They say sex sells, but it never flew off the shelves quite
like it did in the heyday of the studio system. Back then a guy didn’t need a
six-pack to get us melting, though it didn’t hurt — just try to resist the
swaggering muscularity of Brando, busting out of that white T-shirt in “A
Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). What the stars had then was energy, suavity,
glamour. Clark Gable drove us mad with the glint in his eye. Errol Flynn
swashbuckled his way into our hearts. Cary Grant smooth-talked his way
into our dreams.
Humphrey Bogart was not this type of star.
Even in his early days playing second-tier gangsters in
movies like “The Roaring Twenties” (1939), his face was slightly drawn, his voice
as gritty as a gravel trap. Though he was the son of a New York surgeon, an
attendee of Andover and Yale, he exuded blue-collar gruffness. Maybe it was
just a mark of his talent, but I watch his unsavory trucker in “They Drive By
Night” (1940) and see a city tough who made it to the big-time through guile.
Dropping the “r” or the “g” off every other word, he steals Raoul Walsh’s
classic noir from right under George Raft’s nose. When he grabs a shady
compatriot by the collar, demanding the $300 he feels he’s owed, Bogart’s slim
frame effortlessly mixes trickery and strength — he’s an actor whose
unscrupulous means and moral ends are not contradictory but fitting.
It was “They Drive By Night” that made Bogart “Bogie.” Of course he’d have his shot as leading man, in some of the most
iconic roles in the history of cinema: as Mad Dog in “High Sierra” (1941), Sam
Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” (also 1941), Fred C. Dobbs in “The Treasure of the
Sierra Madre” (1948). But to be fourth-billed (behind George Raft, Ann Sheridan,
and Ida Lupino), in a role just this side of underwritten,
and emerge with a definable persona, well that’s what stardom is. Starting with “They Drive By Night,” the early ’40s saw Bogart take sex appeal in a new
direction. He didn’t request attraction, but demanded it. He didn’t use
seduction. He used force.
It turns out Bogart was that type of star. He just predated
the vogue for the sexy antihero — the end-of-the-bar misfit, moody and cynical
— by about three decades. Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, and others
discovered this in the Seventies. After the end of the Production Code, there’s
surely more violence in the leading men, which takes them to places darker than
even Bogart could reach. But with Bogart sex became less about conventional
beauty than about melding outer toughness with inner fragility. The grifter
with a heart of gold, you might call it.
In his films with Lauren Bacall, particularly “The Big Sleep” (Howard Hawks, 1946), the double entendres flare from the end of cigarettes. In
one scene, the camera comes in tight and the lounge recedes. It’s just Bogie
(as private eye Philip Marlowe) and Bacall (as femme fatale Vivian) over
highballs, trading Hawks’ unmatched sexual innuendoes like champion tennis
players in an extended rally. They build momentum, getting into the groove.
Bacall leans back and pulls a smoke suggestively from her purse, goading him to
lean forward and light it for her:
Marlowe: You’ve got a touch of class. But I don’t know how —
how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle. Go ahead
Marlowe, I like the way you work. In case you don’t know it, you’re doing all
Marlowe: There’s one thing I can’t figure out.
Vivian: What makes me run?
Vivian: I’ll give you a little hint. Sugar won’t work. It’s
Marlowe: Then why’d you try it on me?
Notice how he leans back as he says that last line. He
doesn’t try sugar with her, and won’t let her sugar work on him. We’re talking here about
why we go to the movies in the first place, which is in part to fantasize about
being this cool.
Surely, though, the reason AFI once ranked Bogart its top male
“Legend” is not simply erotic devotion. I think it has mostly to do with the
way Bogart used his allure to get at something all his characters share on a deeper
level, which is desire. This is most clear when there’s not even a woman in
sight: as Fred C. Dobbs in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Bogart gives his finest performance. The
desire’s not fleshly but financial; Dobbs is a prospector looking for the
mother lode, pushed to insanity by the belief his partners are trying to pull
one over on him. A tragic hero in ratty denim, Bogart plays Dobbs almost like a
leading man — you barely realize he’s the villain until the credits have
rolled. See Bogart in the firelit camp, greed flashing on his face like lightning.
Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events present theatrical screenings of “The Maltese Falcon” Wednesday, February 24. Check participating cinemas and buy tickets here. The Warner Archive re-releases of “The Big Sleep” and “Key Largo” are available on Blu-ray today.