Humphrey Bogart was never quite who or what he seemed to be.
Born to privilege, the son of a Manhattan physician and a successful illustrator, he would end up being known for his street-smart, tough guy roles. In real life, people assumed his cool, cocksure manner reflected confidence, but on a fundamental level he was surprisingly insecure.
Though he loved to needle people, he would do almost anything to avoid violence, including hiding under tables. And by all accounts, his surface cynicism, aloofness, and intolerance for anything or anyone "phony" served as a protective barrier to an uncommonly sensitive and caring soul.
He was also an unlikely candidate for success. Bogart was thrown out of most schools he attended for bad grades, bad behavior, or both. He fell into acting, a disreputable profession for the upper classes in those days, because he had few other options. He toiled for several years at Warner Brothers playing second fiddle to Cagney, Robinson, and Bette Davis, and in the mid-late thirties, few would have pegged him for star material. Yet today his visage, accompanied by the trademark cigarette and trench coat, may be more iconic than any other star from Hollywood's Golden Age, with the possible exception of John Wayne.
And somehow, most incongruous of all remains the fact that this scowling, sad-eyed actor, whose very being screamed rebellion, was born on Christmas Day. And yet it is so.
Bogart's film career was born largely due to Leslie Howard's generosity in pushing for him at a crucial juncture; his eventual stardom was attributable to George Raft's poor judgment in choosing (or rather, not choosing) roles, coupled with Warner production chief Hal Wallis's hunch that the forty year old supporting player could make the leap to star. Thankfully for us all, Raft was wrong, Howard and Wallis right.
What follows are my favorite under-exposed Bogie picks. I'm consciously omitting what are arguably his most famous "landmark" films: The Maltese Falcon,Casablanca,The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, Key Largo, and The African Queen, featuring Bogart's only Oscar-winning role, and a title which remains stubbornly unavailable on DVD.
The Petrified Forest (1936) -- A penniless, drifting writer (Leslie Howard) stops by a remote Arizona café run by the owner's restless daughter (Bette Davis). The two promptly fall in love over poetry, which only stimulates the girl's desperate desire to flee her dead-end existence. Then, all too suddenly, they and their motley group find themselves held captive by escaped killer Duke Mantee (Bogart). Reprising his role from Robert E. Sherwood's smash Broadway play, Howard plays the anguished intellectual to the hilt, especially in his scenes with the menacing, monotone Bogart, who modeled his Duke Mantee after celebrity criminal John Dillinger. Jack Warner had no interest in casting Bogie in the role that would solidify his screen career, but was convinced -- or perhaps blackmailed -- by Howard, who had played it with Bogie on Broadway, and owned the rights to the story. Davis also glows in an early role as the chipper, wide-eyed dreamer. Their spirited performances make this "Forest" anything but wooden.
Dead End (1937) -- Disguised by plastic surgery, wanted gangster Baby Face Martin (Bogart) returns to his old Manhattan neighborhood to look up his mother and former girlfriend. Living in the slum are Martin's old pal Dave (Joel McCrea), an out-of-work architect, and Drina (Sylvia Sidney), an impoverished beauty raising her kid brother. When Martin starts teaching the brother's local gang (the Dead End Kids!) some professional tricks, Dave intervenes, hoping to keep Drina's brother square with the law. Based on a hit play and scripted by Lillian Hellman, William Wyler's compelling fable of tenement life in the 1930s clicked as a hard-hitting social drama about class tensions and the origins of crime. Bogart scores a direct hit as the rotten Martin, though a scene with his disapproving mother shows a vulnerable side, too. McCrea and Sidney also carry their weight as the moral heart of Wyler's mean streets.
High Sierra (1941) -- Weary, aging gangster Roy "Mad Dog" Earle (Bogart) is enlisted in a hotel-robbery scheme after a close mobster friend springs him from prison. On his way to a rendezvous point, he meets and falls for farmer's daughter Velma (Joan Leslie). Meanwhile, Marie (Ida Lupino), his colleague's tough-as-nails girlfriend, develops a soft spot for Earle. Once the heist goes down, however, the attachments he's formed with the two women could bring about his downfall. Bogart was given a juicy breakout role here as a killer with a compassionate side. Young Lupino stands out too as Earle's feisty, loyal protector who can't win his love. Co-written by a young John Huston, High Sierra is a solid, flavorful entry for "Bogie-as-bad-guy" fans, boasting a slam-bang finish.
Sahara (1943) -- In the Second War, after the fall of Tobruk in Libya, Sgt. Joe Gunn (Bogart) and his remaining men retreat in their tank across the blistering desert, picking up more straggling allies and two POWs along the way. Finally, they reach a fortress which holds a limited quantity of that most crucial substance: water. When a superior German force arrives, the enemy is desperate enough to offer an exchange of food for water. Gunn's challenge is to hold them off until British reinforcements arrive. This gutsy WWII actioner vividly evokes the particular risks and hazards of desert warfare, while showcasing Bogie in his prime, on the front lines of battle. Suspenseful and smart, "Sahara" is a distinctive, overlooked war film that makes you thirsty for more.
To Have And Have Not (1944) -- Harry Morgan (Bogart), an American skipper in Martinique during the World War II, seems like the self-interested type, but ultimately shows his true colors by aiding the Free French. Still, this risky bit of intrigue feels like mere pretext for the smoldering romance that ignites between Morgan and alluring chanteuse Marie (Lauren Bacall, then just 19).Reportedly, director Howard Hawks bet Ernest Hemingway he could make a great movie out of his worst novel. The author took the bet. Once you watch To Have, you'll know Hawks won. The film remains a gripping adventure tale with stand-out performances from the stars and supporting players Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael. But above all, it's very much a romance: don't miss that famous "Just Whistle" scene. (Bogie and Bacall fell in love on-set, and married soon after the production wrapped).
The Big Sleep (1946) -- Private investigator Philip Marlowe (Bogart) gets tangled in a seedy web of murder and vice when he's hired by a wealthy scion to investigate a pornographer with incriminating photos of his daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Marlowe finds the man dead, and eventually teams with the general's other daughter, Vivian (Bacall), who assists him in some highly unpleasant detective work. Scripted by William Faulkner from Raymond Chandler's complex detective novel, The Big Sleep is a Hollywood puzzler of the highest order. Bogart famously cemented his gritty persona tackling the role of Chandler's shamus protagonist, Philip Marlowe, co-starring again alongside young wife Bacall. "Sleep" piles up so many twists, turns, and bodies that ultimately you can't tell who killed whom -- neither, apparently, could Chandler -- but the Bogart-Bacall star wattage and Howard Hawks's expert direction make it so you really don't care.
In A Lonely Place (1950) -- Volatile screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) finds himself in hot water, needing to clear himself of a murder. Sultry Gloria Grahame is Laurel Gray, the fetching helpmate and love interest in a story that exposes the darker, rougher edges around Tinseltown. Nicholas Ray's tingling drama defines what a great whodunit should be. The anger within Bogart's character melds perfectly with the actor's own dark persona. And Grahame is always fascinating to watch, both for her unique allure and nuanced acting. Probing, literate and atmospheric, this is one "Place" worth seeking out.
The Caine Mutiny (1954) -- Based on Herman Wouk's sprawling novel, Mutiny tells of the neurotic, inflexible Captain Queeg (Bogart), a career officer whose men relieve him of command when he supposedly falters in guiding his ship through a perilous typhoon. Once on terra firma, Queeg ensures the men get court-martialed for mutiny. Then, as the trial progresses, the sad truth is gradually revealed. But in the end, is justice done? This stunning production stands as one of our finest war films-and courtroom dramas. A trio of memorable performances keep it afloat: an Oscar-nominated Bogart in one of his best turns as the embattled Queeg; Jose Ferrer, who almost steals the picture as a whip-smart defense lawyer; and finally, Fred MacMurray, superb in the unsympathetic part of a cowardly Lieutenant. All hands on deck for this smart, salty classic.
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