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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