Talking Pictures

Fedora, Trench Coat, Cigarette, and Gun

Humphrey Bogart’s legacy as an unconventional heartthrob

By David Lehman | July 17, 2021
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, 1946
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, 1946

Humphrey Bogart was far from your conventional heartthrob. Not blessed with the looks of a Cary Grant or Gregory Peck, he was reliably good as a hoodlum or bootlegger, a Cagney sidekick in flicks of the ’30s, or an unlucky truck driver playing second fiddle to George Raft in Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940).

Not until he was 41 did Bogart become a leading man. In Walsh’s High Sierra, (1941), Bogart plays Roy Earle, nicknamed “Mad Dog,” an ex-con on the lam after a heist goes wrong. Roy dies on a mountaintop, but not before winning the love of Marie (Ida Lupino). Even Bosley Crowther, the film critic for The New York Times, with his astonishingly low batting average, had  good words for Lupino and Bogart: she was “impressive as the adoring moll,” and he displays “a perfection of hard-boiled vitality.” Then to confirm that, these concessions aside, Crowther was his usual self, he added, “As gangster pictures go—if they do—it’s a perfect epilogue.” The right word would have been prologue, as what followed was a whole new genre of crime and noir movies.

The role of Sam Spade, the hard-boiled private eye in The Maltese Falcon (1941)—Dashiell Hammett’s novel adapted by John Huston in his directorial debut—made Bogart’s reputation and accounts for the image many of us have of him today. The tough guy who won’t let Mary Astor play him for a sap and outwits the wonderful Warner Brothers trio of Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr., is, as he points out, not “as crooked as I’m supposed to be,” even as he joins in the hunt for the legendary priceless black bird, which turns out to be a fake.

A wide-brimmed fedora and belted trench coat are as vital to Bogart as top hat, white tie, and tails are to Fred Astaire. A lighted cigarette dangles from Bogey’s lips. He is quick with a quip, and when this is pointed out to him as if it were a fault, he replies, “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?” His voice conveys an aggressive world-weariness. It is difficult to impress him. He incorporates skepticism in the sound of his words. As he says in The Maltese Falcon, “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) proved decisive for Bogart. Beneath the veneer of cynicism lurked the romantic, capable of heroic self-sacrifice. Casablanca has its song (“As Time Goes By,” sung by Dooley Wilson), its famous dialogue (“We’ll always have Paris”), its war of the anthems (with “La Marseillaise” victorious), its virtuous resistance leader (Paul Henreid), its opportunistic Vichy inspector (Claude Rains), and its broken-hearted gin-joint owner in a white dinner jacket (Bogart). Enduring personal defeat for a worthy cause, Bogart is noble after all. He knows how to lose. Imagine having to give up Ingrid Bergman twice.

With his matchless ability to leer, wince, flash a fiendish grin, and blow his top, Bogart excelled as a paranoid or psychopath, whether cast as a homicidal painter married to Barbara Stanwyck (The Two Mrs. Carrolls, 1947) or a prospector in Mexico (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948). In Nicholas Ray’s noir classic In a Lonely Place (1950), Bogey plays an embittered Hollywood screenwriter, who may love Gloria Grahame but will, in a certain situation, tighten his wrists around her neck in a choke hold. In The Caine Mutiny (1954), Bogart is Captain Queeg of the U.S. Navy during World War II, who obsesses over strawberries and plays with marbles while metaphorically losing his own.

But it is Bogart as the detective hero, stripped of his illusions, equipped with a derisive wit, and handy with a gun, that defines his place in cinema history. He is especially attractive when paired with Lauren Bacall, whom he met on the set of To Have and Have Not (1944) and quickly married.

The best of the four Bogart-Bacall matchups is The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks, though the plot is even more incoherent than the Raymond Chandler novel on which it is based. Gumshoe Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is hired by old General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who is paying for a life of dissipation by having to sit all day, wrapped in scarves and robes, in an orchid hothouse. Marlowe must deal with the blackmail of the younger and wilder of the general’s two daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers), who, drugged silly, has been photographed in compromising positions by a pornographer.

The Big Sleep makes a point of Bogart’s attractiveness to women. Carmen “tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up,” as Marlowe remarks to General Sternwood. Playing the proprietor of a bookstore, Dorothy Malone tells Marlowe “you begin to interest me” in a splendid scene that culminates in her putting up a “closed” sign and pulling down the front-door shade while he pulls out a flask of rye. At a nightclub, two dolled-up waitresses vie for the right to convey a message to him a message.

What is most unusual about the romance between Marlowe and the older of the two Sherwood sisters, Vivian (Bacall), is that the plot requires the two to be on opposite sides of a quarrel, and yet, their attraction trumps all else. There’s a scene in Marlowe’s office in which Vivian, furious with him, calls the police to complain and then joins Marlowe in making fun of the cop on the line. In a café, Vivian asks Marlowe to drop the case—with the piano player in the background playing “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.” That job done, the pair can continue to flirt, in dialogue rife with sexy double entendres, and the piano player obligingly opts for a Rodgers and Hart love song, “Blue Room.”

We never find out who killed Owen Taylor, the Sternwoods’ chauffeur, though we do get to the bottom of another mystery that bedevils General Sherwood. What happened to his trusted employee, Rusty Regan, whom the general hired to “do his drinking for him”? Rusty is sleeping the big sleep, and nightclub big shot Eddie Mars’s wife has disappeared, and Marlowe has to disarm a room full of miscreants (“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains”), because … well, the reason is less important than the speed of the dialogue (“You’re the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail”) and the flair of the fashions: Bogart in tilted fedora, Bacall in a sheath dress and a mock turtleneck, or beret and hounds-tooth wool suit—both of them the essence of chic.

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