The Gangsters

It doesn’t matter how you remember Bogart. It doesn’t matter which role is your favorite. Rick Blaine? Charlie Allnut? Captain Queeg? Philip Marlowe?

In the grand scope of film history, his persona was cemented during his early career as the tough guy gangster.

How do I know? Just look at any one of the numerous film cameos, radio appearances, or personal appearances for the troops throughout his life – when Bogart showed up, the public wanted to see him play the gangster regardless of what was going on in his career.

Bogart seemed to enjoy it as well, dishing out the tough talk and never afraid to give his all to cameo as a threatening menace to comedians, radio hosts, or cheering soldiers in Europe. Even now, when someone impersonates Bogart for film or television, the visual is often Rick Blaine from Casablanca, but the talk is all New York gangster.

It wasn’t until I started this post that I realized just how many times Bogart played a gangster, racketeer, mobster, or hood. Depending on which films you count (I left off The Bad Sister because he’s more of a con artist than a gangster, and numerous prison films like Up the River, San Quentin, and We’re No Angels because they’re more “convict” roles than “gangster” roles, per se… I also left out The Oklahoma Kid since I consider that more of a “cowboy” role in a Western film), Bogart made more than a dozen and less than 20 films where he played a big city tough with and without a gun in hand.

The most famous films of the genre, The Petrified Forest and High Sierra, are surely the foundation for Bogart’s legacy as an actor who could add that crucial third dimension to what could have been a typical cliched tough guy. In other slightly less acclaimed films, Dead End and The Roaring Twenties, Bogart’s portrayals as a gangster added great depth and authenticity to movies that would have been sorely lacking without his presence.

Add to all of the that the numerous B-movie gangster films that Bogart starred in, often the only bright spot in several forgettable duds, and it’s no wonder that the world still celebrates Bogart as Hollywood’s greatest dark-suited, wise cracking, gun wielding tough guy.

The Gangsters

Three on a Match – 1932

The movie is barely over an hour and Bogart’s Harve doesn’t appear until about forty-seven minutes into the film, so there’s not a lot of time spent with his character. When he does show up however, it’s magic, and his role largely dominates the story line until the end of the film.

Playing the number one thug to a mobster named Ace (Edward Arnold), Bogart shows up with a gang of toughs to shake down the mother of a young boy that they’ve kidnapped in an attempt to extort her wealthy ex-husband.

It’s a scene-stealing role for Bogart, as his cool and detached onscreen persona overpowers every other actor in the frame. While not a large part, it’s definitely worth seeking out, especially when you add in Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis in costarring roles!

You can read my original write up on the film here.

Midnight/Call It Murder – 1934

Bogart does a great job here, making the most of what little time he has on screen playing Gar Boni, a small time hood that falls for Sidney Fox’s Stella Weldon. There are certainly seeds of his later gangster roles – a cool and collected gunman that’s smooth with the ladies and talks a good game. The film opens at a court trial where we meet the young lovebirds as they watch Stella’s father chair the jury for a murder case. The moment that they share together, as Gar Boni insults the jury before realizing who he’s sitting next to, is sweet and funny. While they could have used some more scenes between the two young actors, the film is worth a watch.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

The Petrified Forest – 1936

Bogart physically inhabits the violent, desperate, and dangerous gangster, Duke Mantee, in what many consider to be one of his greatest roles – and certainly the first role that really put him on the map. From the moment that he appears on screen (about 35 minutes into the film), he is a rubber band wound tight, and the viewer is just waiting for his inevitable snap.

He walks hunched with his hands held slightly out at the waist, giving you the impression that he’s either going to draw his gun, or strangle someone at any moment – a mannerism that he would continue to use for countless films during tense moments.

I cannot imagine any other actor playing the role of Duke Mantee as well as Bogart does. It’s clear that he worked hard to embody the gangster from top to bottom. I almost began to wonder if he was even able to sweat on command as the movie ramps up to its violent, dramatic conclusion.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

Bullets or Ballots – 1936

You have to give Bogart’s “Bugs” Fenner credit in this film. Out of a couple dozen gangsters in a room, he was the only one that really seemed to know that Edward G. Robinson was double crossing his boss, Barton McLane. I found myself wanting to yell at his fellow heavies multiple times to just shut up and listen to him for a minute.

Bogart is able to take a pretty cliched gangster role and elevate it here. His portrayal of Fenner is intimidating, ruthless, and downright chilling. Even though I was pretty sure that Robinson was going to come out on top (doesn’t he always when Bogie’s the bad guy?), I was surprised by how much tension was built between the two men as Fenner relentlessly chased down Robinson’s Blake in an attempt to exact revenge.

It’s roles like this that make me understand why the studio thought they should keep Bogart typecast as the bad guy. The tough thug parts may not have utilized his full potential as an actor, but he was dang good in them.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

Kid Galahad – 1937

Despite Bogart’s menacing role as Turkey Morgan, two great stars in Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis, and a handsome young lead in Wayne Morris, this uneven dramedy never really hits its stride. Bogart doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and when he does, he’s relegated to being the stock mob-guy character that exists only to further the plot. The most interesting thing of note might be that Bogart makes Morgan more of a sniveling whiner than a cutthroat gangster as he’s constantly embarrassed and thwarted by Robinson.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

Dead End – 1937

Playing ‘Baby Face’ Martin, this is one of Bogart’s most fleshed-out gangster roles. While on paper it might not look like much – a criminal running from the cops who stops by to see his old flame and his mother one more time – a lot of expectations get turned on their heads when both interactions don’t follow the typical Hollywood formula.

It’s a role where we get to see Bogart thinking out loud, saying just as much with his facial expressions and mannerisms as he does with his dialogue. Perhaps one of his best portrayals of internal turmoil, I’m a little surprised that this part isn’t more talked about when people list his greatest performances. ‘Baby Face’ Martin seems like a younger, ever-so-slightly more hopeful, version of Duke Mantee just as he turns the corner from confidence to fatalism.

For the scenes between Bogart and his mother played by Marjorie Main, as well as Bogart and Claire Trevor, this film’s an acting clinic for how to handle disappointment with a character on film. Both scenes are incredibly strong moments that give us a great glimpse of Bogart’s skill at listening and reacting to his costars on screen.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

Racket Busters – 1938

Playing gangster John ‘Czar’ Martin, this isn’t a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part for Bogart, but it isn’t much more. He makes a brief appearance every once in a while in order to boss his goons around, but I’d be shocked if any of his scenes here last more than forty-five seconds.

Considering that this wasn’t his first go-round as a tough-as-nails gangsters, you would think that it’d be a slam dunk to let Bogart do some of the heavy lifting with the beat downs and the gun play. Instead, I think the most dramatic scene that he’s involved in before the final shootout involves a massage table and some snarky dialogue.

This one’s not a must see for anybody. You can read my original write up on the film here.

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse – 1938

It’s not a huge part for Bogart, but he nails it. Playing ‘Rocks’ Valentine, we see the two-dimensional gangster that Bogart was often assigned for his minor antagonist characters, and yet he still elevates the material like only he can.

It seems to be a trend in Bogart’s bad guys that, once again, he’s the only one in the gang who’s aware that something’s not right. He doesn’t trust Edward G. Robinson’s intentions, but no one will believe his doubts. We’ll just have to wait until Key Largo for Bogart to give Robinson his “just due.”

While the script doesn’t give Bogart a lot to work with, he makes sure to add his own flourishes so that ‘Rocks’ makes a big impact. I’ll rest my case on the picture above!

You can read my original write up on the film here.

Angels with Dirty Faces – 1938

Bogart plays James Frazier, a lawyer who goes into business for himself as a racketeer after he swipes a hundred thousand dollars off of James Cagney after Cagney is sentenced to a long prison stint. Most of the role is spent sniveling into a phone, or sniveling to his partner in crime (George Bancroft), or just plain sniveling for his life from Cagney.

Bogart’s trying, but there’s literally nothing here to work with. Why have two crooks in Bogart and Bancroft? Why not just consolidate them into one role and give it a little more meat? It’s probably the biggest shortcoming of the script that we don’t get a better antagonist to work against Cagney’s attempt at creating a new criminal empire.

All that said, Cagney is great in the film, and it has one of the most haunting endings of any film I’ve seen.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

King of the Underworld – 1939

Bogart could be comedic, dramatic, romantic, threatening, subdued, and whimsical – and while several of those are attempted at various points here with his gunman Joe Gurney, the performance comes off as inconsistent. In some scenes he’s wonderfully despicable. In others, his comedic timing is flawless. While that kind of varied personality works well in some films (see All Through the Night, High Sierra, The Roaring Twenties), it comes off as fragmented and uneven here.

Still, Gurney is incredibly interesting and has so much potential. The story of a gangster obsessed with Napoleon, yet too shortsighted to see that they share the same tragic flaws, should lead to a much more satisfying character arc than it does here. Especially when you add in the relationship with the historical author who’s on hand to chronicle it all. But wait, there’s a convoluted love story to contend with. And a side story about unapproving townsfolk. Then there’s the out for justice/revenge plot that keeps disappearing and reappearing, grabbing for our attention. It’s just too many under-developed story fragments in too short of a film.

All of that said, I’d still say this one is probably a must see for die hard Bogart fans as so many of the elements that made him a great ‘bad guy’ are here on display in various moments.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

Invisible Stripes – 1939

Playing ex-con Chuck Martin, this might be one of the most likable gangsters that Bogart ever got to play. Right up until his final scene, we have to appreciate and respect Martin’s attempts to help George Raft’s Cliff pull himself up by his bootstraps – even if it’s not by legal means.

The part is small, so there are long droughts throughout the film where Bogart’s presence isn’t felt, but when he’s onscreen, he pops. Could they have used him more? Probably, but it wouldn’t have fit with the story. The film needed to spend its time building up the relationship between Raft and his on screen brother William Holden. So I guess that if I’m going to watch someone play a likable bad guy, it’s a treat that it gets to be Bogart, even if the role is smaller than I’d like.

You can read my original post on the film here.

The Roaring Twenties – 1939

Bogart’s got a strong first ten minutes in the film and then disappears until about halfway through as he plays James Cagney’s war buddy turned crime partner, George Hally. It’s not as well rounded a character as Cagney has to play with, as Bogart plays a slightly more typical bad guy, but it does have its moments.

Director Raoul Walsh does a great job playing Bogart and Cagney off of each other as friends and eventual enemies, using Bogart’s brief scenes to show his menace, while at the same time giving us motivation for his eventual turn on Cagney. In particular, Walsh crafts a great little side story where Hally comes across his old, belligerent army Sergeant (Joe Sawyer) as he and Cagney are committing a robbery. The scene is a crucial piece of the puzzle that is Bogart’s tragic flaw in the film. He doesn’t like playing second fiddle to anybody, see!

You can read my original write up on the film here.

It All Came True – 1940

This was truly the first time that Bogart spoofed his iconic gangster image, playing gunman-on-the-lam, Chips Maguire. Watching him stumble around his bedroom, gasping and gaping at all the stuffed birds and monkeys, is almost enough to make you forget that he’s blackmailing poor old Tommy (Jeffrey Lynn).

Add in his relationship with the motherly boarding house proprietors, Una O’ Connor and Jessie Busley, and Maguire becomes downright lovable as he begrudgingly accepts their tender loving care while he “recuperates” in bed.

Bogart was very, very good at comedy, and I think this film is a perfect showcase for it.  Surrounded by a wonderful cast, you get a great taste of Bogart’s dry wit as he enthusiastically dances, sings, and mugs his way through this film. (That’s right, you get to see him do a little jig, sing a chorus of “Strolling Through the Park One Day,” and take target practice at a stuffed monkey.)

Not even a year later, we get to see him play a very similar character, “Gloves” Donahue, in the comedy gangster thriller All Through the Night, but this was his first step towards turning some of his more notable personas on their ear.

It seems like he’s really enjoying himself in the role. You can read my original write up on the film here.

Brother Orchid – 1940

Bogart doesn’t get a ton of time to shine here in his role as gangster, Jack Buck, but a couple things popped out to me.

In Robinson’s opening speech to his gang, Bogart sits back in his chair, taking it all in, as he slowly taps and rotates a sharpened pencil on his leg – eraser, point, eraser, point.  A wonderfully menacing touch to a scene where he could have just sat passively by and listened.

And one of the subtlest, most satisfying bits of comedy comes when Ann Sothern is asking if Bogart could possibly make up with Robinson. Bogart replies, “Johnny don’t like me no more . . . makes me feel bad too . . .”  It could come off as pathetic, or creepy, or evil and conniving, but Bogart uses his great comedy chops to pull it off playfully like a wounded puppy, adding a nice touch of humorous vulnerability.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

High Sierra – 1941

Bogart layers the role of Roy Earle so deeply that you’re instantly sucked into not only empathizing with the character, but actually forgiving him when he commits his crime and is forced to shoot a security guard. I’m amazed and impressed with how much character development was given to Bogart’s role as he’s allowed to build deep and authentic relationships with Henry Travers’ Pa, Ida Lupino’s Marie, Joan Leslie’s Velma, and Donald McBride’s Big Mac. So often in crime films of this era, much more time is given over to the action and adventure, and little effort is spent on building a solid three-dimensional character. Director Raoul Walsh gives Bogart plenty of scenes to build a great foundation here though, and it makes for a riveting performance.

Bogart appears to be enjoying himself, and it’s a lot of fun to see him acting against his real life dog, Zero, in the film’s lighter moments. If you’re looking for a solid Bogart fix, this one’s a must see as it’s undoubtedly some of his best work. You won’t be able to take your eyes off of him.

High Sierra was the last film that Bogart made where he wasn’t given top billing, and it’s easy to see why this role made him an undeniably top-tiered star.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

All through the night – 1942

Playing racketeer “Gloves” Donahue, you get to hear Bogart say the lines, “Hiya” and “Hello, Joe, whatta ya know?”  Seriously, what more can you ask from a Bogie movie?

In this, Bogart’s second gangster film spoof, we get New York’s toughest thugs battling the Nazi’s in an attempt to save the USA from certain doom. An all star cast that includes Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Frank McHugh, William Demarest, Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Barton MacClane, and Ben Welden make this one a must see for it’s incredible characters and flawless comedic timing.

The most classic of classic Bogie moments happens early in the film when Bogart is called to a nightclub by his mother to investigate a woman who might know something about a murdered cheesecake baker. Kaaren Verne plays Leda Hamilton, Bogart’s questionable ally and love interest – who also happens to be a nightclub singer because . . . well . . . of course she is.  Aren’t they all?

Has there ever been an actor who can make listening to live music look more captivating and cool than Bogart? Seeing him casually walk to a table while never taking his eyes off of Verne is a scene replayed many times throughout his filmography with different actresses, and only Bogart could pull it off with such a sparkly-eyed charisma that it never grows old.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

Producer’s Showcase – The Petrified Forest – 1955

Bogart comes back one more time to remake the gangster film that put him on the map as gunman-on-the-run, Duke Mantee! This time though, it’s for the small screen and Lauren Bacall steps in for Bette Davis and Henry Fonda takes over for Leslie Howard.

Mantee’s role is trimmed here. In fact, the entire movie runs about ten minutes shorter.  (While it’s listed as 90 minutes on IMDB, it’s much more like 72.) It also seems like some of Bogart’s lines might have been filmed separately and then spliced into the film.  (Several sources refer to this as a “live” airing, but then, how did they get the exterior shots of Fonda walking along a country road?)

Again though, I have to say that I found it captivating to watch an actor of Bogart’s caliber get the chance to reprise the role – playing Mantee twenty years older, showing a wearier, dead-eyed mobster this time around.  I think it’s a must see for die hard Bogart fans.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

The Desperate Hours – 1955

How fantastic is it that Bogart’s first big break was as ‘Duke’ Mantee in The Petrified Forest, and then in his second to last film he returns with an almost identical character and plotline with the role of Glenn Griffin here? What an incredible double feature this would be for any classic film fans who need a great lineup on a Friday night!

So let’s talk about the elephant in the room. When the play won its Tony on Broadway, a young and much lesser known Paul Newman was the star. Half Bogart’s age, Newman’s casting makes a bit more sense when you factor in the younger brother storyline that weighs pretty heavily into plot. I can only imagine what kind of tour-de-force Newman must have been on stage, but being a celebrated Broadway actor who’d really only had bit parts on television, Newman wasn’t used for the role when it came up for grabs in Hollywood. Would it have been a better movie? Who’s to say? It would have been different for sure. It might have been an earlier launching pad for another one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors as it would still be another three years before Newman would really break out with Somebody Up There Likes Me and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

But back to Bogart! This is his second to last film and there’s no trace of the illness that would eventually take his life on display here. He looks rough and ragged, but that’s what the role calls for. He smokes, snarls, leers, and blows his top in the most masterful of ways and it’s a captivating watch. This one’s certainly going into my top one or two ‘Older Bogie’ performances. It’s a must see for an Classic Film fan or Bogart die hard!

You can read my original write up on the film here.

*Character Reference is an ongoing feature on The Bogie Film Blog where we break down some of Bogart’s most famous genres and characters. You can read the rest of the entries here.*

 

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One thought on “The Gangsters

  1. Wow, I recently wrote a blog post somewhat similarly themed, Bogart as a gangster, that I was planning on posting. It is nowhere near as in depth as this one. I guess great minds think alike.

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