Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Fundamental Rules Apply

[Cross-posted over at New Critics.]

Humphrey Bogart is my personal, all-time favorite “Best Actor.” Before I knew who he was, I heard his name, I saw him depicted in Warner Brothers cartoons, and I heard his voice impersonated on sitcoms, variety shows and TV commercials. Humphrey Bogart was (and still is) the quintessential movie star.

I can’t remember which of his films I saw first, although the one that stands out in memory is John Huston’s “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” His flawless portrayal of Fred C. Dobbs, the drifter-turned-gold-prospector was a tour-de-force. We witness his transition from an affable down-on-his-luck gringo to a dangerous paranoid, and we believe every minute of it. I must have been around twelve or thirteen the first time I saw that one, and I remember feeling sorry for him, even after he turned against his friends. There is that moment where they band together to fight the bandits, and we are given a glimmer of hope that Dobbs may yet be redeemed, but in the end he is consumed by his greed. It is one of those memorable performances where each time I watch the film I find myself hoping that things will turn out for the best, in spite of the fact that I know they will not.

Bogart had a range that revealed itself over time. Originally typecast as a gangster from such memorable films as “The Petrified Forest,” “Dead End,” and “The Roaring Twenties” to name but a few, Humphrey Bogart transformed himself from the seminal Hollywood bad-guy into a truly versatile actor. He began playing roles with subtle complexities and contradictions that culminated in his first best-actor nomination for his brilliant portrayal of the seemingly out-for-himself club owner, Rick Blaine in 1943’s Best Picture, “Casablanca.” What can I add here that has not already been written hundreds of times? Obviously very little, but I would like to reiterate that the Academy made one of the biggest gaffes in the history of the Oscars when they handed the Best Actor award to Paul Lukas in 1943.

Humphrey Bogart did finally win the coveted award for his role as the quirky “Charlie Allnut” alongside Katherine Hepburn in 1951’s “The African Queen.” While it was long overdue, it was also well deserved, and not merely handed to him to make amends for past injustices. In that film, he did what he did best as an actor. He did what distinguishes great actors from the rest of them. He did it in “Casablanca,” and he did it in “Key Largo” as well: Humphrey Bogart had the ability to convince his audience through his characterizations that people can change. We can find the inner strength to go against our instincts for self-preservation and to break free from long-established patterns of behavior to rise to the occasion and do the right thing.

In the interest of brevity, I left out many aspects of his career upon which I could expand: His steamy, on-screen and real-life relationship with Lauren Bacall, his willingness to stand up to the big studio bosses and call the shots of his own career, and that unforgettable lisp that would have stopped any other actor dead in their tracks, but on him was somehow masculine and charismatic and actually added to his on-screen persona. And what about his stunning role as the traumatized and paranoid Captain Queeg from “The Caine Mutiny,” rambling on about strawberries on the witness stand, using “geometric logic” to prove that “there had to be a duplicate key” all the while playing with those not-so-subtle steel balls of his?

Speaking of Bacall, while all the movies he made with her were great, I think the one that is most often overlooked and underrated is “Dark Passage.” In addition to their fine performances, we get to see Agnes Moorhead conjure up some serious trouble years before she became famous to my generation as Endorra from “Bewitched.” If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth the effort.


Blogger XTCfan said...

A great thing about Bogie, too, is the fact that he was a walking demonstration that a guy doesn't have to be conventionally good-looking to get the hot girls. Confidence, attitude, intelligence and a sharp wit are usually enough, since most women are more able than men to get beyond the cover of whatever book is before them...

6:09 PM  
Blogger OutOfContext said...

One of my favorite uncelebrated movies is Beat the Devil, which, I believe, was an independent production by Bogart's newly formed production company. Not a perfect movie, by any means, but I find all the performances engaging, the writing very entertaining and Oswald Morris does some nice photography despite the fact that it was clearly not a big budget affair.

12:16 PM  

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