The Private Detectives

For my money, there was one character type that Bogart was born to play. Gangster? Convict? Escaped Convict? Ex-pat loner struggling against the Axis powers? Naw. For me, no one could play a Private Detective wrapped up inside a Film Noir nearly as well as Bogie. Guns, dangerous women, back alley crooks, illicit affairs, hand rolled cigarettes – Bogart could juggle them all with laid back ease.

For a great breakdown of the history behind the “whys” and “hows” of Bogart’s historical place within Classic Hollywood as a Film Noir detective, you should definitely check out Sheri Chinen Biesen’s book Blackout. Not only is it a wonderful primer on Film Noir, but it goes into great detail about Biesen’s belief that Bogart’s age, wartime rationing, and a lack of leading men in Hollywood led to Hollywood’s greatest icon getting the chance to play characters like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

It’s kind of crazy to consider how few private eye films Bogart made considering how much he’s associated with the genre. Only two officially – but I throw in three more “Honorary Mentions” because I think you can get a good Bogie detective fix from them if you really need to! Let me know if you disagree.

The Private Detectives

The Maltese Falcon – 1941

This is the stuff that Film Noir dreams are made of.

Warner Brother’s originally assigned George Raft to the role of Sam Spade – not because they really wanted him for the role, but because they wanted Henry Fonda for another film and Fonda worked for Twentieth Century Fox. So, follow this . . . Raft didn’t want to do The Maltese Falcon. He supposedly hated the script and didn’t want to work with first time Director John Huston. (Huston didn’t want him either. Bogart was always Huston’s first choice.) So Warner Brothers, knowing that Raft would balk at Falcon, gave him the option of going on ‘suspension’ so that he could go over to Fox and Fonda could come over to Warner Brothers. Guess who’s left to reap the benefits? Mr. Bogart.

Playing the cynical and embittered Private Detective, Sam Spade. A beautiful femme fatale hires him for a case. His partner gets killed. Shady characters and gun play abound. And it all orbits around a priceless statue that has the ability to make people lose their scruples about going down some dark paths.

Bogart’s interactions with Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr. show a man who seems to be in complete control of every emotion and physicality in an actor’s toolbox, and there’s a level of confidence on display that I don’t think Bogart hit so highly in any of his previous films.

Add in Director Huston, and I cannot see how this film could have been anything less than a classic.

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

The Big Sleep – 1946

I’m ready to declare this the coolest Bogart role in his filmography.  Private Eye Philip Marlowe is king.

In Philip Marlowe we get an über playful Bogart as he smiles, quips, flirts, and drinks his way out of every situation. The sunglassed bookstore nerd . . . the prank phone call to the police where he and Bacall switch roles so fast that they end up playing their own parents . . . the way Bogart uses his charm more powerfully than his gun against the bad guys . . .  This was a role that Bogart was born to play. He carries this film and makes it look easy. How can you keep from rooting for a guy who wants the truth above everything else, including his own life?

This film, and especially Bogart’s performance, is remarkable. The Big Sleep is my favorite Film Noir of all time. (And no, it doesn’t matter to me that all of the plot isn’t laid bare by the end – real life is messy and mysterious, so why can’t this film be as well?)

You can read my original write up on the film here. You can also read my write up on the pre-release edit of the film from the year before here.

Honorary Mentions

All Through the Night – 1942

Bogart plays Gloves Donahue, a New York city racketeer that has to track down the man/men who murdered his favorite cheesecake baker. Yes, he’s a gangster. Yes, the bad guys are Nazis. But there’s quite a bit of private eye-like atmosphere in this comedic gangster spoof. Clues are followed. Bogie goes undercover. Peter Lorre is skulking around. Bogart has to work with, and around, the police. The femme fatale is beautiful and potentially dangerous. It’s in my top three favorite Bogart films, so check it out!

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

Dead Reckoning – 1947

Bogart might be playing paratrooper Captain ‘Rip’ Murdock, but this film is all noir as Bogart falls away from the military man persona and quickly takes on the air of a hardened detective. Bogart narrates the viewer through the story, walking us along as Murdock pieces together a military buddy’s disappearance.

Of note is one particular scene that plays opposite of our typical expectations for Bogart as he sits and listens to a nightclub singer. This might be the first film I’ve ever seen where we get the Bogie drinks while the femme fatale sings’ scene, and Bogart shows no interest whatsoever in the woman. In fact, he spends most of the song looking down at his drink, ignoring Lizabeth Scott’s suggestive glances. Out of the many movies where Bogart’s played through this scenario, has there ever been another one where he shows such little interest?

There are so many great long shots of Bogart sitting, thinking, lying in bed, and drinking, that if nothing else, I feel like Director John Cromwell should be thanked for his work towards recording Bogart’s great visage for posterity!  If the entire movie had been the above shot for two hours, I would probably have still enjoyed it!

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

The Enforcer – 1951

Bogart plays Assistant District Attorney Martin Ferguson. Running on little sleep and next to no time,Ferguson and his right hand man, Captain Frank Nelson (Roy Roberts), are suddenly faced with a ticking clock. Ferguson has to be in court within eight hours, and his main piece of evidence against the ringleader of a hit man crew is no longer breathing. But wasn’t there something he missed? Some small piece of evidence that’s lurking in the dark recesses of his mind? Something that he didn’t think he’d need to remember?

Even though he’s on the government payroll, Bogart certainly goes on a Film Noir journey that feels every bit as lowdown and seedy as the first two films mentioned in this post. I think this one’s a real hidden gem that a lot of people haven’t seen, and it’s well worth a watch!

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

*This post is another write up in the Character Reference series on The Bogie Film Blog where we break down some of Bogart’s most well known genres and character types. You can read the rest of the entries here.*

 

 

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Blackout by Sheri Chinen Biesen

Blackout

Honorary Bogie Fix:

Bogart Book 4 Bookish Bogies!

There’s a lot to love about Dr. Sheri Chinen Biesen’s Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir. For the casual fan, Blackout is fantastic primer that can lead you by the hand through the history of American film noir, film by film, giving you a guide to the ins and outs of some of cinema’s most innovative movies. For the diehards, this is a systematic breakdown and exploration of films that we’ve grown to love and cherish – a dissection of film noir to its most basic elements of paranoia, guilt, anguish, sex, and desperation.

Believing that the genre of film noir is deeply rooted in a 1940’s Hollywood film system that struggled through, and had to devise ways to recover from, World War II, Biesen takes films like Double Indemnity (the lynchpin film of the book) and examines the individual pieces of the whole – producers, writers, directors, actors, scripts, studio climate, production codes, the cultural trends – and builds a strong case that this cult genre of groundbreaking films is built on luck and circumstance almost as much as talent and premeditation.

Electricity was expensive during the war? Dim the lights. The Production Code Administration was scrambling to deal with the vivid images of death and destruction in wartime newsreels? Push the boundaries and amp up the violence. Good looking young men were being shipped overseas? Turn to the older, more mature, more grizzled stars to fill the void.

Yes, that last one hits home for this blog, as a good bit of the book is spent explaining some of the factors that helped push Humphrey Bogart from a B-movie gangster, to Hollywood’s number one leading man as he left the criminal world behind to fight for freedom around the world. The context into which Biesen places Bogart’s career pre and postwar, coinciding with his natural talent for portraying darker characters onscreen, makes a great case for much of Bogart’s success, and provides a very good explanation of how he was one of the few lucky character actors that broke free of the second-stringer mold and elevated himself to legendary status.

Blackout was a wonderful read for me as I got to dive deeper into some of my all-time favorites (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep) while at the same time getting a push from Biesen to finally catch up on some films that I’ve been behind on for too long (Ministry of Fear, Street of Chance).

If you’re a fan of film noir and classic Hollywood, I don’t think I can recommend this one highly enough. Dr. Sheri Chinen Biesen is a prof of film history at Rowan University in New Jersey and has a web presence at her blog where you can find all the links to buy the book. You can also follow her on twitter at @sheribiesen.

The Big Sleep – 1946

big sleep

My Review

—The Very Definition of “Classic Film Noir”— 

Your Bogie Film Fix:

5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Howard Hawks

The Lowdown

Private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by a reclusive millionaire (Charles Waldron) after his family is blackmailed with damning information about his young daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers).

What I Thought

There are two things worth dying for in The Big Sleepmoney and the truth.  Almost every character is after one or the other exclusively, and the stronger they pursue their desired commodity, the closer they get to danger.  In fact, the only character who appears truly safe is General Sternwood who’s confined to his mansion due to health problems.  He wants neither money nor the truth as he’s willing to spend as much of his fortune as possible in order to keep the truth about his daughter from coming to light.

As cash and facts are exchanged back and forth, the plot begins to double back on itself as Marlowe follows a case that starts over gambling debts, but then diverges off into blackmail, pornography, and murder.  It seems that every character has some small piece of the overall story, and Marlowe spends his time chasing those pieces down as everyone tries to use their bit of knowledge to barter a payoff.

While I’ve never thought that the plot was as confusing as its reputation alleges (does it really matter who killed the chauffeur, Owen Taylor?), you definitely need to pay attention or you’re going to get left behind.  This was at least my fifth time watching the film, and I’ll admit that every time I view it, I come to understand how the whole puzzle fits together a little better.

What sets up The Big Sleep as a film noir classic is the fact that the cast, director, and style of the film more than make up for the complicated plot.  You don’t need to grasp every little detail to enjoy the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall – or Bogart and every single other female in the film for that matter.  There are no wasted characters here, as Howard Hawks has assembled an amazing cast and knows exactly how to make them interact so that we get the most bang for our buck.

This is a film where the sum of the whole is greater than the parts, and the parts are pretty doggone fantastic.  So the plot isn’t ironed out because they dropped some key scenes to make way for more Bacall and Bogie magic?  It doesn’t matter in the end.  Hawks visually and audibly gives us exactly what we yearn for and so we can forgive him the rest.

The Bogart Factor

All right, I’m ready to declare this the coolest Bogart role in his filmography.  I know that I’ll change my mind when Casablanca rolls around, and then again when I pop in To Have and Have Not, but for tonight – Philip Marlowe is king.

In Philip Marlowe we get an über playful Bogart as he smiles, quips, flirts, and drinks his way out of every situation.  The sunglassed bookstore nerd . . .  The prank phone call to the police where he and Bacall switch roles so fast that they end up playing their own parents . . .  The way he uses his charm more powerfully than his gun against the bad guys . . .  This was a role that Bogart was born to play.  He carries this film and makes it look easy.  How can you keep from rooting for a guy who wants the truth above everything else, including his own life?

There are stories in all of his biographies and on the web about his personal problems offset while filming The Big Sleep.  His affair with Bacall was blazing away while his marriage to Mayo Methot was collapsing.  His drinking was beginning to bleed over into his work life for the first time and the studio was very worried about news of the affair leaking through the press.

But guess what?  None of that personal stuff matters.  The film, and especially Bogart’s performance, is remarkable.

The Cast

Lauren Bacall, as the older sister Vivian Rutledge, is amazing.  I’m sure it helped that additional scenes were added to try and capitalize on her momentum from To Have and Have Not.  She smolders when she needs to and pulls off a very good performance as the untrustworthy foil that Bogart’s willing to get a little intimate with.

Martha Vickers as the troubled younger daughter, Carmen Sternwood, is very good as well.  I really want to track down the alternate version of the film where she’s apparently given more time to shine.  What’s here though, is plenty.  Her first scene where she tries to sit on Marlowe’s lap while he’s standing up is such a mischievously potent introduction to Carmen that it’s one of the most memorable moments in the film.

Charles Waldron is so convincing as General Sternwood that we can practically see his mouth watering as he watches Bogart drink his liquor.  One of my favorite parts of watching his scenes in the film is feeling cold as I look at him all bundled up in the greenhouse, and then instantly feeling the stifling heat of the room as the camera switches to Bogart’s sweat-soaked torso.

John Ridgely is a multi-time costar of Bogart’s and appears here as gambling racketeer Eddie Mars.  He’s tough and intimidating, and I need to do a write-up in “The Usual Suspects” portion of this blog on him as he’s appeared in quite a few Bogart films.

Louis Jean Heydt has a small but solid role as one of the film’s many blackmailers, Joe Brody.

There are so many good actors in supporting roles here that I could just keep typing names followed by “was very, very good here!”  So just to name a few – Regis Toomey as Bogart’s police liaison, Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls, is wonderful, as is Elisha Cook Jr. as the small statured flunky Harry Jones, and Charles D. Brown as the butler, Norris.

Don’t Forget to Notice

Look!  It’s Bogie Film Blog favorite Ben Welden as Pete, one of Eddie Mars’ two henchmen!  Weldon plays his thugs either very straight and tough, or smarmy with a wide and devilish grin.  I prefer the devilish Welden, and that’s what we get here!  He gets to mug “He kills me!” as his partner in crime, Sidney (Tom Fadden), deadpans to Bogart multiple times.  Pete and his partner Sidney got their monikers in honor of two other Bogart regulars – Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.

bs 3Ben Welden with Tom Fadden and Bogart

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Classic Bogie Moment

I’ve written about it before, but Bogart had a reputation for paring down his lines to make the most out of a little.  Perhaps my favorite character moment for Philip Marlowe in the film comes when gangster Eddie Mars has him dead to rights and threatens to use force:

Mars:  We could make you talk. 

Marlowe:  It’s been tried.

Mars:  And? 

Marlowe:  (CASUALLY SHAKES HIS HEAD)

That little head shake?  So powerfully clear.  You can try to rough me up, but you’re going to regret it.  It’s not going to work, and you’ll probably end up suffering as much as I do.  Such a wonderful choice to make instead of inserting a trite line of bravado.

The Bottom Line

If you’re here and still reading this, it means that you love the movie enough to read everything there is to read.  If, by some chance, you haven’t read Roger Ebert’s take, you should!

The Enforcer – 1951

Enforcer

My Review

—A Decent Thriller—

Your Bogie Fix:

3.5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Although Bretaigne Windust is credited, Raoul Walsh was brought in after only a few days of filming when Windust was taken to the hospital, seriously ill.  Windust would not return in time to finish the picture.

The Lowdown

Well, I think I’m finally ready to start writing a book entitled Where Have All the Character Actors Gone?  While the old school studio system with its contract players might not work in today’s world, it sure did produce a heck of a lot of solid men and women who could play side roles so well that an entire movie could be elevated.

Bogart is Assistant District Attorney Martin Ferguson, a man in desperate need of sleep when the movie opens, and even more desperate need when it wraps up.  (What are the odds that I’d randomly pull two movies in a row where Bogart’s a desperate District Attorney?  How many can there be?)

ADA Ferguson is one night away from going to trial with Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane), a man that he believes to be the mastermind behind a criminal ring of hitmen, and the police have just brought in the one and only witness that can make the case stick.

Ted De Corsia plays Joseph Rico, Mendoza’s second in command, and he’s the last chance that ADA Ferguson has left to put Mendoza in prison.  Rico has other ideas though, as he knows that there is nowhere he can run to escape Mendoza’s grasp.  Rather than rat out his boss and pay the consequences, Rico makes a break from a third story window, and then makes a lot of breaks as he hits the ground after losing his balance on a ledge.

Ferguson and his right hand man, Captain Frank Nelson (Roy Roberts), are suddenly faced with a ticking clock.  Ferguson has to be in court within eight hours, and his main piece of evidence against Mendoza is no longer breathing.  But wasn’t there something he missed?  Some small piece of evidence that’s lurking in the dark recesses of his mind?  Something that he didn’t think he’d need to remember?

Ferguson and Nelson reopen the case from the beginning, and we the viewers get to flashback to the first moments that Mendoza’s men slip up, and the crime syndicate flashes onto ADA Ferguson’s radar.

Imagine an extra-long episode of Law and Order, except the cast is made up of classic Hollywood actors.  It’s a murder mystery who-done-it in which we get to watch Bogart track down one lead after another, only to find out that every new witness he needs has just turned up dead.

There’s also a nifty twist at the end that I’ll admit, I should have seen coming.  But twist endings weren’t as common in classic Hollywood, so I wasn’t expecting it!  It’s not my fault, see!  The clues were there but I wasn’t paying close enough attention!  I’ll wager that even if you do see it coming, it’ll still be pretty satisfying – I’ll say no more just in case you haven’t seen it yet!

Oh!  And Zero Mostel plays “Big Babe” Lazick, one of the hit men that Bogart has to flip for the prosecution!  So we get some great work between the two actors as Ferguson leans his full force onto Lazick’s hefty shoulders, using every bit of threat and intimidation that he can muster into getting the poor dope to turn over Mendoza – even coldheartedly using Lazick’s wife and child.

And just to show you how cliché it’s become in the modern day to have hitmen as a part of our cultural entertainment, there’s a number of scenes in the movie that actually take the time to explain what the words “contract” and “hit” mean.  Some of that lingo is so commonplace now that I wouldn’t be surprised if my six year old knew it.  Can you even imagine being unaware of how a hitman works in this day and age?

The Great

This cast is so much fun.  Zero Mostel and Ted de Corsia are standouts for sure, but even the smallest parts – King Donovan as Sgt. Whitlow – are so well cast that every actor on screen is fighting for your attention with even the smallest line.  Jack Lambert as the crazy killer, “Philadelphia” Tom Zaca, and Tito Vuolo as Tony Vetto, help round out the killing crew – both scene stealers in their own right.

Everett Sloane’s portrayal of the hit man gang’s ringleader Albert Mendoza is expertly down played until the final act of the film, and when he finally appears in a scene with de Corsia, it’s chilling and wonderful.

Bogart gets a “great” mention as well.  A perfect double feature would be to pair this film with Marked Woman.  In Marked Woman, Bogart’s the young, idealistic ADA who’s fighting for justice through a web of rules and regulations.  In The Enforcer, we see a Bogart who’s aged and weary, just as ready to lob a right hook at a suspect as he is an interrogation question.  Ferguson is a weary soul, and Bogart gives the character his just due.

The Good

While there’s nothing groundbreaking with this script by Martin Rackin, it is a very solid mystery / thriller.  Once the flashback starts, the viewer is pulled through multiple twists and turns along the case with Bogart until the big reveal at the end.  There’s no romance thrown in to pander to the date crowd, and Bogart gets to play Ferguson as a flawed and frustrated man who isn’t afraid to bend the rules a bit to get the job done.   A remake of this today, if done well, would be a solid summer popcorn flick.

Classic Bogie Moment

The cops lead Rico into the station to meet ADA Ferguson.  The office door opens and inside the darkened room is Bogart, sitting behind his desk, hunched over and smoking a cigarette.  He doesn’t have to say a word for us to know his state of mind.  He’s tired and edgy.  Did he sleep last night?  Probably not.  Will he sleep this night?  More than likely he won’t, and he knows it.

Someone should put together a montage of all the “Bogie smoking behind a desk” moments from cinema history.

The Bottom Line:

This is an very satisfying police procedural.  Not as dark and noir-ish as Bogart’s private detective roles, but a fun look at a more by-the-book type of lawman from Bogart.  (Even though he’s not all that by-the-book at times!)  Very rewatchable, especially the second time when you get to reexamine the scenes that hint towards the twist.

Fun Fact:

Just for fun, sometimes I like to go through the full cast and crew to see what the overlap between Bogart movies might be.  So go to IMDB’s page and then scroll down through the cast until you get to a guy by the name of David McMahon, who happens to play a police officer in this movie, although he was “uncredited.”  Now click through to his filmography and see a long list of “uncredited” roles that McMahon played throughout his career.  Bartenders, cops, deliveyrmen, Taxi Drivers – if there was a small role or background character to be played, this guy played it – and more than likely he was “uncredited” at the time.

This was an era in Hollywood when you could be a contracted working actor with a career made up of dozens and dozens of movies and TV shows, and yet you might still be completely unrecognizable to the public at large.  It wasn’t until the end of McMahon’s career, when began to appear as a regular on a few TV series, that he might have finally gained some notoriety.

How many times do you think this guy heard, “Hey!  Don’t I know you from somewhere?” only to run through his long list of bit parts until the befuddled fan finally came up with, “The Virginian!  Yeah!  Yeah!  That’s right!  You’re the conductor on The Virginian!”

David McMahon!  We salute you!  It was actors like you who brought years of experience to small roles in order to elevate a movie’s credibility!