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Huston and Bogey

August 6, 2010

He was endowed with the greatest gift a man can have — talent. The whole world came to recognize it. With the years he became increasingly aware of the dignity of his profession – Actor, not Star. Himself he never took seriously — his work, most seriously. He regarded the somewhat gaudy figure of Bogart, the Star, with amused cynicism; Bogart the actor he held in great respect. He is quite irreplaceable.- Huston on  Bogart.

This  is  the  second  in  line  on  my posts  for  the  John Huston Blog A Thon  at  Icebox  Movies.  This would be covering the  collaboration between  Huston and Bogart, not  a write up on their movies, but  mostly  on  their  relationship, and how Bogart fit into Huston’s  scheme of  things. Also  there are spoilers in the post,  please note.

There  have been  great  director  actor  combos  down the  line  in  movies,  John Ford-John  Wayne,  Martin Scorsese- Robert  De Niro,  Billy  Wilder-Jack Lemmon,  Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood  to  name a few.   But  for  me  the   Huston-Bogey  combo  is  somewhat  unique,  is  that it  was not  genre specific.   Ford  and Wayne  collaborated  mostly on Westerns,  save  for  The  Quiet  Man,  most  of  Marty- De Niro’s  movies  have been  either  gangster  movies  or  dark, cynical dramas,  Wilder and Lemmon  stuck  it  out  together  mostly  in satirical  comedies.  But  if  one  takes  the  movies  from  the Huston-Bogie duo,  it  traverses  a vast  variety  of  genres  from  Noir(  The  Maltese Falcon, Key  Largo)  to  Western( Treasure of  the Sierra  Madre)  to  war  dramas( Across  the  Pacific) to  satirical  parodies(Beat the  Devil)   to adventure  dramas( The African Queen).   Bogey  had an equally  successful  combo  with  Howard  Hawks( To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep)  and Michael Curtiz(  Angels  with  Dirty  Faces,  Cassablance,  We’r  no  Angels)  to  boot.  Nor  was  their  combination  very  prolific,  just  6  movies,  it  was  however  the  quality  of  the  movies  that  mattered.

One  feature  of  Huston’s   movies  has  been  the   grey   moral  universe  his  characters  usually  operated  in.  Most  of  his  characters  were  not  the  typical, all  white, honest  to goodness  persons,  more often  than  not  they  usually  had  grey  shades, cynical  and  bitter  in  nature  with a  moral  ambiguity. Much  before  the  70’s  New  Wave  movement  hit  Hollywood,  Huston’s  movies  quite  often  mixed  up  a  deep,  character  studies  with  a  strong  comment  on  social  issues.  Bogey  on the  other  hand  was not  really  the  typical  good  looking  star  who  could  sweep  women  off  their  feet.  His  odd  appearance,  and  his  rasping  voice,  made  him the  first  choice  for  playing  the  nasty  guy  or a gangster,  in  fact  most of   his  movies  before  The  Maltese  Falcon  had  him  playing  a gangster.  As  he  once  remarked

I can’t get in a mild discussion without turning it into an argument. There must be something in my tone of voice, or this arrogant face—something that antagonizes everybody. Nobody likes me on sight. I suppose that’s why I’m cast as the heavy.

In  a way   both  Huston  and  Bogey  had  developed  a not too favorable  reputation  in the industry, the former  was  considered  a  egomaniac  and  Bogey  was  the arrogant,  bad body, notorious  for rubbing  people  up  the wrong side.  Add  to  the  fact  that  both  were heavy  smokers  and  boozers too.  Playing  the  gangster  repeatedly,  made Bogey  develop  his  own style-  the cynical, bitter,  deprecatory  loner, who  has  his  own code of  honor. In an  industry  filled  with  handsome  lookers  like  Clark  Gable, Cary Grant, Errol  Flynn,  Bogey  was  the odd  man  out,  with  his  not  too conventional  looks.
Ironically   Bogey  was  not  the first  choice  for  The  Maltese  Falcon,  it  was  another leading actor  George Raft,  who  turned  it  down,  as  Huston  was  just  then  making  his  debut  as a director.  It  was  to be  a make  and  break  for both  men.  Huston  was  already  established  in  the  industry  as a  screenwriter,  but  this  would  be  his  first  movie  as  director.  Bogey  on  the  other hand,  had  just  shaken  off  the  tag  of being  the  eternal  nasty  in  the  background,  with  the  success  of  High  Sierra.   Huston  kick  started  the  noir  genre  with  The  Maltese  Falcon, putting in all the elements  in  place, the  femme  fatale,  the  ambiguous  moral  universe,  the rather  labyrinthine  plot,  the crooked bad  guys  and  the McGuffin. But  what  really  worked  was  putting  Bogey  in  as  Sam Spade, the  definitive anti  hero  of  the  times.   Bogey’s  patented  cynical,  realistic, loner  style  fit in wonderfully to the character of  Spade, he seemed  born to play  it.

Brigid: You know whether you love me or not.
Spade: Maybe I do. Well, I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over, but that will pass. If all I’ve said doesn’t mean anything to you, then forget it and we’ll make it just this: I won’t because all of me wants to, regardless of consequences, and because you counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with all the others.

Bogey  was  different  from  the  typical  Hollywood  heroes  in  the  movie,  his relationship  with  the femme fatale  Brigid(  Mary  Astor)  is more out  of  opportunism  than any love.  Watch the scene where he kisses her  roughly,  and  then  cuts  a deal  with  her, saying  that if  she  needs  him to  protect  her, she would  have to  come out with  more  information on the  mystery.  But  the clincher  comes  in  the  climax( spoiler  alert), when   he  has  no  remorse  over  what  happens  to  Brigid.  In a sense Sam Spade,  was  the  quintessential  noir  anti hero,  realistic,  opportunistic, cynical  and  manipulative, one  who uses  people to achieve  his own end. As  Brigid  says  in the  end  “If you’d loved me, you wouldn’t have needed any more on that side”.  The  romantic  Hollywood  icon, who crooned  sweet  nothings  had  given  way  to a  more  cynical, opportunistic   anti hero,  who  cared  precious  little  for human feelings.  It  was another  thing that  Bogey  would  later on  star  in the  quintessential   movie  for  die hard romantics  Casablanca, but  that is another topic  altogether.

Conscience. What a thing. If you believe you’ve got a conscience, it’ll pester you to death. But if you don’t believe you’ve got one, what can it do to ya? Makes me sick all this talking and fussing about nonsense.-Fred.C.Dobbs  in The  Treasure of  the Sierra  Madre

Bogey  and  Huston  again  teamed  up  for  The  Treasure of  the Sierra Madre,  in 1948, a  dark revisionist  Western   about  3  prospectors  hunting for  Gold  in the mountains of  Mexico.  I  would  call  Sierra  Madre  a revisionist  Western,  for  starters  this  was  not  about  Sheriffs, outlaws  or  Indians, it  was  about  3 down on luck men,  looking for fortune.  But  most  importantly,  again  like in  most of  Huston’s movies, the lines between good  and bad, evil  and morality  are  blurred. The  movie to me  was a fabulous  look  at  the  corrupting  influence  of  wealth  on  human  souls, how  greed  can  turn  men into beasts.  And i would  say  one  of  Bogey’s   finest  performances  ever. Again Bogey  here  going  away  from the typical,clean cut,  handsome looking  cowboy  popularized  by  John  Wayne  and  Henry Fonda

I was a native, I’d get me a can of shoe polish and I’d be in business. They’d never let a gringo. You can sit on a bench to get three-quarters starved. You can beg from another gringo. You can even commit burglary. But try shining shoes in the street or peddling lemonade out of a bucket and your hash is settled. You’d never get another job from an American.

He  is  grubby, down  on hells,   uncouth,  is a low life  prospector. But  most  important  of  all,  Fred C Dobbs  aka  Dobbsie is a  gringo,  some  one who  does not  really  fit  in  there,  the  quintessential  “outsider”.  It  becomes  an  even more  unlikable  character,  when  greed, jealousy  and suspicion get  the better  of him.  Unlike  the  typical  adventure  tales,  where  the  good  hero, saves  the  treasure  from the bad guys,  here  Dobbs  is  the  anti  hero.  He  would  rather  want all the gold  for  himself,  he  is  suspicious  of   his  partners,  does not really  want to share the loot.  Or  the  scene where he argues  with his partners  for  a larger share in the  bounty,  claiming  he  was  the  “investor”,  again  makes  me  wonder  if  Oliver  Stone  was  inspired  by  this  when making Wall Street.  
Even  in  the  WW2  spy  drama,  Across  the Pacific, Bogie’s  character  of   Rick Leland, was again  a hero  with more  grey  shades.  Suspended  from  the  US  Coast  Artillery for  theft,  he  decides  to become a free lance  mercenary  for  Chiag  Kai  Shek.  He  makes  it clear  in  the  movie,  that   after being  disgraced  he  has no  intention  at  all  of  fighting  for  the  nation,  and  his  only  loyalty  is  for  money.  But  the  moral   ambiguity   stays,  was the  entire  thing a  drama  stage  managed  by  the  US  govt   to  crack  a  spy  ring  that   leaks  details  of  the  war  plans  to the  Japanese?  Or  was  Leland  playing  a double  game  with the  US  Govt  as well  as  the  Japanese  sympathizer  Dr.Lorenz(  Sydney Greenstreet)?  While  not  as  acclaimed   as  Maltese  Falcon or  Sierra Madre,    for me  Across  the Pacific,  stands  as an  equally  great  movie  in their  combination.
When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses. 
Key  Largo  apart  from  being the  other  noir   movie  in the Huston- Bogey  collaboration,  was  actually  a role  reversal  of  sorts.  In  a  vast  majority  of  the  30’s  gangster  flicks,   Edward G  Robinson  was   the  good  guy,  and  Bogey  usually  ended  up being the bad one.  The  roles  reversed  here,  with  Robinson  playing  the  nasty, crooked  gangster  and Bogey  being  the  good guy.  Again  here Bogey  once  again  rephrasing  the  cynical,  worldly  weary,  bitter  anti  hero,  who   has to confront  the  nasty  gangster  played by  Robinson  at  the  titular  place.  For  me  again  a brilliant  work  in the noir  genre,  especially  the  symbolism  of  the  storm,  acting out  as  a metaphor  for  the  inner  storm  going  on in the  mind  of  Frank Mc Cloud,   Bogey’s  character.  But  it  is  the  final  moment, when Bogey  explains  to the hotel owner, James  Temple( Lionel Barrymore)  and  his  widowed  daughter  in  law Nora( Lauren Bacall), whose husband  happened  to be his  friend too,  where  the  entire  symbolism  comes into picture, the storm, the shoot out on the boat  and  Frank’s  own conscience.  Again  like  Across  the Pacific,  the moral  ambiguity strikes  out  here,  who  was  the  real  culprit  or hero,  was it  Frank  or  his  friend who died on the battle  field?
Charlie Allnut: A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.
Rose Sayer:
Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.
I have not  see  Beat  the Devil,  so  not  much idea about it.  The  final  Huston-Bogey collaboration, The African Queen  in  1951  would  be  an  eternal  classic.  In  fact   their  combo  has given 3 classics, Maltese Falcon,  Sierra  Madre  and  this  movie, along  with  two other great  movies,  Key  Largo  and Across the Pacific, what  more could  a movie lover ask for.  Again  the role of the rough,  uncouth,  unshaven   river  boat  captain  Charlie  Allnut, was  something  right  up  Bogey’s  lane.  If  Cary  Grant  was  the  symbol  of  the  suave, aristocratic  gentleman  and  Jimmy  Stewart  the  common  American man, Bogey  was the  rough,  down on heels,  loner  living life on the edge.  The African Queen  again  has many elements  of  the  adventure  genre,  the  prim  and proper  heroine  Rose Sayer(Katherine  Hepburn), initially disliking the  rough hewn  character  of   Charlie, and  then  falling  in love with  him, the  journey  across the river,  strewn  with  all  kinds  of  obstacles,including  rapids,  German  gunboats  and then their  adventures.   The  African Queen  was to me  was more  a  river  version of  the Titanic, only  here Rose  was much  more  sassy, much  more  resourceful  than  the  Rose  of  Titanic.  The chemistry between Bogey and Hepburn, some  great  action scenes,  and  a good  number of  twists  and turns in the  plot  ensured  that  this  would  be  one helluva  entertainer.
  1. Great posting – as a fan of Bogie and Huston's collaborations, I enjoyed reading this a lot. I've been trying to make up my mind which of their films together is my favourite and am struggling to do so. I haven't seen Beat the Devil either, though. Judy

  2. The collaborations with Bogart are part of the reason why I consider Huston an auteur. With Curtiz, Bogart was really just making great films delivered by a hired studio hand. With Hawks, the films were of more quality that Curtiz', since Hawks was an undeniable auteur. But with Huston, the films were exceedingly personal–Bogart didn't have the relationship with either Curtiz or Hawks that he had with Huston. Francois Truffaut (one of my favorite filmmakers) once made a claim that "the worst Hawks is always better than the best Huston", and that is such an igornant comment: I cannot seriously comprehend how somebody could prefer To Have and Have Not to, say, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Maybe it's fair game to say that The Big Sleep is superior to Maltese (though I might disagree), but the most banal of Hawks's stuff pretty much NEVER comes close to Huston's most enriched masterworks.I'm going to watch Across the Pacific sometime this week, but as far as I can tell, all of the Huston/Bogart films are great movies. They all put on display the friendship and antagonism they had towards each other. Sometimes they downright hated each other! During the making of Sierra Madre, for example, Bogart was always whining about wanting to go back to America and enter an upcoming boat race, and one night Huston got so fed up with Bogart's complaints that he literally grabbed him by the nose and started twisting it–to the point where Lauren Bacall actually had to say, "you're hurting him, John". That story makes me laugh every time.Make sure you guys see Beat the Devil whenever you can. I don't know if I'd call it a perfect film along the lines of Maltese/Sierra Madre/Key Largo/African Queen, but man is it imaginative.

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