Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mug Shots #15: Humphrey Bogart aka Bogie

Consider for a moment the following list of films:

The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
In a Lonely Place
To Have and Have Not
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Key Largo
Dark Passage
The Enforcer
High Sierra
The African Queen
The Caine Mutiny

I would submit that this collection of films represents the single best run of performances by a male actor in the history of films. I love Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Robert Mitchum--each had legendary careers. But no one compiled a list of accomplishments like the one above.

Bogart had the good fortune to work with several top notch talents in their prime, an incomplete list of which would include Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Michael Curtiz, the Epstein Brothers,
Claude Rains, Ingrid Bergman, Nicholas Ray, Gloria Grahame, soul mate Lauren Bacall, and, of course, John Huston. Most importantly, however, Bogart managed to work with these people on A+ material. As if to prove how fickle greatness can be, he also worked with some of these same folks on crap as well (He, Rains and Curtiz followed up Casablanca with the forgettable Passage to Marseilles, for example), but the exceptions only demonstrate how hard it is to make a good movie, let alone a masterpiece. The best plan is to work hard and have good luck.

I discovered Bogart in high school and never again had to fake an interest in sports or cars. I was born again as a movie geek. The discovery of Bogart leads one deep into the mystery of cinema simply because he happened to be there a) at the center of Hollywood's Golden Age, and b) at the outset of its Noir Age. He's the pivotal figure in the overlap between the dream factory and it's postwar transformation into something darker. He died right about the time the studio system died.

He's one of the great noir actors--his best film is one of the greatest noirs of all, In a Lonely Place--but he was too heroic to really embody the noir ethos. For that you need Robert Mitchum. Bogart wouldn't play the sap for anyone. Mitchum had sap tattooed across his big handsome forehead. Michum, in other words, was an antihero.

Bogart was a hero in an antihero's trench coat. The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and Casablanca aren't just great movies, they're instruction for how to live a life of integrity and style. That Bogart didn't always live up to these principals in real life is as ultimately inconsequential as John Wayne's dodging military service. As human beings, they made mistakes and fell short. As actors, their job was to act. Make us laugh or cry or cringe or--this is the tough one--make us aspire to a certain code of behavior.

He explored his dark side in films like In A Lonely Place, The Two Mrs. Carrolls and The Treasure of Sierra Madre, but he was first and foremost "Bogie" a figure as heroic and iconic as John Wayne or Gary Cooper. He was more urban than Wayne or Cooper, more gritty than Cary Grant. He fit, in many ways, Chandler's conception of the character of Philip Marlowe (whom he played in The Big Sleep) the tarnished white knight.

As I mentioned before, Bogie made his share of bad films. Many people I respect will defend Dead Reckoning, but I consider it perhaps Bogart's worst film (and, yes, I'm counting the one where he's a fighter pilot, the one where he does judo and the one where he's a vampire). Often he gave good performances in mediocre films. 1954's The Caine Mutiny is overlong and dull, but Bogie's terrific as the cowardly Captain Queeg. Likewise, his breakout film, 1936's The Petrified Forrest, is a sluggish speechfest starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard, but the second Bogart turns up as a gangster on the lam he becomes the focus of every scene.
Every hardcore movie geek has their favorite B-list Bogart movie. The whole world loves Casablanca, but what separates the casual fan from the obsessive is knowing that The Enforcer is an underappreciated gem or knowing that Bogie is particularly good in the little seen anti-KKK drama Black Legion. My favorite b-list Bogart film, though, might be the WWII flick, Sahara in which he plays the commander of a tank squad in Africa. He and his boys end up having to defend an outpost against, oh, the entire German army. Spoiler: Bogart and his crew win. This is propaganda at its best.

The list goes on and on. An obsession with Bogart is a gift that keeps on giving.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The FNF Interview Archive

above: B&B on the set of Huston's Key Largo

Most classic noirs were made anywhere from sixty to seventy years ago. That means that with every passing day we lose more and more of the people who made these films. On August 8th, for instance, we lost the great Patrica Neal, star of Michael Curtiz's brilliant The Breaking Point.

Recently, the good folks over at the Film Noir Foundation have assembled a wonderful video archive of interviews with some the creators of classic noir. Highlights include Lauren Bacall talking about
Key Largo, Harry Belafonte on Odds Against Tomorrow, Rhonda Fleming and Richard Erdman on Cry Danger, as well interviews with noir experts like James Ellroy and Paul Schrader. (Coming soon is an interview with Coleen Gray, star of noirs like Nightmare Alley and The Killing) My favorite interview in the archive is a long discussion with writer Roy Huggins, the (today) little known and underappreciated creator of Too Late for Tears and Pushover.

I have high hopes that the FNF will continue adding to this resource in the coming days, months and years. Go over there and check it out.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Credit Where Credit is Due

above: John Garfield in He Ran All the Way

The blacklist of people suspected of harboring "un-American" attitudes or politics drove a lot of talent--especially writing talent--out of Hollywood in the late forties and early fifties. Still, movies need and writers, and writers have to work, so blacklisted talent like Dalton Trumbo and Carl Foreman either wrote under fake names or paid friends and/or colleagues to serve as 'fronts.'

In recent years, some of these writers have had credit given to them--often posthumously--on projects where they did most (sometimes all) of the writing. Here's a link to a list of corrected credits, many of them notable noirs.

For a case study of the Hollywood blacklist, here's a link to my essay on the making of He Ran All the Way, a noir at the center of the furor.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Noir City Chicago

Noir fans: if you live in Chicago, or if you're going to be in town August 13-19, you will not want to miss Noir City Chicago 2. The festival will be held at the beautiful Music Box Theater and will feature a collection of terrific films, many of them unavailable on DVD.

Some highlights:

City That Never Sleeps: This one has a goofy device (a ridiculous voiceover by, ahem, the city of Chicago itself) but it also features incredible location shooting in the Windy City, sexy Marie Windsor, and evil William Talman. Good stuff.

Nightmare Alley: Read my review of it here. In a nutshell, though, it's wonderful.

Gun Crazy: One of the best noirs ever made. Hell, one of the best movies ever made.

Cry of the City: vastly underrated and overlooked film from noir master Robert Siodmak. Character actress Hope Emerson steals the show as a murderous masseuse.

Drive a Crooked Road: If I could see only one of the films being shown at Noir City Chicago, it would be this overlooked masterpiece from director Richard Quine. It stars Mickey Rooney as a lonely mechanic taken in a group of thieves who need him as a getaway driver. This is a taut, touching film, beautifully acted and directed. It's not a famous film, and it's difficult to find, much less to see on the big screen. Go see it if you're in Chicago.

For more information about Noir City Chicago go to the Music Box Theater website.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Summer Reading

The Night Editor has picked up and moved from Washington, DC to the sunny shores of New Jersey. Never fear, however, the world is as dark as ever from where I'm sitting. Herein is a look at some of the reading I've been doing lately (some new, some old), all of which I highly recommend:

1. One Too Many Blows to the Head- JB Kohl and Eric Beetner-This is pure pulp from two writers who know how to work over a reader. Set in the underbelly of the thirties-era Kansas City boxing world, it's compulsive hardboiled reading--stylish and violent, yet sensitive to the nuances of character.

2. "Old Boys, Old Girls"-Edward P. Jones-I first came across this story in an Otto Penzler collection called Black Noir. The book is a superb compilation of stories by great crime writers like Walter Mosley and Chester Himes, but the shining jewel in the collection is the story of an ex-con named Caesar Matthews trying to deal with the fallout of his life after prison. The story is, by my lights, a perfectly constructed piece of short fiction. It seems to fit an entire world into a few pages. The author, Edward P. Jones, is one of the best writers working today. You can find the story in his collection All Aunt Hagar's Children. You can also read it online here.

3. Phoenix Nightlife-Jason Duke-If you've never checked out the site Crimewav to hear pulp authors read their work, then you should give it a try right now while they're rolling out a four part work by writer Jason Duke. This guy writes like the world is on fire; we're all gonna burn, but Duke is going to expunge a few demons before he's engulfed in flames.

4. Under the Banner of Heaven-Jon Krakuer-I've read this book three times now, and part of the reason I love it so much is the deft way Krakuer blends the story of two fundamentalist Mormon brothers accused of murdering their sister-in-law with a history of the Mormon church in America. No matter what feelings you have about Mormonism, or religion in general, this is a fascinating mix of true crime and history lesson.

Any suggestions for further summer reading?