How Humphrey Bogart Became an Icon: A Video Essay

Accord­ing to film the­o­rist David Bor­d­well, there was a major change in act­ing styles in the 1940s. Gone was the “behav­ioral act­ing” style of the 1930s (the first full decade of sound film), where men­tal states were demon­strat­ed not just through the face, but through body move­ment, and how actors just held them­selves. Instead, in the 1940s there is a “new inte­ri­or­i­ty, a kind of neu­tral­iza­tion, of the act­ing per­for­mance, that’s intense, almost silent film-style.”

Part of this is due to increas­ing­ly con­vo­lut­ed, psy­cho­log­i­cal nar­ra­tives, includ­ing lots of voice-overs. Some of it was also due to stu­dios hop­ing to achieve the psy­cho­log­i­cal depth of nov­el writ­ing.

In short, what­ev­er the rea­sons in the 1940s, we got to watch char­ac­ters think.

In Nerdwriter’s lat­est video essay, Evan Puschak exam­ines the icon of 1940s male act­ing: Humphrey Bog­a­rt, whose skill and oppor­tu­ni­ty placed him at the right place and the right time for such a shift in styles. Think of Bog­a­rt and you think of his eyes and yes, the many moments where the cam­era lingers on his face and…we watch him think.

In hind­sight it feels like he was wait­ing for this moment. Puschak picks up the tale with 1939’s The Return of Dr. X, which fea­tures a bad­ly mis­cast Bog­a­rt as a mad sci­en­tist. But the actor had spent most of the 1930s play­ing a selec­tion of bad guys, most­ly gang­sters. He was good at it. He was also a bit tired of the type­cast­ing.

Also tired of of play­ing gang­sters was George Raft, and that turned out to be good thing, because Raft turned down the lead role in the John Hus­ton-writ­ten, Raoul Walsh-direct­ed High Sier­ra. Hus­ton and Bog­a­rt were friends and drink­ing bud­dies, and it was their friend­ship, plus Bog­a­rt con­vinc­ing both Raft to turn down the role and Walsh to hire him instead, that led to a career break­through.

As Puschak points out, though Bog­a­rt was play­ing a gang­ster again, he brought to the char­ac­ter of Mad Dog Roy Earl a world-weari­ness and a vul­ner­a­ble inte­ri­or, and we see it in his eyes more than through his dia­log.

In the same year Bog­a­rt played pri­vate detec­tive Sam Spade in The Mal­tese Fal­con, also a role that George Raft turned down. Bog­a­rt brought over to the char­ac­ter the cyn­i­cism and cool­ness of his gang­ster roles; it feels repet­i­tive to say it was an icon­ic role, but it’s true—it’s a per­for­mance that rip­ples across time to every actor play­ing a pri­vate detec­tive, who are either bor­row­ing from it or riff­ing on it or turn­ing it on its head. You wouldn’t have Colum­bo. You wouldn’t have Breath­less either.

Did George Raft ever real­ize he was a sort of guardian angel for Bog­a­rt? Because for a third time, a role he turned down became a Bog­a­rt clas­sic: Rick Blain in Casablan­ca (1942). As Puschak points out, it’s a dif­fi­cult role as Rick is decid­ed­ly pas­sive and casu­al­ly mean for the first half, leav­ing peo­ple to their fate. It only works because we can see every deci­sion Rick makes roil­ing behind Bogart’s eyes, and we know that even­tu­al­ly he will break and do the right thing.

As he got old­er and the 40’s turned into the ‘50s, Bog­a­rt began to play with these kind of char­ac­ters. His prospec­tor in The Trea­sure of the Sier­ra Madre turns wild-eyed with greed and mad­ness; his writer in In a Lone­ly Place is sus­pect­ed of mur­der, and Bog­a­rt plays him ever so slight­ly mad that we won­der if he might even be a killer. It is one of Bogart’s most uncom­fort­able per­for­mances, tak­ing what had become famil­iar and friend­ly in his screen per­sona and twist­ing it.

He died in 1957, age 57, from the can­cer­ous effects of a life­time of smok­ing. What kind of roles might he have done if he had made it through the 60s and the 70s? Would the French New Wave direc­tors have hired him? Would Scors­ese or Alt­man or Cop­po­la? Again, we can only won­der.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Beat the Dev­il: Watch John Huston’s Campy Noir Film with Humphrey Bog­a­rt (1953)

Lau­ren Bacall (1924–2014) and Humphrey Bog­a­rt Pal Around Dur­ing a 1956 Screen Test

Jean-Paul Sartre Writes a Script for John Huston’s Film on Freud (1958)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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