Tag: Humphrey Bogart

Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory (1939)

Bette Davis almost single-handedly lifts another tear-jerker into something grander

Director: Edmund Goulding

Cast: Bette Davis (Judith Traherne), George Brent (Dr Frederick Steele), Humphrey Bogart (Michael O’Leary), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Ann King), Ronald Reagan (Alec Hamm), Henry Travers (Dr Parsons), Cora Witherspoon (Carrie Spottswood), Dorothy Peterson (Miss Wainwright)

Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is vivacious and fun-loving. From her grand Long Island home, her days are taken up with racehorses and fast cars, her nights with parties and booze. No wonder she keeps having headaches and making those small falls, right? Pushed to check it out at the insistence of her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), it doesn’t take long for brain specialist Dr Frederick Steele (George Brent) to diagnose a brain tumour. An operation is a short-term success, but Judith’s condition is terminal. At best, she has a year to live. Steele and Ann decide to keep the news from Judith – but when she discovers the truth she decides to live life to the full with Frederick, the man she has grown to love.

Watching Dark Victory is a reminder of the sometimes-limited opportunities for women in Hollywood at the time. If an actor as radiantly talented as Bette Davis were a man, she would have been playing earth-shattering roles in stirring dramas. This was when Tracy, Muni and March were playing explorers, scientists, world leaders and campaigners. Davis, like other women, saw the vast majority of strong roles for women centred on screwball comedies or as loving wives and mothers. As such she made a career propping up effective, sentimental twaddle like Dark Victory.

Which is to be a little harsh, I will admit, on a fine if unambitious tear-jerker. Dark Victory had been a Broadway play – and a flop. The stage had exposed a little too clearly the blatant emotional manipulation of the story of a woman who falls in love in the final year of her life then facing death with self-sacrificing fortitude. On film though, it could be made to work, not least through the full-throated commitment and intelligence of Bette Davis’ acting.

Davis is too often button-holed into the “camp icon” bucket, but Dark Victory – much like Now Voyager – sees her real strong suit, turning ordinary women, tinged with sadness, into portraits of deep tragedy and emotional self-sacrifice. Davis evolves Judith from a shallow, fun-loving playgirl into someone thoughtful, caring and empathetic. Davis avoids almost completely the obvious histrionics you could resort to playing a woman dying of a terminal brain tumour.

Instead, she meets her diagnosis with a carefully studied casualness that hides her fear, confronts the realisation that she has been deceived with a betrayed disappointment rather than carpet-chewing fury, and faces death with an unselfish concern for others (a physical tour-de-force as Davis acts blind – the final stage of her condition – but hides this from her husband so as not to cause him to abandon a medical research conference he has postponed frequently for her sake).

It’s all, of course, very standard material for a tear-jerking “woman’s picture” of the 1930s. A flighty woman finds love, happiness and inevitable tragedy. Davis fizzes around much of the film’s first 30 minutes with a Hepburnesque energy and wit, jodhpurs and champagne glasses abounding. A great deal of sweet charm brilliantly adds to the poignancy as, in her first consultation with Steele, she fails to identify blindfolded the same object being placed in both hands (a dice, a pencil and a piece of silk, all instantly identified in her left are met with confused incomprehension in her right). This is highly skilled, emotionally committed acting that pays off in spades as the gentle, thoughtful, caring woman underneath is revealed.

It helps that Davis has a trusted director in Edmund Goulding. Never the finest visual stylist or most compelling technician, Goulding’s great strength was his finesse with actors. He worked especially well with Davis, his careful focus on performance over technical flair giving her an excellent showpiece for her skills. Davis paired again with George Brent, a solid but generous actor (with whom Davis started a long-running affair) never better than when breathing humanity and life into an on-paper stiff roll as a noble surgeon who falls in love with his patient.

Brent and Davis’ chemistry and comfort with each other squeeze out all other potential romantic sub-plots, despite the actors in the roles. Lord knows what the Irish Republican Brent made of Bogart’s bizarre Irish accent as Judith’s roguish horse trainer. Bogart looks hilariously uncomfortable, his accent coming and going and he lacks affinity for the role or the film. He still comes off better than the rather wet Ronald Reagan as Judith’s playboy friend. Instead, the film’s finest supporting performer is the wonderful Geraldine Fitzgerald, sparky, firm-jawed and endlessly loyal while torn up with grief for her friend.

Dark Victory, though, rises and falls on the success of Davis’ performance. It certainly makes no secret of the fact that we are heading towards a tragic ending. A parade of doctors emerge to confirm to Steele that, yes, the disease is terminal. When Judith uncovers her case notes, she flips through an army of letters from eminent surgeons repeating the phrase “Prognosis: negative” – she even then asks Steele’s secretary to explain the wording. We are building up constantly towards a show-stopping, three-hankie, climax of Judith’s inevitable decease.

And yet the film still manages to get you. Again, it’s the low-key but honest performance of Davis that makes this. The moment of tragic realisation that death is arriving, then the studied determination to carry on regardless and to spare her loved ones as much pain as possible. It’s the self-sacrificing decency and honour of the very best of the “women’s pictures”. Davis delivers on it so utterly successfully, it does make you wonder what triumphs she might have had if she could have played the sort of roles males stars played, as well as breathing such conviction-filled life into gentle weepies like this.

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

An enigmatic beauty finds fame but not happiness in Hollywood in Mankiewicz’ slightly muddled mix of satire, romance and tragedy

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Dawes), Ava Gardner (Maria Vargas), Edmond O’Brien (Oscar Muldoon), Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano), Valentina Cortese (Eleanora Torlato-Favrini), Rossano Brazzi (Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini), Elizabeth Sellers (Jerry Dawes), Warren Stevens (Kirk Edwards), Franco Interlenghi (Pedro Vargas)

Rain hammers down on a funeral in the Italian Rivera. A group of (mostly) men gather to pay their respects to deceased film star Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). In flashback, two of the men who discovered her as an exotic dancer in a Madrid nightclub, remember her. Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is the world-weary writer-director and her friend and mentor, Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) a publicist to power-mad producers and self-satisfied millionaires who wanted to use Maria for their own ends. Maria’s success goes with a growing loneliness and ennui: marriage to Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi) feels like a fresh start but leads only to further tragedy.

Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa was an attempt to do for Hollywood what he so superbly did for theatre in All About Eve. What’s fascinating is that it’s clear Mankiewicz loved the theatre – for all its bitchy acidness – but clearly didn’t like Hollywood that much. The Barefoot Contessa is a cold, cynical film where Hollywood is a shallow, selfish place with no loyalty and where people are only commodities.

The only exceptions are Dawes and Maria. Dawes – an obvious Mankiewicz stand-in (and who hasn’t wished they could be Humphrey Bogart?) – is an artist, with an abashed guilt about wasting his talents on shallow films. Played with a quiet, observational languor by Bogart (so ashen faced at times, he seems almost grey), Dawes narrates with a dry distance, seeing but avoiding involvement, an arched eyebrow for every event. He’s also got a level of principle and integrity largely missing from the other Hollywood figures.

What we see of them is often hard to like – could Mankiewicz already be so bitter about his profession, just a few years after dominating the Oscars? Maria’s first producer, Warren Stevens, is a spoilt millionaire (inspired by Howard Hughes), played with a stroppy greed by Kirk Edwards. Stevens humiliates underlings in restaurants, treats Dawes like a bellboy, demands total devotion from Maria (sulkily ordering her to stay away from a potential rival at a dinner party) and has not a shred of interest in art. Under his control, Dawes directs films which sound formulaic (Black Dawn!) and which he clearly despises. A screen-test for Maria is gate-crashed by a series of European producers who gossip about money, stars, finance and never art.

Maria rises above all this as a true romantic ideal, her tendency to go barefoot part of her defining characteristic as a natural free-spirit in touch with the Mother Nature (“I feel safe with my feet in the dirt”). Ava Gardner is perfectly cast as this romantic but enigmatic figure, an idealised figure we never quite understand. Introduced as curiously indifferent about auditioning for Hollywood (partly due to her instinctive dislike for Stevens), Maria almost drifts into stardom but finds little contentment. She lives the ultimate Cinderella story (as she comments on with Dawes) but never find a satisfying fairy tale ending after her rags-to-riches story.

The Barefoot Contessa starts as a Hollywood expose, but becomes an ill-focused study of this almost unknowable glamour figure. Gardner is, of course, nothing like what a Madrid dancer from the slums would look or act like, but she is perfectly cast as the idealised figure Mankiewicz wants for his Maugham-ish exploration of ennui and shallowness among the jet-set of Europe. They’re not that different from Hollywood producers: obsessed with status and class, and uninterested in truth and art. Marius Goring’s Italian millionaire turns out (for all his Euro-charm) to be as much a stroppy ass as Stevens (humiliatingly blaming Maria for his gambling losses). Her husband, the Count, seems to be her salvation, but turns out to be as much a deceptive empty-suit as anyone else.

I suppose it’s part of the point that we never get to hear Maria’s own voice, only the perceptions of the men around her. You could say the same about All About Eve’s Eve and Margo, but they were such rich characters our understanding of them was always clear. But Maria is never quite compelling enough and Mankiewicz never escapes from making her feel a variation on a fantasy figure (between sex bomb and earth mother). Mankiewicz was forced to compromise on his central conceit (rather than gay, her husband is cursed with ludicrous war-wound induced impotency) of Maria marrying the man least suited to giving her the family-life purpose she seeks.

The Barefoot Contessa – strangely for a film from a director whose best work was with women – eventually becomes a film about men, fascinated with a woman they can never really understand. Dawes gets the closest, the only man free of sexual desire for her, but to the others she is often seen as an unobtainable sexual figure (on a yacht, she defiantly confronts the lecherous stares of the men on board). When we finally see her dance, she has a freedom and naturalness you feel has been crushed by the circles she now moves in.

It feels like two films pushed together: one a Hollywood expose about a newly-grown star (that film is a broader, farcical one where Edmond O’Brien’s hammy Oscar-winning turn as a wild-eyed, famously sweaty publicist seems to fit); the other a novelistic musing on ennui in the moneyed jet-set classes, where an unobtainable woman is at last obtained by a man who can do nothing with her.

Mankiewicz’s weakness is not pulling these two narratives together into a coherent thematic whole. He himself was later critical of the films structure. It’s beautifully written of course – Mankiewicz is a master of theatrical pose – and Jack Cardiff’s technicolour beauty is outstanding. The Barefoot Contessa sits in the shadow, both of In a Lonely Place (Bogart’s vicious 1950 Hollywood expose) and films that loosely followed in its ennui-exploring footsteps, like La Dolce Vita. But it’s as if Mankiewicz got a bit lost (like Dawes) about what his intentions were in the first place.

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca (1943)

Bogart and Bergman are a love story for the ages in the ever-young Casablanca

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Louis Renault), Conrad Viedt (Major Henrich Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Signor Ugarte), Dooley Wilson (Sam), Madeline Lebeau (Yvonne), Curt Bois (Pickpocker), SZ Sakall (Carl), Leonid Kinsky (Sascha), Marcel Dalio (Emil), Joy Page (Anna)

For today, for tomorrow and for the rest of your life. That’s the sort of lifespan Casablanca has: to see it is to fall in love with it. That’s what people have been doing for nearly 80 years. There isn’t a more popular “great” movie. This is vintage, top-notch, prime Hollywood product, made by a group of people at the top of their game that has such impact you’ll know most of its highlights without having ever seen the film. No wonder people have been saying since it was released “Play it again” (famously, a phrase you will never actually hear in the film itself).

Casablanca, December 1941. Corrupt Vichy France officials rule the roost, with the city clinging to neutrality. European refugees and American ex-Pats mix with Nazi officers – everyone trying to get those all-important “letters of transit” you need to climb onto a plane and get out of the warzone. Letters like this will cause a world of trouble for American ex-Pat Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), keeping Rick’s Café going as a place where politics are never discussed. But Rick may be forced to choose sides when his lost love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) lands back in his life, on the run from the Nazis with her husband Czech freedom-fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Just before the fall of Paris, Rick and Ilsa had a love affair (she thought Victor was dead at the time) and neither of them has got over it. Will Rick take a stand and help Victor flee to continue the fight against the Nazis? Or is this a chance for Ilsa and he finally to be together?

Like many hugely beloved films, Casablanca combines a host of genres into one superbly digestible, hugely enjoyable, package. This is a star-crossed romance in the middle of a war film, with lashings of everything from espionage to gangsters to comedy of manners. In short, there would have to be something wrong with you not to find something to tick your boxes in Casablanca and it’s all brilliantly packaged together by Michael Curtiz into possibly one of the most purely entertaining and crowd-pleasing films ever made.

Casablanca is a superbly written pinnacle of the hard-edged but strangely romantic dialogue of Hollywood at the time, all delivered with more than a dash of humour. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a quotable line in it: and all of them delivered by a brilliant actor. Each scene is a master-class in Hollywood professionalism and skill. From our introduction to the streets of Casablanca – capped with the shooting of a Free-French fighter, who collapses to his death underneath a poster of Petain – to the beautifully evocative set (wonderfully shot by Arthur Edeson) for Rick’s café, where we will spend so much of the movie. In swift economy we see how ruthless Rick can be – not lifting a finger to help to petty crook and friend Ugarte (a wonderful cameo from Peter Lorre) – before understanding fully why he’s like that when he responds with something between shock, horror and desperate longing by the arrival of Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa.

It’s also a film where the stakes are expertly set out. There are jokes about the cold ruthlessness of the Germans, but we are left in no doubt about their danger. (Conrad Viedt is grimly imperious as head Nazi Stasser). The scar on Victor’s face is a constant reminder of the horrors he escaped in the concentration camp (although, as per the time, the film understands these as jails rather than the hell they were). The refugees are putting on a brave face, but there is desperate practising of English and a willingness to trade anything (including their bodies) for letters of transit speaks volumes.

Nearly all of those actors (and Curtiz) are of course refugees and migrants themselves (only Bogart, Wilson and minor-player Page were American). The film gains a sub-conscious depth from this being more than just a story for so many of them. Fleeing from German advance in Europe (or escaping from Nazi persecution) was no theoretical for Henreid, Veidt or the host of great European actors in small roles. You can see that emotion when Victor cajoles the café’s clientele to sing La Marseillaise. The scene never fails to move because of the genuine power of watching real refugees, playing refugees, defiantly singing in the face of the Nazis who ruined their lives (the shots of Madeline Lebeau genuinely tear-stained face or the increasingly moved Spanish guitar player are beyond memorable). You can’t watch this sequence without a lump in your throat.

Mind you can’t watch most of it without that lump. Bogart and Bergman cemented themselves as icons with this passionate love story. It’s grounded, like so many truly affecting romances, on loss and pain rather than joy. Aside from a brief flashback to their time together in Paris – before Ilsa jilts Rick at the train station, rain washing the ink from her note (the sky shedding the tears Rick cannot) – these are two people essentially at loggerheads, because it’s the only way to keep their hands off each other. Rick deeply resents Ilsa, Ilsa can’t even begin to allow herself to think about her lost love for Rick because she fears it will take control of her. Particularly as, in Bergman’s beautifully judged performance, she clearly has a sort of spiritual (as opposed to romantic) love for the noble Laszlo.

It all helped to make Bogart such an icon for generations to come. Bogart is effortlessly cool here, but he’s also incredibly relatable – who, after all, hasn’t had their heart-broken? Watch him sadly starring in the middle distance, befuddled by drink and demanding Sam play As Times Goes By over and over, and it’s no surprise that he’s so torn for so much of the film about what to do. Paul Henreid could never compete with the mix of vulnerability and misanthropic cynicism Bogart effortlessly brings to the part (one of the all-time great performances in the movies).

Bogart is also a perfect encapsulation of what America wanted (and still wants) to be. Minding his own business, but tread on him and he’ll bite back. Not only that, he’ll pick the right side and always make sure he does the right thing. It’s hinted to us that, for all his shady past, Rick has sided with anti-Fascists in Spain and Ethiopia. We even know he had to flee Paris because there was a price on his head. He might “stick his head out for nobody”, but the genius of Bogart is we don’t quite believe him, even while we see him do just that.

The chemistry between him and Bergman – who claimed never to quite understand why the film had such impact – is breath-takingly good. Helped by some of the wittiest and hard-edged dialogue in the movies, they become Hollywood’s own Lancelot and Guinevere. Bergman’s deceptively soft-edged performance, carries inner grit masking her own pain – she also brilliantly manages to show how she could be in love with two men (in different ways) at once. These two characters go through a long dance of denial before finally confessing all: and the iconic ending has the perfect combination of heartfelt longing and sacrifice they both know needs to be made.

But it’s not the only romance in the movie: having almost as much impact is the chemistry between Bogart and a never-better Claude Rains as jovially corrupt Vichy inspector Renault (merrily trading letters of transit for sexual favours and ticking the boxes of his duty while lining his own pockets). Casablanca also has in it one of the greatest love-hate friendships in the movies, between two people who can’t help liking each other, even when they barely have a single interest combined. Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Critical discussion has often revolved around whether Casablanca can be considered a piece of “high art”. It’s hard to imagine Ingrid Bergman’s famous Swedish compatriot directing it. To be completely honest, Casablanca is one of the finest packaged pieces of Hollywood Hokum ever made. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a master craftsman of glorious stand-up-and-applaud films in Curtiz, delivering his masterpiece. Casablanca doesn’t have the revelatory flair of something like Citizen Kane. But no other film in existence so brilliantly exploited the Hollywood formula. And it shows how much power, emotion and joy you mine from Hollywood’s narrative and filmic tropes when they were worked with as much skill and passion as you get here.

It’s a film that not only perfectly encapsulates a whole period of Hollywood professionalism, it also establishes the sort of golden rules – a brittle semi-anti-hero, sacrifice, moral complexities and open-endings – that would increasingly dominate Hollywood in the decades to come. Casablanca is a genuine turning point in Hollywood, a perfect summation of the noirs, love stories and adventures that preceded it, but repackaging them with influential insight. It’s also, above and beyond everything else, a bloody brilliant film that, as Nora Ephon said, you can never see enough.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Humphrey Bogart struggles with a dark capacity for rage In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Frank Lovejoy (Sergeant Brub Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Captain Lochner), Art Smith (Mel Lippman), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicholai), Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman)

Hollywood: it’s a dark town. When movie makers turn their lens on themselves you’ve just as likely to see the dark underside of showbusiness, as you have a celebration. In a Lonely Place was made in the same year as Sunset Boulevard, and it’s even darker and less hopeful than that movie. It focuses on a person with a certain level of kudos, that has led others to overlook his deep personal flaws. In a Lonely Place reveals itself as a quite ahead of its time in its unflinching look at why people find themselves drawn into potentially abusive, controlling relationships with people who talk endlessly about how much they love you even while they try and control every aspect of your life. Overlooked at the time, it’s seen more and more as a classic.

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a successful screenwriter but has gone a few years since his list hit. Hired to adapt a plot-boiler he’s so contemptuous of the synopsis he invites a waitress at his favourite restaurant, Mildred (Martha Atkinson), to his flat one night to describe the story to him. Becoming as bored with her as he is with the cliched plot, he sends her home. When she is murdered later that night, Dixon is number 1 suspect. He’s alibied by his neighbour, aspiring actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) and the two start a relationship. But the pressure from the investigation and his writing assignments bring Dixon’s barely controlled rage more and more to the surface – with Laurel slowly fearing that he could be capable of anything if pushed to it.

It would be expected for a movie of this period – say something like Suspicion where of course Cary Grant is just misunderstood not a would-be killer – for all this to simmer and then resolve itself as a terrible series of errors (mostly of course from the woman). In a Lonely Place doesn’t do this. Instead, from the start we are given no reason to doubt Dixon’s capacity for near-murderous rage. Practically the first thing we see him do is assault a producer – albeit avenging an insult to an alcoholic actor friend. His first resort is violence. It’s something he’ll resort to time and time again, his capacity for anger joined with a self-pity that makes preemptive violence more likely.

It bleeds into the relationship with Laurel, which at first is all goodness and light. The two of them are well-suited, and an excellent tonic for each other: she’s a combination of muse and amanuensis, helping Dixon turn out his script; he opens doors in Hollywood she has spent years pushing against. But Dixon’s possessiveness, resentment and suspicion become clearer, accentuated by Laurel’s reserve and caution to emotional commitment. The relationship becomes tortured as Dixon resents any trace of suspicion against him, alternating with desperately possessive pleading for love. Any deviation from his idea of their relationship is seen by him as an act of betrayal.

Then there’s that temper. It’s there all the time, a sadistic streak that suggests a damaging lack of empathy. Dixon – while vaguely sorry for Martha’s death – is also perfectly happy discussing her demise with a clinical academic interest. He’s unphased by crime scene photos. He feels no guilt about not driving her home. Later, at the house of his friend (one of the detectives) he theorises how the crime was committed with an animation that turns into unsettling excitement. After a row with Laurel he drives a car (with both of them in it) with reckless fury and then nearly beats to death someone whose car he clips. Dixon follows these moments with futile half-apologies – anonymous flowers for Martha’s family, anonymous cheques to pay for car damages. But he never addresses his deep psychological problems.

This relationship becomes one ripe with the unspoken capacity for violence. Gloria Grahame is excellent as a careful, guarded woman who opens herself romantically, only to become terrified that the man in her life could just as easily kill her as kiss her. It’s a tension we feel too. Making breakfast, Dixon may talk about how they will be together always– but his vulnerable voice underlines his own doubts, and his furious insistence that they marry ASAP carries the capacity for fury if denied.

As Dixon, Humphrey Bogart gives one of (if not the) greatest performances of his career. Playing a character who, with his dark rages, allegedly had similarities with himself, his Dixon is a bleak figure. Capable of wit and charm, Bogart also makes him a cruel, seedy and sinister in his excitement at murder, while never preventing us finding him vulnerable and weak in his fear at being abandoned. But not sympathetic enough for us to worry he may end things by murdering Laurel. He’s never sympathetic – his late, motiveless, slapping around of his decent agent ends our chance of finding him that for good – but he’s understandable.

And he lives in a dysfunctional town. Where Hollywood intrudes on the action, Ray makes clear it is dark, unsettling, alien and unfriendly town – a truly lonely place. There are no confidantes or friends: only colleagues and potential rivals. You are only as good as your last credit: when your last few credits are poor, you’re no-one. On the other hand, rage and misbehaviour will be tolerated if you can produce the goods. It’s not a place for humanity or goodness.

Ray’s overlooked classic is a beautiful fusion of film noir and Hollywood insider movie. With superb performances from the two leads, it also feels way ahead of its time in looking at abusive relationships. Abusive partners don’t arrive twirling moustaches. They seem decent, loving and passionate – its only when you start to disappoint them they start to turn angry, controlling and abusive. By the time the film’s end come – and it’s a bleak one – you’ll be hard pressed to find some hope in it. But you will certainly find some great film-making.

Beat the Devil (1953)

Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida and Humphrey Bogart in the tongue-in-cheek Beat the Devil

Director: John Huston

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Billy Dannreuther), Jennifer Jones (Gwendolen Chelm), Gina Lollobrigida (Maria Dannreuther), Robert Morley (Peterson), Peter Lorre (Julius O’Hara), Edward Underdown (Harry Chelm), Ivor Barnard (Major Jack Ross), Marco Tulli (Ravello), Bernard Lee (Inspector Jack Clayton)

Beat the Devil is a curious beast. You could argue it was ahead of its time. Huston and Bogart had started out with the intention of making a straight crime mystery, a sort of Maltese Falcon in Europe. But when they arrived on location, obviously something in the weather got to them and Truman Capote flown in to help redraft the script on a daily basis to turn it into a sort of satirical comedy. For audiences expecting a hard-boiled crime mystery, it left heads scratched and cinema seats empty. Bogart lost a packet on the film – and later claimed to hate it – and it only existed in a badly cut-about version until it was restored in 2016.

The slightly surreal plot hardly really matters. A crowd of unusual people gather in a run-down port in a small Italian town, waiting to take the ship to East Africa. Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones) and Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown) are seemingly upper-class Brits (or are they?). American Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) and his European wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) might also once have been something, but they sure ain’t now. Peterson (Robert Morley) and his associates the suspiciously un-Irish Julius O’Hara (Peter Lorre), rat-faced bully Major Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard) and nervous Ravello (Marco Tulli) are almost certainly all criminals on their way to a big score in Africa. Thrown together, this unlikely grouping end-up in a heady cocktail of betrayals, schemes, affairs and lies that spools out like a demented shaggy-dog story.

Beat the Devil is really more of an experience, a series of gags and light-hearted scenes played with a grin and a wink. Nothing in it is meant to be taken seriously, and this semi-surreal group of events becomes ever more absurd as it goes on. By the time the cast are abandoning a sinking ship, trudging up a beach to be captured by Arab officials who eventually allow them to row back to port where they find their ship didn’t actually sink…you really should just decide to go with the flow.

Instead the film is about shuffling up familiar tropes from hard-boiled noir with Oscar Wildeish farce. Certainly the Chelms seem to have wandered in from something totally different (not least since Gwendolen’s name is reminiscent of Importance of Being Earnest). Harry (a superbly stiff-upper lipped Edward Underdown) is a blithely unaware would-be English gentleman, pompously aware of his social class and blithely unaware that his wife seems to immediately start an affair with Billy. Gwendolen is the exact sort of character you might expect to see in Wilde, a dreamer tipping into fantasist, who blurts out things she shouldn’t and falls instantly in love with Billy. She’s also whipper-smart – more than capable of defeating Harry at chess without looking (“usually he’s a wonderful loser” she tells Billy, by way of apology for Harry’s strop).

Billy and Gwendolen embark on an immediate affair (although of course, in deference to the Hays Code, its just kept this-side-of-implicit). Mind you the film has a zingy wife-swop feel to it, since it’s pretty clear that Maria is far more interested in the British reserve of Harry (“Emotionally I’m English” she says before eulogising tea and crumpets) than she is in the ordinary-Joe cunning of her husband (although perhaps Harry is just as oblivious to this as everything else around him).

Billy is Bogart deliberately at his most Bogart-ish, channelling every grimy-but-smart dubious-hero the star ever played. Bogart plays the entire film with a grin on his face and delights in lines like “Fat Guys my best friend, and I will not betray him cheaply”. He also sparks delightfully with Jennifer Jones, who seems to having the time of her life as a character so flighty and unpredictable that even she looks like she hasn’t a clue what she is going to do (or feel) from one moment to the next.

The supporting cast of creeps and freaks Dannreuther is conspiring with to make a fortune (its something to do with land and uranium) similarly seem to have walked in from a side-ways Dashiel Hammett universe. For all their dirty deeds – and it seems Petersen had ordered a hit in the UK, although never for a minute would you believe this looking at Robert Morley’s puffed up bluster – they are a rather sweetly naïve and incompetent. Morley’s Petersen, a sort of galloping major, carries no real threat. Peter Lorre is very funny as a suspiciously German sounding Irishman (“Many Germans in Chile have come to be called O’Hara” he comments), prone to flights of verbal fancy and a chronic lack of focus. Ivor Barnard is as close as the film comes to threat as the aggressively incompetent Major Ross, a chippy bully who resents his shortness and eulogises Hitler at the drop of a hat. These heavies are each ridiculous figures.

And it makes sense, since the plot is a great inflated balloon of nonsense. There are chases, sinking ships that stay unsunk, a moment where two major characters are briefly believed dead, obsessive conversations about hot water bottles and reveals that puncture any sense of grandeur for each character. It’s the sort of aimless story you could imagine natural raconteurs like Huston and Capote finding absolutely delightful, and the whole film feels like a dramatization of a dinner-table anecdote.

Take it on those terms and its all rather good fun, even if it makes no sense. The cast look like they are having a whale of a time, and the total lack of seriousness about the whole enterprise generally makes it glide by with ease. Take a couple of drinks, sit back, don’t think about it too much and enjoy the jokes.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Three men go in search of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Director: John Huston

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Fred C Dobbs), Walter Huston (Howard), Tim Holt (Bob Curtin), Bruce Bennett (James Cody), Barton MacLane (Pat McCormick), Alfonso Bedoya (Gold Hat)

Is there anything that warps the human character more than greed? Humanity sometimes seems driven only by the desire for more, to fill our pockets with cash and leave the rest behind. It’s greed that becomes the subject of John Huston’s masterful The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – and specifically the effect it has on Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C Dobbs. If you can pick up as much gold as you want off the ground around you, why does it become so difficult to watch others take it away?

Dobbs and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are down-on-their-luck drifters in Mexico, bumming spare change off American businessmen and struggling on hand-to-mouth jobs for shady businessmen. So how could they resist the chance to team up with fast-talking old-timer Howard (Walter Huston) who knows that there’s gold in dem da hills? Heading into the wilderness – partly financed by Dobbs’ lucky small lottery win – the three men strike lucky and start pulling the gold from the ground. Problem is as the piles grow, so slowly does the men’s suspicion each other – not least Dobbs, who grows increasingly paranoid and unbalanced at the thought of any danger to his gold. In the wilderness of Mexico, with bandits across the countryside can the men’s growing suspicion of each other be held off long enough to get the gold back home?

Based on a novel by B Traven – an author so notoriously private that even today no one knows who he was – John Huston’s classic is part adventure story, part treatise on the human condition. It’s also gloriously entertaining at every turn. One of the first major Hollywood films to be shot largely on location, it drips with the sultry heat of Mexico, beautifully filmed by Huston. Huston’s masterful script also packs the film with a punch, from quotable titbits (most famously the oft-misquoted “Badges? I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”) to its Shakespearean touches as a rambling, mad, paranoid Dobbs walking alone through the desert wilderness like a cut-price Lear.

Dobbs is the heart of the film – and there is perhaps no anti-hero more ‘anti’ in the whole of Hollywood than this ruthlessly selfish, obsessive paranoiac. Bogart probably gives his finest performance ever as the scruffy, sweaty, unshaven and bitter drifter who finds he can’t abide the idea of having to give away any of what he sees as his share of the loot. And, worse than that, becomes convinced that the whole world is out to take it from him. 

Bogart digs deep into the weasily, rat-like greed of this man. Bogart fought long and hard to play who he called “the worst shit you ever saw”. Dobbs has a strange moral code and sense of honour that’s entirely personal. Having his character impugned by others is an affront he can’t abide – though murder and violence are perfectly acceptable. He’s the sort of guy who will savagely beat a man who stiffs him for wages and then precisely take only what he’s owed from the guy’s wallet. Bogart is perfect as the cold-eyed loner who talks big at first about partnership, but later whines about how he staked most of the starter capital so should be getting a larger share of the profits. Bogart, in perhaps one of the biggest snubs in Hollywood history, missed out on an Oscar nomination in a notoriously weak year for Best Actor. Perhaps, the vision of Rick Blaine bitterly muttering to himself, covered in flies and filth, while plotting the murder of his friends in the Mexican outback was too much for the voters to take. Either way, Bogart’s late mental collapse into near-Shakespearean envy, jealousy and twitchy paranoia is as effective as it is subtly done.

More fortunate at the Oscars were the Huston family. John had written the part of Howard for his father Walter. It bought Huston Snr the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Walter Huston is wonderful as this fast-talking eccentric, rocketing through his dialogue at a hundred miles an hour, as if he has lived so long through the events he is talking about that he barely has the time or patience to tell the story at a normal pace. Huston adds touches of wonderful eccentricity, to Howard’s insane jig of joy when finally finding the site of the gold, to his infectiously unrestrained cackling laughter. 

Eccentric as he is though, Howard is a decent and honourable man who has every intention of sharing the gold and is well aware of its corrupting influence. The wily Howard is also the only essential member of the crew – the only one with the experience to survive in the wilderness, the only one who can recognise and knows how to mine for gold. The most loyal to the fellowship, he’s the good angel to Dobb’s bad. In the middle of this moral spectrum, John Huston places Tim Holt’s Bob, a plain-speaking, more naïve figure who has elements of both characters in his pride and hunger for gold, matched with his sense of honour and loyalty. The film partly becomes an unspoken struggle for the soul of Holt’s Bob, as we wait to see which way he will fall. 

Not that any of these men are angels. They are all determined to protect what they have. Struggling in shoot-outs with bandits is fine. They even vote on whether or not to execute a fellow drifter (played by Bruce Bennett) who encounters their stake and enquires about joining them for a share. Bennett’s Cody is, by the way, the smartest character in the film, who sees with pathetic ease through the nervy lies told by the three men, as well as acutely analysing their situation and options with a sharpness that seems beyond all of them. 

Of course by that point suspicion between them – specifically Dobbs and Bob – has already grown dramatically. Dobbs takes to spying on his fellows and digs a separate hiding place to which he carefully takes his own share (Curtin takes to doing the same). John Huston includes a marvellous sequence where the three men each wake up in turn during the night – and react with suspicion on noting the absence from the tent of the others. Later Bob will think long and hard before saving Dobbs from a mining cave-in. Only Howard seems less affected about the gold – although with his talk of the corruption he has seen in the past, perhaps he was a Dobbs himself in the past, now grown wiser and more accepting of the easy-come-easy-go nature of gold. 

Huston’s Oscar winning script (he also lifted the Oscar for Best Director, although Best Picture went to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet) keeps the rich vein of irony running throughout the script, even while it shows how susceptible men are to corruption. The film’s final act – and the eventual fate of the gold – is a treat, a natural extension of the films theme of mankind being a dog-eat-dog world. What else can you do but sit in the dust and laugh at it all? 

There are no heroes really in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – even the mountain remains named only in the title of the film – just three men, scruffy, seedy and not that smart, struggling to grab what they can from the earth. Life becomes more and more cheap as the film goes on – Dobbs and Curtin are like brothers at the start, but increasingly come to see both other people and each other as expendable rivals. With Dobbs like some scruffy Smaug, the film boils down to each man confronting his own emptiness. The only character with any emotional hinterland is the drifter Cody, looking for gold for his wife and kids (his story has real impact on Curtin), the rest are just living from moment to moment.

John Huston’s classic is a marvellous musing on the nature of greed and humanity, superbly filmed by Huston with not a single false note in acting or writing. Perfectly placed, it mixes a western vibe with a Shakespearean grandness – and has a simply wonderful performance by Bogart. A classic that really delivers.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

James Cagney leads the way as a hardened criminal in Angel with Dirty Faces

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: James Cagney (Rocky Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (Father Jerry Connolly), Humphrey Bogart (Jim Frazier), Ann Sheridan (Laury Martin), George Bancroft (Mac Keefer), The Dead End Kids

It has perhaps the most famous ending of all gangster films. Faced with his final few minutes on Death Row, charismatic gangster Rocky Sullivan meets with his oldest friend, Father Jerry O’Connell. Rocky is a hero to the kids on the block, and Father Jerry pleads with him: go the chair yellow and just maybe you can help turn these kids away from a life of crime. No way Rocky is going to lose his pride – until the final few moments, when suddenly he collapses into a morass of whimpering fear and terror. Did he decide to listen to Jerry’s pleading? Or did he really go yellow after all?

It’s the question that you are meant to take from Angels with Dirty Faces, a superb example of the gangster genre, brilliantly directed by Michael Curtiz. And it works so well because quite simply no other actor in the history of film could have pulled it off as well as Cagney does. If you have any doubts about whether Cagney deserves to stand as one of the truly greatest film actors of all time, this film erases them. 

Cagney is simply superb as Rocky. Has there ever been a gangster who was so charismatic, so magnetic, so strangely decent in his way, who plays in the corrupt world of crime but has his own absolutely rigid moral code? Few other actors could have you so ready to believe he would ruthlessly pull the trigger at the drop of the hat, and yet would still be someone you’d consider inviting round for dinner. Every single scene hinges on his brilliance as a performer, and his interaction with each character is superbly judged. He is an unapologetic bad guy, a man who openly says that he isn’t sure he is capable of empathy in the same way as normal people, yet he also has a fierce sense of loyalty and doesn’t hesitate to take the rap for others or to put himself in harm’s way to protect those he feels loyalty towards.

It’s all part of the intriguing moral puzzle of the film, that rather bravely inverts the idea of good and evil that the Hays Code mandated. On the surface this is a Board approved plot of two kids from the wrong end of the block, one who ends up good one who ends up bad, with the bad one getting his comeuppance and the good saving souls all around. But scratch the surface and actually this is a film that is making far more subtle points about a world that is in shades of grey. For starters, the most faithful and loyal character in the film is the hoodlum Rocky. 

But more than that, the film stresses that the margin between priest and criminal is very thin indeed. Repeatedly it’s stressed that Jerry is only a priest – rather than a fellow criminal graduate of the reform system like Rocky – because he was able to run away faster from the police during their days of mayhem as tearaway boys. It only takes chance and a few lucky turns, and the priest owes his ability to find God and the good life solely because the criminal happily took the whole rap as a Kid. The priest and the criminal work almost hand-in-hand trying to encourage the local kids to engage more in their community (even if they are teaching subtly different lessons) and their friendship is unaffected by the events of the film. 

Much as the film is building a traditional narrative of crime being attractive but not in the end paying, it is also subtly suggesting that good and evil perhaps coexist in harmony more than we might think (or might be comfortable to acknowledge). Which brings us back to the title I guess: Jerry is an angel with a dirty face from his flawed childhood, but in a way Rocky himself is an angel whose face is covered with the muck of crime. Both characters have lives that have crime and misdemeanours behind them, even if they have eventually chosen different routes.

Curtiz’s film allows this commentary to bubble subtly and cleverly under a host of wonderful scenes and carefully composed sequences. The highlight of which might well be an extraordinarily well made extended shoot out scene, as Rocky faces his final show down with the cops after one crime too many. But it’s a peak of a series of superb sequences that make excellent use of framing and intent. Curtiz even makes the Dead End Kids – a group of, I’ll be honest, rather irritating child actors, whose fates I find it hard to get worked up about – reasonably engaging. There are several other fabulous performances, not least a wonderfully snivelling turn from Humphrey Bogart as a cowardly and corrupt lawyer with more than a few criminal connections.

It all comes back to that final sequence as events catch up with Rocky and the electric chair awaits. Cagney is simply brilliant in this scene, a perfect steel front of composure and pride that we are invited to question whether it cracks or he does so deliberately. Curtiz shoots the sequence in shadow play (apart from one shot of Rocky’s hands clinging desperately to a radiator) – to meet the Hays Code rules about what you could and couldn’t show on screen, the chair being a no – but it works superbly and Cagney’s powerhouse but also restrained performance nails it perfectly. While you like to think Rocky has done the “right thing” you can’t be sure – and it’s that question that hangs over it that helps cement this as a brilliant inversion of the black-and-white morals of the era: we like to think decency has prevailed, but maybe it’s all just being yellow after all…

The African Queen (1951)

Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on a sweaty romantic river cruise in The African Queen

Director: John Huston

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut), Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer), Robert Morley (Reverend Samuel Sayer), Peter Bull (Captain of the Königin Luise), Theodore Bikel (First Officer of the Königin Luise), Walter Gotell (Second Officer of the Königin Luise), Peter Swanwick (First Officer of Fore Shona)

John Huston’s The African Queen is a beloved classic – so much so its odd-couple romance in tropical climes has been endlessly ripped off and riffed on practically ever since it was made. It’s a gentle, enjoyable travelogue of a movie where (truthfully) not much happens, other than we sit back and watch two masters of cinema acting go through the paces with consummate skill.

In 1914 in German East Africa, missionary brother and sister Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) plough their lonely furrow bringing God’s word to the disinterested natives, their only contact with the outside world being drunken Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), captain of the steam ship The African Queen, who delivers their supplies. Their world is turned upside down when Charlie brings news of World War One. The Sayers plan to stay, until German soldiers burn down the mission and assault Samuel who swiftly dies of fever. Charlie agrees to take Rose out of danger on his steam boat – but on the dangerous journey Rose develops a plan to use The African Queen to sink a German gun boat preventing British access to Africa, and Charlie and Rose find themselves – much to their surprise – falling in love.

Truth be told, nothing happens in The African Queen that you will find remotely surprising if you’ve ever seen a film before. Not even in 1951 could anything in this film be said to be pushing the envelope or offering something different to hundreds of studio epics past. Two people who seem to have nothing in common come together only to find, by heck and by jiminy, they actually are perfect for each other. Obstacles are put in place for them to struggle against but eventually love (and our heroes) triumph over all. Hip hip hoorah! You can see why the picture is so widely loved – it’s in many ways totally unchallenging and familiar.

John Huston seems to know this and just sits back and allows the film to almost tell itself with a professional, unfussy precision. The African Queen is an extremely well made film, sumptuous to look at, and never overstaying its welcome. It’s been boiled down to its barest necessities, and as such it works extremely well. There’s nothing extraneous in there – heck the film only really has three characters and one of them dies in Act One. Huston’s demands to film the entire thing (more or less) on location in the Congo is totally validated by the immersive filth, sweat and heat that reeks off the picture and seems to have soaked into the skin of the actors. 

Huston also understood that the real gold here was the acting – and the chemistry – of his two beloved stars. Tales of the making of the film are legendary – Bogie brought along Bacall, who helped out on catering, Hepburn refused to join the Bogart/Huston drinking sessions and became the only one to get ill from drinking the water, all four became lifelong friends. The script originally demanded Allnut to be a chippy cockney and Rose to be a prim schoolmistress type. The parts were re-written, Allnut into a “Canadian” (yeah right) while Hepburn reimagined Rose as, by her own admission, a sort of Eleanor Roosevelt in the jungle.

But it works a treat because both stars are on fire in this vehicle. Bogart perfectly mixes drunken awkwardness and defensiveness with a roguish charm, and what grows into a sprightly delight at being taken seriously for the first time in his life. Allnut is besotted with Rose from early on – even if he can’t admit it – and his whole personality seems to flourish and grow from her attentions, while never losing that slight “little boy lost” air. Mind you, Rose is as clearly attracted to Allnut early on as he is to her – but with her ideas of standards she would never allow herself to explore those feelings except in extreme circumstances.

Hepburn is such a gifted actor that you always know Rose is a far more intelligent, interesting and dynamic character than the one we are introduced to playing piano at one of her brother’s interminable sermons. Shaking off – with Allnut’s help – her shock at his death, she swiftly displays a head-girlish determination and pluck,that extends from rolling up her sleeves to steer the boat to laying out a plan to torpedo a German gun boat. Far from domineering Allnut, she flourishes and grows just as he does from her attention, and Hepburn suggests worlds of feeling and engagement opening up in Rose that she has never considered possible before.

The chemistry between them is scintillating and extremely warm, while the burgeoning romance is very sweet. I love the gentle way they switch form formal address to “Rosie” and “Dear”, the first few times each with that gentle hesitation that half expects rejection and anger. The film is also surprisingly daring about its depiction of sex (it’s pretty clear Rose and Charlie get jiggy in the boat at least twice while cruising down the river). The film mixes this touching stuff with some generally winning comedy – Rose pouring away Charlie’s huge whisky reserve after a particularly drunken display early on is a highlight – that really plays off the odd-couple combination of the two of them. It also helps play into the sweetness of the romance: Charlie impersonating a hippo to a delightedly bemused Rose is also very sweet.

It’s obvious stuff really – and Huston intersperses a few too many shots of crocodiles and hippos, as if he was keen to hammer home that they actually went on location – and there isn’t much in the film to surprise you or that you might not expect. It’s really all about the success of the two stars working together – and their natural chemistry and warmth spills out of the screen. Really it’s Bogart and Hepburn just doing their thing – but when their thing is as good as is this, you can certainly sit and watch it for ages.