Bogart: one of film's genuinely greatest actors Stereotypes: Two new books help reveal the icon's immense artistry.


April 13, 1997|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,sun staff

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.

Passion, restraint

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.

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