Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Humphrey Bogart
Why it’s daunting: Bogart made his first movie in 1928 and worked steadily up until his death in 1957, but didn’t become a star until well into his career, which means his filmography is littered with no-big-deal character roles and false-start attempts to turn him into a leading man. Once Bogart finally found his “type”—gruff and worldly, true to his actual background as a silver-spoon baby who hated the pretensions of his class—he inhabited it so fully that it’s hard to imagine anyone but Bogart playing the parts he played. But even that type can take some adjustment for modern moviegoers, given the peculiar way Bogart combined mannered movie star charm with sweaty intensity, bridging the gap between William Powell and Marlon Brando.
Possible gateway: Director Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film noir In A Lonely Place.
Why: Bogart had fruitful relationships with multiple directors who knew how to use him well: Raoul Walsh captured Bogart’s rough-hewn side in movies like They Drive By Night and High Sierra; Michael Curtiz played up his romantic side in Casablana; Howard Hawks emphasized his rakishness in To Have And Have Not and The Big Sleep; and John Huston made Bogart out to be a clever fellow with a seamy underbelly in The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. But Bogart fit especially well with Ray, a director drawn to material that removed the buffers between genre-driven plots and their chilly psychological origins.
In the brittle In A Lonely Place, Ray and screenwriters Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt (adapting a Dorothy B. Hughes novel) cut to the marrow, exposing the existential dread and gaudy displays of power that have always been in the bones of these kinds of stories. In A Lonely Place is a witty and often excruciatingly bleak portrait of a likable loser who gradually reveals the full extent of his occasional dark moods. Bogart plays a struggling, smart-alecky screenwriter who takes on a hack adaptation job and becomes a murder suspect when the woman he hires to help him turns up dead. Bogart investigates the crime himself, in part to get the police off his back, in part to impress pretty neighbor Gloria Grahame, and in part because he knows his own temper and tendency to drink, and he’s not entirely convinced that he didn’t commit the crime. Bogart remains a sympathetic character right up to the moment when he loses it and becomes a physically repulsive brute. It’s a fully fleshed-out role for Bogart, and one common to the work of Ray, who often risked unnerving his audience by giving them characters to identify with before illustrating how deeply screwed-up they—and we—are.
Next steps: Where else should you land next but Casablanca, a prime candidate for the Hollywood movie? Bogart is at his most iconic as hard-bitten expatriate American Rick Blaine, who lets his latent patriotism and his love for an old flame draw him into a plot against the Nazis he once swore didn’t concern him. Made in 1942 during the thick of World War II, Casablanca encapsulates a specific change in America’s view of itself in the early ’40s. The lumpen Bogart makes an apt representative of a country struggling to keep its cool while transcending the circumstances in which it found itself.
From there, it’s best to proceed backwards, tracing what shaped the Bogart of Casablanca. Start with The Maltese Falcon, made the year before, which has Bogart stepping into the role of Dashiell Hammett’s private eye Sam Spade as he cagily plays the angles against two of his future Casablanca co-stars, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. It’d be a stretch to think of The Maltese Falcon as a stealth Casablanca prequel, but it does reflect—at least a little bit—a pre-war mentality, as Bogart the American keeps an eye on the squabbling foreigners and tries to figure out how best to take advantage. Also in 1941, Bogart starred in Walsh’s 1941 gangster film High Sierra, playing a decent, gentlemanly armed robber who’s a sucker for the fragile beauty of clubfooted teenager Joan Leslie, in a movie that pays as much attention to post-Depression domestic tensions and financial woes as it does to its stunning final mountainside shootout.
High Sierra director Raoul Walsh also helmed the 1940 social study They Drive By Night, which features Bogart as the luckless brother and partner of short-haul trucker George Raft, dealing with rented trucks, shoddily secured loads, unsafe highways, and graveyard shifts. They Drive By Night has a rich plot, a wonderfully bizarre climax, and a strong evocation of workingman blues, though Raft’s proto-Bogart moves suffer some with the actual Bogart glowering alongside. In Walsh’s masterful 1939 crime epic The Roaring Twenties, Bogart plays a WWI army buddy of James Cagney, a luckless fellow who falls into bootlegging by happenstance and gets his comeuppance because of his pals. The Roaring Twenties feels like a grand summation of the whole gangster genre, with a greater emphasis on the nuts and bolts of bootlegging, and an explanation of how the rackets expanded right up until the end of Prohibition, when organized crime got wrenched away from the amateurs.
Wrapping up the early Bogies, both the 1936 thriller The Petrified Forest and the 1932 melodrama Three On A Match are vehicles for other stars—Bette Davis, mainly—but are nonetheless entertaining, and good examples of how Bogart was used when he first came to Hollywood, as a bruising, dangerous “hood” type, with little additional complexity.
After winding your way back from Casablanca, next see what came after, starting with director Howard Hawks’ 1944 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have And Have Not, which screenwriters Jules Furthman and William Faulkner fashion into a mini-Casablanca. Bogart plays a Martinique fishing-boat captain who runs a rescue operation for the well-paying French resistance, while Lauren Bacall plays a con-artist lounge singer who smolders one moment and resembles a gawky teenager the next. Hawks runs through his standard obsession with communities of risk-taking men and the women who can’t help but love them. The plot’s a plugger and the characters are sketchy, but the spoken words are the music to which Bogart and Bacall fall in love, onscreen and off.
The duo married the following year, then re-teamed for The Big Sleep in 1946 and Dark Passage in 1947. The former (also directed by Hawks) has Bogart playing another classic detective, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and illustrating how the world had evolved in the years since The Maltese Falcon. The plot and moral underpinnings in The Big Sleep are murkier, while Bogart is at once lustier and more cynical, expecting the worst even from the women he beds. Dark Passage (written and directed by Delmer Daves) is usually ranked as the least of the Bogart-Bacall collaborations, but it’s a practically perfect little noir exercise, with Bogart as a prison escapee tracking his wife’s killer. Daves shoots the film’s first half through the protagonist’s eyes, a gimmick that implicates the audience. Once the character has plastic surgery and emerges as Humphrey Bogart, the film reverts to a more conventional style, though it maintains a pervasive sense of inescapable guilt as Bogart is continually forced to answer benign questions that he fears will reveal his true identity.
Bogart became John Huston’s go-to guy between 1948 and 1953, appearing in four of the eight movies Huston made in those five years. The best of the batch is The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, where buried gold comes and goes as quickly as the wealth and status it represents to three destitute Americans (played by Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt). A parable about the dark side of capitalism, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre suggests that the pursuit of money ultimately leads to betrayal, resentment, and death. Huston’s next-best Bogart collaboration is The African Queen, which has Bogart playing a crude Canadian riverboat captain opposite prim evangelist Katharine Hepburn, and revealing previously untapped stores of ingenuity and sensitivity as the two float inexorably toward their fate. And though it’s not for everyone, Huston’s sly satire Beat The Devil (written with Truman Capote) shows off Bogart’s puckish seen-it-all persona as it mocks and torches the conventions of the international caper film.
Bogart died in 1957, right as Hollywood was exploring realism via docu-dramas, kitchen-sink stories, socially conscious morality plays, and method acting. So Bogart never got the full benefit of that era, though he made a few movies that showed just how neatly he would’ve fit in. In A Lonely Place was one, as was Nicholas Ray’s Knock On Any Door, where Bogart plays a rags-to-riches lawyer who takes an interest in the case of young hoodlum John Derek, and makes a plea before the court that indicts the social conditions that breed delinquents. It’s a powerful courtroom drama, and almost an apology for the roles Bogart played in the ’30s. Bogart then went out strong with director Mark Robson’s 1956 sports-noir The Harder They Fall (written by Philip Yordan from a Budd Schulberg story), playing a down-on-his-luck sportswriter who becomes a publicist for a palooka who doesn’t know that most of his opponents have been paid to take a dive. The movie isn’t just Bogart’s farewell to acting; it’s his farewell to the whole demimonde that he spent so much of his movie career representing, and a testament to the idea that people can change.
Where not to start: Bogart made a fine heavy in the ’30s, and his villain-strewn résumé made him a different kind of war hero in the ’40s and ’50s, but the actor never really fit in when he was asked to visit the Old West. Steer clear of westerns like Virginia City and The Oklahoma Kid, which have Bogart donning a black hat to trouble the equally unlikely likes of Errol Flynn and James Cagney. He may have been the quintessential American type of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, but the frontier was never Bogart’s home.