The Best of Bogey

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The only uninspired facet of “Humphrey Bogart: The Signature Collection, Volume II” (Warner Bros.) is the title. This irresistible set of seven films is one of the most focused and illuminating in the series. It tracks not only the making of Bogart’s stardom in the years 1941–44, after a long apprenticeship of interchangeable heavies, but also the studio’s four stages of wartime concern: denial, lampoon, flag-waving, and Marseillaise-singing. The films, of which the crown jewel is a three-disc presentation of “The Maltese Falcon” (including the two non-Bogart versions), are available separately, but a chronological immersion in these movies — complete with new and old short subjects, cartoons, blooper reels, newsreels, and a feature-length documentary — offers an intricate lesson in history as a side effect of popular culture.

The months preceding Pearl Harbor were the best and worst of times for Hollywood. Torn between sympathy for Lend-Lease and isolationism, the moguls feared losing Germany, Italy, and other markets, even as they boasted of the record profits from recent Technicolor triumphs like “Gone With the Wind” and artistic advances by virtually every established director in town — Ford, Lubitsch, Hawks, Curtiz, Wyler, Walsh, Capra, even the independent patriarch Chaplin.

In 1941, direct allusions to Europe — previously addressed full-bore in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” “The Great Dictator,” and “The Mortal Storm” — all but disappeared from the screen. Yet two directorial debuts altered the very look of Hollywood movies, forecasting the shape of a bold new cinema to come: Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” in May and John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” in October. Pearl Harbor would reroute the realization of that cinema for four years, but the stylistic implications were adapted immediately. While Welles was regarded as an interloper from the East, easily dismissed by bean counters, Huston was a company man, one of the best screenwriters around, anticipating a winning year for his work on “High Sierra” and “Sergeant York” even before the brothers Warner rewarded him, at 35, with a film of his own.

The gift had strings, of course: no stars, a limited budget, a brutal shooting schedule, and a property that had already been filmed twice, without success, in the previous 10 years. Huston stunned everyone. Taking to heart the advice of his producer, Henry Blanke (“Each scene, as you go to make it, is the best scene in the picture”), he designed his shots on storyboards, editing in the camera, determined to find a filmic equivalent to Dashiell Hammett’s brisk, street-smart novel. Just as these techniques would later define Huston’s career, so too did the picture’s intertwined themes: the group in vain pursuit of a treasure or goal, and masked identities that obscure motive and character. Huston came in under budget and ahead of schedule, the film was a hit, and the critics saluted him as a major young filmmaker.

The impact of “The Maltese Falcon” was decisive for nearly everyone involved. Bogart was boosted to an edgy stardom that crested with his matinee-idol turn the following year in “Casablanca.” Mary Astor, a veteran of silent films and salacious scandals, was reborn with her finest role, as was Peter Lorre, whose early coups had withered into Mr. Moto exercises. Sidney Greenstreet, a 61-year-old stage actor, made a historic screen debut, waddling into the film at midpoint, and Elisha Cook Jr., who had made about 25 films and would appear in some 75 more, was launched as a cult favorite. Less fanciful performances — by Lee Patrick, Jerome Cowan, Ward Bond, Barton MacLane, and Gladys George — also proved indelible.

Huston invented the modern detective film as vividly as Hammett had the hard-boiled novel, bringing a curiously lasting modernity to movies, while Arthur Edeson’s photography would later be accounted as a source of the postwar school of film noir. The film never falters; visual invention is constant, from the play of shadow and light to character-defining angles (Greenstreet’s girth from below, Lorre fellating a cane from behind) and fluid group portraits (some of Lorre’s finest moments are silent reactions as others converse in the foreground). The confrontations are deep, funny, gripping, surprising.

The film opens with Spade’s girl-Friday Effie, aglow like sunshine, introducing Ms. Wonderly, “a knockout,” who walks in with calculating steps, sizing up Sam Spade, who greets her with the fake solicitude of a banker. “I’m from New York,” she says, which means “I’m not from New York.” “Unhunh,” he says, which means “Sure you are.” And we’re off to the races, Spade genuinely bemused by a gallery of grotesques suddenly swarming into his life. The last 25-minutes are set in his apartment, a bravura setup that augurs the first hour of Kurosawa’s “High and Low,” also staged in a living room. The intensity of the performances are matched by the virtuoso camerawork: the sudden shuffling of close-ups, the choreographed division of loyalties, the gnarled, knotted ugliness of Bogart’s face as he prepares to send Astor to the hangman, Astor’s horrific flinch when the doorbell rings.

Warner offers a spotless print of this film and the others, including the first two attempts at “The Maltese Falcon” — a faithful adaptation from 1931 undone by a lack of tempo, style, and subtlety and the presence of a grinning ninny as Spade; and a 1936 would-be comedy, “Satan Met a Lady,” dreadfully performed by Bette Davis and Warren William, who actually resembles Spade as Hammett described him. It’s hard to believe a mere five years separate it from Huston’s film; they seem to reflect different epochs.

The other four films in this package confront World War II with varying degrees of sentiment, yet failings aside remain slam-bang entertainments. Vincent Sherman’s “All Through the Night” (1942), a Runyonesque comedy of Nazi Bundists in New York, completed shooting eight weeks before Pearl Harbor. Its combination of practiced farceurs and high-stakes drama, in which the nice gangsters defeat the Nazi terrorists (Conrad Veidt and the incomparably malevolent Peter Lorre), mirrors a turnabout in the country as Americans and their representatives in Hollywood began to digest the reality of war.

Sherman, who had once directed Bogart as a vampire in “The Return of Dr. X,” was also called in to finish Huston’s “Across the Pacific” (1942), about Japanese terrorists determined to blow up the Panama Canal. Originally, the script focused on Hawaii, but events in December mandated a new script, if not a new title — the film should have been called “Down the Atlantic.” Huston shot all except the finale, at which time he was commissioned as Lieutenant in the army and sent to the Aleutians. He claimed to have ended the last scene with Bogart in dire straits, daring Sherman to free him; true or not, the end is strictly boy’s adventure. But the ongoing repartee between Bogart and Astor is funnier and sexier in this, their second film, which is fast-moving without being stylish.

Lloyd Bacon’s epical “Action in the North Atlantic” (1943) and Michael Curtiz’s fascinating “Passage to Marseille” (1944) are among the more durable — which is to say least risible — of wartime propaganda films, confirming a rare political unity in American history. Curtiz’s film, despite twaddle about Joan of Arc and the motherland, is especially noteworthy. Its structure violates the key principle of screenwriting: chronological coherence. It begins in the present (call it level one), flashes back via one narrator (level two) to a second narrator, who flashes back to a third perspective (level three), then works back to levels two and one, at which point Curtiz, the great action director, unveils a 20-minute cavalcade of mutiny, antimutiny, bomber attack, and post-battle slaughter.

Bogart plays a French journalist sentenced to Devil’s Island (he’s the original Papillon) who becomes an expert gunner and cold-blooded killer. He’s the hero. Lorre is a good-guy safecracker, Greenstreet a collaborator, and Claude Rains a one-eyed captain relating the overall tale. This disc is made especially savory by the addition of a new featurette on the Free French and the sublime “Jammin’ the Blues,” the best 10-minute jazz film ever made, a reminder that Lester Young is what we were fighting for.

The New York Sun

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