Bogart. Bogie. Bogey. No matter how you spell it, it only ever signifies one thing: the cynical, hard-bitten, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking wiseguy. The guy who’ll help you out of a jam but only as long as he doesn’t have to stick his neck out too far. The guy who’ll go up against the district attorney if he has to, who has friends in the Police Department but who is contemptuous of authority, the guy who hangs out in smoky dive bars, at the race track or in the sweaty locker room of seedy gyms, where he knows everyone and trusts few, who doesn’t really care much for money, who’s often a few dollars short but who’ll go a few dollars shorter if there’s a dame involved, who chases skirt the way some guys chase money, whose sense of honour and chivalry is murky, the guy who knows the score and who has seen all the angles. It’s probably hard to imagine Bogart without a cigarette. In a famous essay by Annie Leclerc, she talks about “the Humphrey Bogart cigarette.” It’s “the cigarette of the cop, the journalist, the bad guy, the man in the know.” Bogie and smoking are still synonymous. It is hard to summon his face without seeing it wreathed in smoke. Indeed, he smoked in every movie he was in, even when it made filming difficult. On the set of The Barefoot Contessa, director Joseph Mankiewicz had to redo several scenes and cut them around and between Bogart’s coughing fits. Even more than his smoking, though, was his thirst. His drinking bouts were legendary: he famously declared “the whole world is three drinks behind.” He was the original leader of the Rat Pack, which used to be called The Freeloaders Club and convened at the Bogart-Bacall house (original members included David Niven, Richard Burton, Noel Coward, John Huston, and Frank Sinatra).
Bogie’s smoking, his slight lisp, his facial tic: these are the elements of the Bogie persona. Not everyone liked them: co-star Marius Goring was dismissive of Bogart’s mannerisms – the tight smile, the tiny snarl in his voice, the little cheek tremor to show suppressed rage – he called him “Humphrey Bogus”. Although many associate Bogart with Casablanca, my first thoughts are his portrayals of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. The two detectives share much in common: both are born cynics with an eye for the ladies, and both know how to skirt the Law when necessary.
Both Spade and Marlowe are clever, jaded, worldly types who don’t frighten easily, and who don’t shed tears. Spade’s reaction to his partner’s murder is to tell his secretary to keep the man’s widow away from him, and to immediately change the name of the firm on the window. Both have their share of friends and enemies in the police department, both are at ease in the shadowy circles that private eyes move in. And both seem to be aggressively homophobic. Marlowe impersonates a prissy, lisping queen in The Big Sleep; Spade relishes smacking the effete Joel Cairo around. “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and you’ll like it.”
But there is one crucial difference: Spade seems to enjoy his work a whole lot more. This may be simply because it was Humphrey Bogart’s first proper starring role, and he wanted to make the most of it. After years of playing villains and henchmen, he got to be the lead, and the good guy. It worked. The role firmly established the Bogey persona and his star status. He’s smart, tough, cynical, funny, and he has his own moral code. Bogart only got the part after George Raft turned it down. He didn’t want to work with a first-time director. Raft also turned down the role of Rick in Casablanca. Hollywood can be cruel when she’s been spurned not once, but twice: Raft died penniless in 1980. The Maltese Falcon is one of those perfect films where everything came together at just the right moment to make magic. It was a hit with critics (“the first crime melodrama with finish, bang and speed to come along in what seems like ages”), and audiences, which surprised a lot of the studio brass. Dashiel Hammett’s detective novel had been filmed twice before; Warner Brothers felt they’d made their money on it and didn’t have high expectations of first-time director John Huston. But the cinema gods smiled upon the project, and the script, photography, performances and direction all clicked to make one of the smartest and most enjoyable detective films in Hollywood history. At several points in the film Bogart smiles a little self-satisfied grin, clearly having a wonderful time playing one crook against the other. And with crooks like these, who can blame him? There is Brigid O’Shaughnessy, alias Miss Wonderly, who sets the whole plot in motion. She is played by a brittle Mary Astor. At first she comes across as coy, faltering and nervous: Huston made her run around the set before takes so she’d be breathless. When Spade cottons on to her real character, she relaxes, but only in the way a cobra might seem to relax while watching its prey. He still falls for her (but just a little – that’s another difference between Spade and Marlowe; Spade doesn’t seem to be as much of a relentless hound). Then there is Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the man whose calling card is scented with gardenia, whose hair is permed, who wears a dapper little suit, and speaks in a thin, high voice. When he’s not attempting charm, he’s wheedling, and sometimes he does both at the same time. Woody Allen tells a joke that The Maltese Falcon was the first Bogart movie he saw, and “I identified immediately with Peter Lorre. The impulse to be a snivelling, effeminate, greasy little weasel appealed to me enormously.” O’Shaughnessy and Cairo both speak in mysterious tones about “the fat man”, Kasper Guttman (Sydney Greenstreet), who doesn’t show up till almost the third act. Guttman is the sort of villain you would like to have as a dinner guest. He has a rich, booming voice, an expansive manner and an irresistible gregarious charm. He chortles appreciatively at Spade’s clever tricks. He enjoys everything enormously. ‘Enormously’ is the best word: Greenstreet was well over three hundred pounds (Warner Brothers had to custom-tailor his suit, and Huston shoots him from low angles, so you simply can’t ignore his gut).
Guttman is accompanied by a querulous hired gun, Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a petty hood, a “gunsel”. Audiences thought that was just street-talk for “hoodlum”. It was, but it was also a derogatory word for a homosexual, and it’s clear that the relationship between Guttman and his bodyguard is complex. Listen to how Bogart snarls the word and you’ll appreciate how homophobic Spade is. The Maltese Falcon is a remarkably talky film. The dialogue has been lifted pretty much verbatim from Hammett’s novel. There is little “action” and there are in fact very few scenes. The final scene lasts more than twenty minutes, and within that there’s a seven-minute take (almost unheard-of at the time). Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, storyboarded every shot, and the result is an efficiently and thoughtfully directed film (something you can’t say about a lot of Huston’s later films.) There are a lot of low-angle shots that emphasise the claustrophobic atmosphere of the rooms. The camera is frequently just behind Bogart’s shoulder, so the audience can identify with him as he tries to solve the puzzle. And what is the puzzle? The murderous and double-crossing crooks are trying to get their hands on a priceless treasure, a gem-encrusted statue of a falcon that the Knights of Malta spirited out of the Holy Land during the Crusades. A lot of people die trying to get it, including Huston’s own father, Walter, who stumbles into Spade’s office and collapses. In the end, Bogart says of the statue – borrowing from Shakespeare – “it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” He could just as easily have been speaking about The Maltese Falcon.
The Big Sleep is darker, more shadowy than The Maltese Falcon. It has a ludicrously convoluted plot (when they asked Raymond Chandler to explain parts of it, even he was at a loss). Marlowe is just as good a detective as Spade, just as world-weary, and just as tough. Raymond Chandler commented that “Bogart can be tough without a gun.” It also benefits from the chemistry between Bogart and Lauren Bacall. She spends most of the film hurling insults at him with come hither eyes, or flirting with him as they prank-call the police. They first met on the set of To Have and Have Not, when the ingenue gave Bogey some advice about whistling.
The Big Sleep was filmed in 1944 but shelved until after the war, when it was felt that a detective story would do better (Warners still had a lot of war films to release and they wanted to do so before war ended and they dated). The same year, at nineteen, Bacall had made a sexy and stunning debut for Hawks and Bogart in To Have and Have Not . However, she also filmed Confidential Agent with Charles Boyer, and she received atrocious reviews. One critic wrote of her role as an English noblewoman that it was “the most woeful piece of miscasting it has ever been my misfortune to behold. Her conception of how a spoiled young English lady might conduct herself is fashioned of the stuff of outright burlesque.” Her promising career was in jeopardy, and so therefore was The Big Sleep. Howard K. Feldman, who was Bacall’s and also Howard Hawks’ agent, urged Jack Warner to consider reshooting several key scenes that would capture Bacall’s insolence to Bogart, and play up their sexually charged relationship. So in early 1946 several new scenes were filmed and a new, brisker cut of the film was put together: if you look closely in several scenes, you can see that some of the actors age a year in a matter of minutes. You can find the original 1945 cut on DVD, and it’s worth watching just to enjoy some of the actors who were later left on the cutting room floor. The plot is also slightly less confusing.
The plot of The Big Sleep is too convoluted to summarise here. It involves blackmail over some “pornographic pictures” and a crooked casino owner, and in any event, for me the plot is less important than the lurid 1940s Los Angeles atmosphere. This is the smoke-filled Los Angeles of hired guns and hard-nosed cops, of cigarette girls and gambling dens, of long and sleek Packards whose drivers carry pints of rye in their pocket, and it’s filled with grown-ups. Bogart and Bacall have a scene where they compare themselves to racehorses. When he asks how far she can go, she says, “a lot depends on who’s in the saddle.” Mind you, there’s hardly a female in the picture who doesn’t come on to him. One, Dorothy Malone, is a sexy bookseller who closes the shop early, takes off her glasses and lets her hair down to cascade on to her shoulders so she and Bogey share a drink.
The “pornographic” pictures wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, but several critics were shocked, particularly at the violence (to be fair, there is one scene where Bogart gets beaten up that is more violent than most films of the time). One critic found the film “morbid and disturbing.” It’s a shame Bogart only played Marlowe once, because he is the definitive private eye, even if he wasn’t Chandler’s favourite Marlowe (that was Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet). Hawks insisted that the audience didn’t know more than Marlowe, so Bogart is in every scene, which is a lucky thing for film fans. Bogart played other kinds of roles later in his career. He went insane in The Caine Mutiny. He bickered with Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen. He starred opposite that other Hepburn – Audrey – in Sabrina as the millionaire businessman that the chauffeur’s daughter is in love with.
And he was a shit-stirrer with a wicked sense of humour. On one occasion he met John Steinbeck and casually said “Hemingway tells me that you’re not that good a writer.”