had been born wearing a trenchcoat, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
What's been overlooked in the hype is that Humphrey Bogart is one of the greatest screen actors of all time.
Fortunately, two new biographies - "Bogart: A Life in Hollywood" by Jeffrey Myers (Houghton Mifflin, 369 pages, $30) and "Bogart" by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax (William Morrow & Co., 648 pages, $27) - examine his life as much in terms of his artistic achievements as of his screen image.
Unlike John Wayne, the other iconic figure from Hollywood's golden age, Bogart was an actor who sought and played diverse roles. Wayne's cult status is based on his authority-figure image; he is a symbol of American manly virtue.
Garry Wills' "John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity" (Simon & Shuster, 380 pages, $26) contends that Wayne's screen persona reflected his political views: conservatism, patriotism and the need for individual responsibility. But despite the greatness of some of the movies Wayne starred in - "The Searchers," "Red River," "Fort Apache" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" - he was a one-dimensional actor with limited range. Bogart was a multi-dimensional actor with wide range.
Bogart's first great movie performance was in "The Petrified Forest" (1936). Previous screen gangsters created by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney were hyperkinetic but Bogart's gangster, Duke Mantee, created an air of menace by speaking quietly and moving deliberately.
In "A Life in Hollywood," Myers documents how success in "The Petrified Forest" trapped Bogart in inferior variations of the gangster motif. Typecasting left him bitter and resentful. "I'm sick to death of being a one-dimensional character," he complained. However, because George Raft was such a poor judge of scripts (he turned down "Casablanca" as well as as "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon"), Bogart finally got the chance to work with quality material.
He played a gangster again in "High Sierra," but the "Mad Dog" Roy Earle character was more realistically drawn and emotionally complex. Beginning as a hardened killer, he evolves into a man who regrets the past, aspires to a better life and is capable of compassion. Despite a trite subplot involving Earle's involvement with a crippled girl, Bogart's performance rang absolutely true.
Director John Huston created a new kind of role for Bogart as private eye Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon." As an isolated man hounded by the police as he deals with a group of sophisticated criminals, Bogart brought a hard-broiled seriousness to the part, and his ironic humor was a perfect foil for brilliant supporting character actors. His cool rejection of the duplicitous Mary Astor character is a triumph of both passion and restraint.
The plot, dialogue and music of "Casablanca" (1943) are so familiar that it's easy to overlook individual scenes. But there are subtle examples of Bogart's acumen. When the Rick Blaine character sees Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) for the first time in his cafe, his eyes go misty and his face twitches in pain. Later that night, drinking and brooding about the past, Rick's emotional reserve breaks down. As he slurs his words ("If she can stand it, I can stand it. Play it."), he bangs the table with his fist and grabs his head in pain. (Bogart never said, "Play it again, Sam.")
"To Have and Have Not" (1945) and "The Big Sleep" (1946) are linked with Bogart's real-life romance with and marriage to co-star Lauren Bacall. But for Bogart the actor, "The Big Sleep" role represented a new level of spontaneity and improvisation. It showcased Bogart as Raymond Chandler's private eye Philip Marlowe.
Though the plot was often incomprehensible and its exposition inconsistent, "The Big Sleep" became a classic example of postwar film noir. Bogart's Marlowe displays a consistent sense of humor with an undertone of contempt. He flirts with Vivian (Bacall), her nymphomaniac sister Carmen (Martha Vickers) and with the prim bookstore girl (Dorothy Malone). The Philip Marlowe character has been variously portrayed for years in cinema, but Bogart remains the archetype.
Though by this time Bogart had become Warner Brothers' most popular and profitable actor, he still was offered mostly imitative parts. So when John Huston invited Bogart to appear in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), he jumped at the chance. The role of Fred C. Dobbs, a disheveled and depraved drifter who teams up with two gold prospectors, was unusual for a major Hollywood star. Sperber and Lax note in their book that Bogart called Dobbs "a loathsome character," but embraced the role anyway.
"Treasure" is a gripping fable about the effects of man's greed. Bogart transports Dobbs from an unmotivated loser to a paranoid killer by film's end. The scene in which Dobbs becomes suspicious of his partners is unforgettable.
Bogart then starred as an embittered but honorable screenwriter in director Nicholas Ray's "In a Lonely Place" (1949), the least-known great Bogart performance. His character has a pathological streak of violence, writer's block and trouble with alcohol. He falls in love with a younger woman who temporarily stabilizes his life, but his mania destroys their love. Myers points out that the role mirrored some of the traumatic events of Bogart's early married life and his frustrations with Hollywood. It is his bravest and most personal work.
"The African Queen" (1951) is Bogart's most popular film, and next to "Casablanca," his best known. Books and movies have documented the making of the film, directed by John Huston and co-starring Katharine Hepburn. Bogart won his only Oscar for his performance as hard-drinking Charlie Allnutt, who takes his battered boat down an uncharted East African river during World War I.
Bogart's last great performance was in "The Caine Mutiny" (1954) as the paranoid Navy commander, Captain Queeg. He made the character sympathetic and even noble admid a nervous breakdown and disgrace.
More than 40 years later, Bogart's enduring popularity is not based on devotion to a particular persona, but is based on his talent, work ethic and ironic awareness.
After a yearlong battle with cancer, Humphrey Bogart died on Jan. 14, 1957. John Huston's eulogy, recounted in the two biographies, said simply: "He is quite irreplaceable. There will never be another like him."
Paul Moore is the supervising editor of the Sunday and Monda editions of The Sun. He is a serious fan and collector of movies from the 1930s and 1940s.
Pub Date: 4/13/97