Your Bogie Fix:
(Although, this might be a fix you only go to once or twice in your life…)
Director – Archie Mayo
When machinist Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is passed over for a promotion in favor of a young Polish immigrant, he’s outraged. It’s not long before an ultra-conservative, pro-American, secret society called the Black Legion recruits Frank to join their cause – terrorizing local immigrants in an effort to keep shops and businesses strictly American owned and operated. Soon Frank is involved so deeply within the organization that he cannot keep from getting swept along into a series of brutal attacks, and eventually, murder.
What I Thought
Occasionally there will be a movie that is very well made, and yet so gut wrenchingly powerful that I just can’t imagine sitting through it again. Schindler’s List was this way for me. So was Mystic River. Now I would easily add Black Legion to that category. Loosely based on a true story, Black Legion took me places emotionally that I wasn’t used to going in a normal Bogart film.
It’s easy to distance yourself from a villain on screen when their violence is outlandish and they talk in constant hyperbole, but Bogart’s Frank Taylor is a family man, and his motivations are actually understandable. He feels that he’s been wronged at work. The promotion should have been his based on seniority and his relationship to the company. When he thinks the job is a sure thing, he begins to dream up ways of spending the money – a new family car and a vacuum for his wife.
These are situations we have all been in. Everyone, at some point, gets passed over at work. (Fairly or unfairly, it always seems wrong when it happens to you.) Everyone has those moments where they optimistically hope for the best and dream for a better future, only to have those dreams dashed with a strong dose of reality.
What makes this such a painful film to watch is that Bogart is not the over-the-top gangster or escaped convict that we’ve seen in so many other films. He’s a normal man in a relatable situation. When those types of people begin to make bad choices, choices with motivations that viewers can relate to, they become some of the scariest film antagonists of all.
The Bogart Factor
Director Archie Mayo seemed to be able to get performances out of Bogart that few other directors even got close to. First he directed him as Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest, and then a year later as Frank Taylor in Black Legion. Bogart disappears more deeply into these two roles, I would argue, than many of his other pictures.
Unlike so many of Bogart’s more iconic characters, Frank Taylor struggles intensely with his self-confidence, is easily swayed by emotion, and suffers from a severe lack of impulse control. This isn’t Bogart’s typical in-control bad guy or ethically superior good guy. This is a flesh and blood real man that we are appalled by, but also understand. It’s certainly some of Bogart’s best work.
Several other familiar faces from Petrified Forest also show back up in Black Legion.
Dick Foran, who played football-obsessed Boze in Petrified Forest, is here as Frank’s best friend Ed – a simple factory worker who loves his beer almost as much as he loves his girlfriend. Foran is given a much deeper role to work with in Black Legion and does very well representing the voice of the audience as we watch him eventually lose his temper and confront Frank.
Joe Sawyer, who appeared as Duke Mantee’s thug, Jackie, is Cliff, the man who pulls Frank into the Legion. While not given as layered a role as Foran’s, Sawyer has plenty more to chew on compared to his gun-toting thug in Petrified Forest. Sawyer was born to play the tough guy with his square jaw and broad nose, and he portrays Cliff as the borderline-intelligent bully that can cause a lot of havoc with just a little effort.
Perhaps two of the best supporting actors are Henry Brandon as the Polish immigrant Joe Dombrowski, and Clifford Soubier as the Irish immigrant Mike Grogan. Though they are given small roles, Brandon and Soubier are able to make strong supporting appearances as hardworking men who find themselves caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Erin O’Brien-Moore and Dickie Jones play Bogart’s wife and son, Ruth and Buddy. Both capably play their roles realistically without falling too far into the melodrama trap, giving us an incredibly heartbreaking moment in the final court scenes as Ruth and Frank lock eyes for the last time before he’s taken away.
Ann Sheridan appears as Betty Grogan, Ed’s girlfriend. She’s sweet enough in the role but doesn’t get a lot to work with beyond that.
Make Sure to Notice
Helen Flint as Pearl Davis, a local floozy who has a wonderful drunk scene with Bogart after his wife and child leave him. They play it up so realistically, arguing over how to appropriately sing Home on the Range, that we get a rare, but wonderful, moment of levity in an otherwise bleak film.
Classic Bogie Moment
Bogart, who made dozens of movies where he carried and used firearms, stands before a mirror, gun in hand, admiring the way it looks in his grasp. It empowers him with a false sense of security as he “plays tough,” trying to bolster his desperate lack of confidence. It’s a great counter balance to all the other times in his career where we saw him comfortably use a weapon as if it was an extension of his own arm.
The Bottom Line
Black Legion is a definite must-see for any self-respecting Bogart fan, as Bogie does some of his best character work.
A Little Extra
According to the short documentary on the DVD, the machine shop featured in the film where Bogart works is the actual Warner Brothers machine shop with real employees in the background.