A Viewer's Guide to Bogart: Four Classics, Huston's Joke

(Second of Two Articles)

Jan. 23-24: "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) was, in several respects, a significant "first" in Hollywood history. Not only was it the first American detective movie and John Huston's first job as a director, but it also gave Bogart his first full-fledged hero role and was the first of the four all-time classic Bogies ("Casablanca", "To Have and Have Not", and "The Big Sleep" are the others). Adapted by Huston almost word for word from the Dashiell Hammett novel, "The Maltese Falcon" is a tough-minded, unpretentious little mystery, which may critics feel is still the best ever produced.

Its not-too-complex plot revolves around a couple of murders and a frantic search for, strangely enough, the Maltese Falcon, a sixteenth century jewel encrusted gold statue worth an estimated two million dollars. The film's most notable feature, however, is not the mystery of its plot but the awesomely rugged character of its hero, private detective Sam Spade.

Spade is the quintessence of the heartless pragmatist--the sardonic, self-interested loner who rolls his own cigarettes, and who just happens to operate within the limits of the law most of the time because he knows he's better off that way. He's so callous he hardly reacts when he hears his partner has been murdered. He doesn't bother to look at the body. Asked if the partner were married, he replies curtly, "Yeah, with 10,000 insurance, no children, and a wife who didn't like him." His only immediate concerns after the murder are to avoid the amorous advances of the widow and to change the names on his office window.

Rotten Nights

As the film ends, Spade casually "sends over" his former client and paramour to the police for a murder (she's guilty), explaining coldly, "Your're taking the fall. One of us has got to take it - I won't play the sap for you." He dismisses the possibility that "Maybe you love me and maybe I love you," as inconsequential in the long run: "I'll have some rotten nights - but that'll pass."

The movie has been brilliantly cast. Bogart surely "born to play" Sam Spade. The detective's bitter lines get sharp emphasis from Bogart's smug grin and sour lisp, making Spade probably the most thoroughly intimidating character Bogie ever portrayed. Sydney Green-street is just right as the jovial, pedantic Fat Man, obsessed with the "black bird." His great line: "Well, by Gad, if you lose a son it's possible to get another, but there's only one Maltese Falcon," is perhaps the best in a movie full of great lines. Peter Lorre is suitably effete and prim as the foppish Joel Cairo.

Jan. 25-26: "The Big Sleep" (1946) is producer-director Howard Hawkes' version of "The Maltese Falcon." Based rather closely on the Raymond Chandler novel, which, in turn, seems to have borrowed heavily from Hammett's, "The Big Sleep" has several important elements in common with the earlier movie: Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is a just-barely-watered-down Sam Spade - a little more romantic, but otherwise every bit as hard and even more violent; he has to contend with a similarly secretive and much more attractive client (Lauren Bacall); and he, like Spade, has to keep the police at bay so they don't gum up his investigation.

The plot, on the whole, is hopelessly confused. With several critical but racy factors in the novel (like pornography, homosexuality, and nymphomania) censored out of the screenplay, much of the motivation in the movie becomes grossly unclear, and Marlowe's deductive sequence is damn near impossible to follow. But all that doesn't really matter, since witty dialogue and unflinching violence would be the film's outstanding features even if the plot made sense.

All in the line of duty, Marlowe kicks one killer in the face, empties his gun into another, and systematically wounds a third and sends him out to be machine-gunned by his own cronies. Marlowe himself is brutally "worked over" in an alley, knocked out with a loaded fist, shot at twice, wounded once, and almost raped by one of his clients. Altogether, there are seven murders (four on the screen) and four merciless beatings--enough to catharsise anyone's sadistic impulses.

Jan. 27-28-29: "Beat the Devil" (1954) is Bogart making fun of himself. Many of his avid devotees find the film heretical, and Bogart himself is said not to have liked it much, but it's an indisputably clever bit of whimsey. Written by Truman Capote and John Huston and filmed by Huston's own company on the Gulf Sorrento in Southern Italy, the whole production was a casual vacation exercise for Huston and some of his actor-friends who happened to be in the area at the time.

Bogart plays the leader of an international group of "desperate characters" that includes old "Bogie" veteran Peter Lorre and newcomer Robert Morley. The "characters" are on their way to British East Africa to look for uranium, but their ship is held over in Southern Italy for repairs. While they wait, Bogart gets involved with fellow passenger Jennifer Jones, a gold-digging prevaricating English "gentlewoman;" her husband develops an interest in Bogart's wife, Gina Lolobrigida; and Bogey's pals begin to suspect that he's about to sell them out. The ship sails and sinks, and the passengers are stranded and arrested as spies in a hostile Arab nation. Bogart, resourceful as ever, secures their release and has his former partners turned over to the authorities for the attempted murder of Jennifer's husband.

In "Beat the Devil" Bogart is but a shadow of his former self. He's still cool and cynical, but there's not as much sting in his sardonic comments, and the latent violence of the tough guy of old just doesn't seem to be there. Still, in all, it's a funny movie.

Jan. 30-31: "To Have and Have Not" (1944) is less a movie adaptation of the Hemingway novel than a Western Hemisphere version of "Casablanca." Prevented by "diplomatic censorship" from sticking more closely to the book, producer-director Howard Hawkes evidently decided to capitalize on the tremendous popularity of the previous year's Academy Award Winner.

Scriptwriter William Faulkner, who also wrote "The Big Sleep" screenplay for Hawkes two years later, incorporated several of "Casablanca's" most memorable features into "To Have and Have Not." Bogart plays the same outwardly embittered and egocentric but inwardly sympathetic hero in both, and both plots concentrate on the efforts of the other characters to enlist his desperately needed "hard resourcefulness" on the side of the anti-Nazi underground. The center of the action in both movies is a saloon that employs a wise and loyal piano player and a patriotic, emotional bartender. Both films include a hated Nazi (or Vichy) officer, an admired underground leader and his beautiful wife who need Bogart's help, a vicious cat-and-mouse police interrogation scene, and a phone call at gunpoint to assure a safe get-away for the anti-Nazi forces.

Mating Duels

In short, the two movies are pretty similar. But, fortunately, Faulkner has cut out most of "Casablanca's" soggy sentimentality leaving "To Have and Have Not" with the most consistently clever dialogue of any of the Bogies. Despite their common elements, this film has less actual plot than "Casablanca" (which means practically none) and is essentially what Agee termed a "leisurely series of mating duels" between Bogart and Lauren Bacall - "the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while."

Bogart's lines are good - many of them are practically aphorisms of rugged individualism - but, beginning with her seductive "Got a match?" entrance, most of the real classics belong to Lauren Bacall. Watching jealously as Bogart carries off an unconscious woman, Lauren growls, "What are you trying to do - guess her weight?" After a prolonged "duel" in Bogart's hotel room, she is leaving for her own room across the hall. On the way out the door she tells him hoarsely, "If you want anything, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve. You just put your lips together and blow."

Only 19 when "To Have and Have Not" was filmed, it was Lauren Bacall's first movie role. Her performance must be among the most impressive, if not the most skillful, debuts in Hollywood history. Bogart (45 at the time) was impressed. He married her six months after the film was released.

Feb. 1-2-3: "Casablanca" (1942), of course, is the sentimental favorite of Bogart fans everywhere. Originally intended as just another propagandistic war-time melodrama, its appearance in theaters across the country coincided fortuitously with the allied invasion of North Africa, and with such unprecedented quantities of free publicity, the film soon acquired a large and devoted following. It's not hard to see why.

Hero Rick Blaine (Bogart) is an aloof Casablanca cafe proprietor, an idealization of the self-willed outcast, who is sometimes pressed into exerting an ordering influence on his hopelessly muddled environment. A former freedom fighter in Spain and Ethiopia, for some reason unable to return to his native United States, Blaine has become wary of involvement--"I stick my neck out for nobody"--and is resigned to die in Casablanca - "It's a good place for it."

We learn through a misty-eyed flashback that Blaine had fallen in love in Paris with a beautiful Norwegian girl (Ingrid Bergman) just before the German occupation, and was jilted on the day they planned to escape together. She turns up in Casablanca with famed underground leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who is looking for two letters of transit so they can escape to America and he can continue "his work." Blaine has gotten hold of the letters from underground agent Ugarte (Peter Lorre) but vindictively refuses to give them up. The situation is complicated by the intervention of a corrupt Vichy police commissioner (Claude Raines), a rival cafe owner (Sydney Greenstreet), and an evil German officer (Conrad Veidt, Warner Brothers' standby Nazi villain). But, at last, Blaine decides to do the "noble" thing, and he sees that everything works out well, if not happily.

From a detached viewpoint it's clear that "Casablanca" often wallows in second-rate humor and cheap sentimentality of the "Our Song" variety ("Play it again, Sam"). But, happily, it's easy to get in the mood for that sort of thing, and both Ingrid Bergman's charm and beauty, and Bogart's biting cynicism raise the film above the level of the ordinary gooey melodrama.

Even when he is reminiscing with Ingrid to the tune of "As Time Goes By" about the day she left him in Paris, Bogart manages to spit out such stinging lines as: "And there was a guy standing on the station platform in the rain with a funny look on his face 'cause his insides had just been kicked out.... Was it Laszlo you left me for, or were there others in between, or aren't you the kind that tells?"

Toward the end, Bogie's hard composure falters momentarily, "We'll always have Paris. We'd lost that until you came to Casablanca," but Claude Raines puts things back in perspective with the most often quoted line from any Bogart movie: "Round up the usual suspects."