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.