Double Feature: “Dead End” (1937), “The African Queen” (1951)

“Dead End”
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Billy Halop, Allen Jenkins

Sidney Kingsley’s “Dead End” offered a different look at gangland in the ’30s, and so it is with William Wyler’s gritty film adaptation. Wyler’s work does not show the daily tasks, murderous and mundane, of a gangster. Instead, “Dead End” details the two critical parts of the lifestyle: the beginning and the end. Neither one is attractive. At the beginning end of the spectrum is Tommy (Billy Hallop), a ringleader in his East Side slum gang known as The Dead End Kids. The name fits. Tommy lives in abject poverty with his sister Drina (an arresting Sylvia Sidney), who’s participating in a union strike in hopes of fairer wages. Drina gets a look at where Tommy could end up (if he’s lucky) when well-to-do famed Mafioso Babyface Martin (Humphrey Bogart) returns to his stomping grounds wearing a face altered by drastic plastic surgery. While Tommy’s just started down his path of violence, Babyface may have come to the end of his.

This is the intriguing dichotomy that Kingsley’s play sets up; however, it’s a bit simplistic to call “Dead End” a picture of haves vs. have nots. Tommy — like fellow Dead End Kids Dippy (Huntz Hall), Angel (Bobby Jordan), Spit (Leo Gorcey), T.B. (Gabriel Dell) — is miserably poor, but he has Drina there to defend him and bail him out. Babyface isn’t quite so lucky. He has his right-hand man Hunk (Allen Jenkins) and no one else. Gangsters don’t gain notoriety and status by trusting people; they do it by keeping the world at arm’s length. Babyface believes that because people in his circle fear, even revere him, the faces of his past will fall in line blindly, too. That is not to be. Bogart’s expressive face tells its own story, a story without a happy ending. The neighborhood he left behind is the same, but different in the ways that matter most to him. His mother doesn’t welcome him with open arms; she slaps him weakly and berates him, calling him a murder. His one-time dame Francey (Claire Trevor, heart-twisting in a tiny role) isn’t the tawny, slim beauty of his boyhood; she’s a haggard, sickly prostitute at the end of her rope. Used to getting exactly what he wants when he wants it, Babyface is ill-prepared to face grim reality … which is all Tommy and his friends have in the world.

There are other stories in “Dead End” — including the smaller thread about Drina’s love for her unemployed architect friend Dave (Joel McCrea), besotted with rich man’s mistress Kay (Wendy Barrie), and a new boy’s (Bernard Punsly) pitiful attempts to befriend The Dead End Kids — but none quite so arresting as those of Tommy and Babyface. Halop and Gorcey, in particular, set themselves apart from the gang; Gorcey’s Spit has the swagger, and Halop’s Tommy has the muscle. Gregg Toland’s cinematography complements the anxious and slightly elegaic atmosphere, the camera roving over the ramshackle dock, the shoddy, abandoned buildings and the dirty back alleys both Babyface and The Dead End Kids call home. The set feels intimate, and not necessarily in a good way: Everyone lives in everyone else’s back pocket, so the misery of hard times and poverty compounds exponentially. This is the slums at pavement level, the very bottom, and still there is a sliver of hope for the people who live there. They accept the limitations of the slums, while Babyface can’t let go of how things used to be.

Grade: A

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“The African Queen”
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull

Range is a precious commodity in Hollywood. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, when film noir ruled, it was especially precious. Films like “Dark Passage” and “”The Maltese Falcon” offered convincing evidence that maybe it was a commodity Humphrey Bogart didn’t have. Then in marched “In a Lonely Place,” helmed by Bogart’s nuanced, knock-‘em-flat performance. But the true kicker, the real piece of dynamite, was John Huston’s “The African Queen” — not because it was dazzlingly original in plot or technique (it wasn’t) but because Bogart stepped out of character. It might be more accurate to say he leapt out of character, given how different the light-hearted Charlie Allnut was from the Sam Spades, Philip Marlowes and Rip Murdocks of his resume. Allnut’s all humor, no sardonic undercut, no dark subtext … which is surely what secured Bogart’s one and only Best Actor Oscar* (ripping it away from Brando, nominated for “A Streecar Named Desire”). Decades before Sean Penn’s win for “Milk,” there was “The African Queen.”

Oscar aside, there’s something disquieting about Humphrey “Here’s looking at you, kid” Bogart making like Otis the happy drunk on a ramshackle boat. But he plays the part well enough that once the shock fades out the goofy enjoyment sets in (provided viewers can swallow the loony plot about a tiny boat torpedoeing a giant German gunship). Bogart’s Charlie Allnut is the Canadian captain of small vessel The African Queen docked in German East Africa in 1914. His easygoing attitude and coarse manners horrify Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her minister brother Samuel (Robert Morley), missionaries who have started a church nearby. The two ignore Charlie’s warnings that Germany and Britain are at war, and Rose finds herself alone and desperate after the Germans burn the village and Samuel succumbs to fever. Allnut’s return is her only shot at salvation, but she decides to elevate salvation into a revenge plot: She wants to turn The African Queen into a torpedo boat and ram it into the side of the Louisa. Steering through rapids gives her a taste for danger and adventure she’s never had before (the brush with death spawns one of the film’s funniest innuendo-laden lines: “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”). Charlie quickly learns that Rose isn’t nearly the shrinking violent she looks to be.

Huston doesn’t much concern himself with crafting a believable tale in “The African Queen,” which would matter more if the Bogart-Hepburn union wasn’t a harmonious one. The actors have a solid odd-couple appeal that keeps things comical and light-hearted, just enough to balance the zaniness of Rose’s kamikaze scheme. They have the believable chemistry of two strangers thrown together by chance who build a relationship on their shared intense experience. There’s additional appeal in the fact that the heroes of “African Queen” aren’t young and impeccably coiffed and naïve, a welcome reminder that romance and adventure stop being fun after 25. Even as “The African Queen” sputters toward its perfectly ludicrous conclusion, Bogart and Hepburn keep the laughs — some silly, some poignant — coming. The characters bring out the best in each other, something only best romances accomplish.

Grade: B-

*The movie Bogie really deserved the Oscar for was “In a Lonely Place.”

My thought on today

Double Feature: “In a Lonely Place” (1950), “Dark Passage” (1947)

(Due to the sheer number of films devoured by yours truly, Humphrey Bogart Week has been extended.)

“In a Lonely Place” (1950)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Art Smith, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid

For actors, playing a character — or, to be more accurate, a type — is tricky business. Do a poor job, of course, and word gets around, the parts dry up; do an impeccable job and there’s a danger of typecasting. In the late ’30s and ’40s, that almost happened to Humphrey Bogart. He slipped so seamlessly into the hard-nosed characters of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade and the weary, unwitting hero roles (Frank McCloud, Capt. Rip Murdock) that this looked to be his niche in Hollywood. Then along came Nicholas Ray’s claustrophobic murder mystery/thriller “In a Lonely Place,” and Bogart changed his game. Violent, tempermental screenwriter Dix Steele may be the richest character Bogart ever played. His remarkably intricate portrayal of this brutish but articulate and likable man is the defining performance of a touchstone-studded career.

From the beginning, it’s clear that what Dix’s friends and agent (Smith) call “artistic temperament” is really a dangerous, hair-trigger temper. In the opening scene he leaps from his car to start a fight with another motorist; not long after, at a nightclub, a stranger insults Dix’s friend Charlie (Robert Warwick), a washed-up actor and hopeless drunk, and gets a beating for it. There seems to be no bottom to Dix’s rage. So it’s no surprise that when friendly hat-check girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) who went home with Dix turns up dead, he’s the prime suspect. But his new neighbor Laurel (a luminous Grahame) offers a solid alibi for him, and the two strike up a flirtation that turns into a happy relationship. Capt. Lochner (Reid) believes his friend is innocent, but his boss (Lovejoy) isn’t convinced. And after witnessing one of Dix’s terrifying blind rages (which nearly ends in murder), neither is Laurel.

Director Nicholas Ray creates an intense sense of connection between his two leads with the apartment building setting — confined and communal, but also somewhat detached and somewhat forbidding, everyone living so close but so far away at once. In many ways, “In a Lonely Place” feels a bit like a precursor to “Rear Window,” in which Hitchcock parlayed the idea into a look at voyeurism. Dix even hints at the idea, remarking that Laurel can see into his apartment but he can’t see into hers … and he’d take advantage if he had the chance. The unusual setting contributes a sense of closeness in the early stages of Dix and Laurel’s romance; toward the end, however, the closeness starts to feel like a trap she’s hooked in. The confinement brings out tremendous performances from all the players, notably Smith as Dix’s long-suffering but understanding agent and Reid, who wants more than anything to believe his friend’s innocence. Grahame makes her dilemma palpable, and painful, while Bogart makes his rages towering and petrifying. Underneath all the exploding anger, though, there’s a romantic with a self-effacing sense of humor. Bogart finds a faultless balance of these two personas, and right up to the harrowing conclusion he yanks our sympathies in both directions. His manners disarm and charm, yet there’s no denying his delight in a macabre recreation of Mildred’s murder. The rampaging zeal in his eyes there will haunt you indefinitely.

Grade: A

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“Dark Passage”
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead, Bruce Bennett, Clifton Young

In literature, first-person narration is a technique that lends a sense of immediacy, a hard and fast point of view. Used sparingly, this perspective can translate effectively into film (consider the opening scene of John Carpenter’s “Halloween”). The trouble with Delmer Daves’ noir film “Dark Passage” is that the technique is used liberally. The entire first half hour of the adaptation is filmed from the perspective of escaped convict Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart), and as time ticks by what seemed innovative becomes grating. Thanks to Daves’ unusual methods, the audience has no sense of who the character is. His looks don’t make him, surely, but hiding his face sets up a frustrating barrier between him and the audience, a barrier that threatens to sour the film altogether. This is not a promising beginning.

With that trusty Bogart/Bacall magic worked in, though, there’s less danger of that happening. (It’s unfortunate that in “Dark Passage” Bogart displays a disappointing lack of his usual snap and wiseguy quippiness.) The pair again play would-be lovers connected by, it would seem, by happenstance: Vincent, a convicted murderer, has escaped from San Quentin prison, and Irene Jansen (Bacall) appears like an angel on the roadside, willing and eager to help him hide from the police. She smuggles him through a police check and into her apartment, where he discovers she is one of the few who believes he was erroneously accused of killing his wife. Irene understands her involvement is risky — “Was I insane to pick you up on the road?” she asks Vincent — but has her own reasons for being interested in this convict’s case. With her support, Vincent sets out to uncover the identity of his wife’s killer, a task made infinitely more arduous by Irene’s nosy acquaintance Madge (Agnes Moorehead), who testified against Vincent at his trial, and the stranger (Clifton Young) whose car Vincent stole just after his break.

Film noir and even neo-noir films generally aren’t noted for their true-to-life plots (the riddle that is the script of “The Big Sleep” is as easy to solve as the chicken-and-egg debate). As such stories go, “Dark Passage” is less complicated than most, but there are some threads that seem glaringly obvious and some — like Vincent’s fly-by-night but miraculous cosmetic surgery — that defy logic and strain our willing suspension of disbelief. Still, this would be a conquerable challenge if the chemistry was right and the acting superb. Unfortunately, neither hits quite the right note. Bacall, all wrenching looks and cat-like allure, is up to her usual slinky tricks, but Bogart seems uncharacteristically subdued, even dour and (gasp!) unfunny, alongside his leading lady. Their embraces and glances generate the expected heat; it’s when they aren’t together that Bogart’s sluggishness becomes all the more noticeable. Bennett and Moorehead, as a warring divorced couple, provide the film’s zippiest lines, with Moorehead chomping up the scenery every chance she gets. Only Young, as the unfortunate driver Vincent beats up, looks to have more fun hamming his character to the nines. He’s twice as lively as Bogart, and that’s the biggest shock of all.

Grade: B-

Review: “Key Largo” (1948)

Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) is through being a soldier. He’s settled into his new life as a drifter, moving from place to place in search of the odd jobs that finance his food, drink, lodging and cigarettes. Frank wants to put the war behind him, wants to make a career of laying low. But a bit of wrong-place/wrong-time bad luck forces his hand and drums into his head what he’s worked so hard to ignore: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”

Bogart always could take a simple, unassuming line and give it the weary ring of gospel truth. His finest performances spring from characters who fail to bridge the gap between who they want to be and who they really are. In John Huston’s tense thriller “Key Largo,” Bogart’s tired but resilient ex-soldier is not alone in his ambivalence. The Key Largo hotel Frank has stopped in is populated with people who want something they can’t have or are afraid to want. Though they are the hostages of mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), they’re also hostages, in a way, to their own desires. There is Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), whose late husband served in World War II with Frank. She feels an attraction to Frank she’d dare not voice; her eyes give away everything. There is James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), Nora’s ailing and crippled father-in-law, who wishes he was young and healthy enough to take down Rocco and his clowning goons. Saddest of all is Gaye Dawn (a gut-wrenching Claire Trevor), Johnny Rocco’s girl, formerly a hot-ticket lounge singer. When Johnny’s desire for her turned to disgust and cruelty, she turned to alcohol and checked out of reality. Gaye, more than anyone else, knows the burden of carrying the memory of the person you’ll never be again.

So “Key Largo” is a multi-layered character study where much of the action takes place in one location: James Temple’s hotel. The setting manufactures a feeling of claustrophobia that heightens the anxiety; the hurricane raging outside the hotel adds another level of menace. These elements, when mixed with Bogart’s increasingly unsuccessful attempts to seem impartial, ratchet up the tension further. While hostage situations lend themselves to that charged atmosphere naturally, Robinson’s bombastic, smirking performance as the entitled gangster helps things along. He doesn’t make his entrance — Johnny Rocco loves a grand entrance — until his lackeys, Curly (Thomas Gomez) and the wisecracking Toots (Harry Lewis), disarm the local sheriff (Monte Blue) and corral the hostages. Johnny intends to trade some counterfit bills and commandeer a boat so he and his crew can escape to Cuba. He’s supremely confident he will succeed: “I was too much for any big city police force to handle. It took the United States government to pin a rap on me. And they won’t make it stick.” He struts and preens, even tossing Frank a gun and trying to anger him into a shootout. Frank doesn’t nibble the bait, leaving us to wonder if he’ll choose inaction to the end.

Frank McCloud does not represent a new direction for Bogart, but somehow the actor makes the character’s troubles feel new. (That was Bogart’s way.) His slow-growing anger is a dynamite match for Robinson’s cocky, boastful energy, leading to a violent, nerve-wracking showdown that’s a game of cat and mouse. Johnny Rocco is a character, but as a criminal he’s no joke — his sing-for-a-drink treatment of his dame Gaye is purely sadistic, and that scene may be what snaps Frank to action. Or perhaps his motivation can be found in a quieter moment, bar none the most wrenching and beautiful shot I’ve ever seen. The camera moves in slowly toward Bogart, looking down at the sleeping Nora. He reaches out his hand gingerly and strokes her hair. He leaves his hand there. Seconds later, the camera catches him looking at Bacall — and oh, what a look. There’s more longing and romance in that look than can be found in volumes of Romantic poetry. It is a symphony of feeling, and it is the moment where he knows and we know that he can’t play cool anymore.

Grade: A

Review: “Dead Reckoning” (1947)

“I’m not the type that tears do anything to.” This is the wool the leading men of film noir — and “Dead Reckoning” is textbook noir — try to yank over our eyes. They are calculating and sarcastic; they sing a tune about not trusting anyone, especially dames with wide, sad eyes. Capt. Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) plays the part well until his feelings get in the way. Even in the wake of a murderous double cross, Rip can’t ignore his humanity. He does the kind thing even when cruelty is justified.

Bogart made an impressive career out of this back-and-forth between cynicism and personal conscience. Give him cookie cutter part and he’d give you an underwhelming performance. But conflicted men, men who couldn’t be the cool customers they wanted to be — those were his specialty. And Rip Murdock is a lulu of a conflicted soul. Though not a private eye, Rip gets dropped unofficially into the job. He’s on the lookout for World War II comrade Sgt. Johnny Drake (William Prince), who jumped their train and disappeared once he learned he was a Medal of Honor recipient. Anyone that afraid of publicity must have some blood on his uniform somewhere, and the best parts of John Cromwell’s sublimely shot “Dead Reckoning” involve Rip’s recount of the scrapes his earnest search gets him into.

It’s too bad that the story itself doesn’t quite live up to Bogart’s wry narration of its parts. Unlike “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep,” the plot of Cromwell’s film isn’t especially difficult to follow. Unfortunately, the lack of complexity does not translate into consistent suspense. Parts of “Dead Reckoning” involving the femme fatale Coral Chandler — played by Lizabeth Scott, a nervous, inexpressive actress — and Rip’s affection for her stutter. There’s little sizzle between Scott, whose wooden delivery ruins a number of choice lines, and Bogart. He tries hard (or maybe not; this character is second skin to him), yet the tainted love story feels strained and, even worse, uninteresting. This flaw is not immediately obvious because, as per noir tradition, “Dead Reckoning” starts at the end and works up to the start. Limping and bloodied, Rip darts into a Gulf City cathedral looking for a priest (James Bell). He has a tale to tell, and it’s quite a yarn. Rip tracked Sgt. Drake there to learn his friend is dead. There’s more to the story, Rip knows, and in probing into the deceased’s past he finds Sgt. Drake joined up to duck a rap for murdering the husband of Coral, a dishy blonde nightclub singer. Acquainting himself with Coral brings a sinister figure into Rip’s life: club owner Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky, a bit over the top), who may be involved in Sgt. Drake’s unexplained death. 

“Dead Reckoning” has been pegged a B-grade copy of “The Maltese Falcon,” and there’s a wealth of evidence to back up that argument. Exhibit A has to be Rip Murdock himself, a man out to avenge the wrongful demise of a partner. One scene even finds Bogart quoting Sam Spade on the subject: “When a man’s friend is killed he oughta do something about it.” True, in “Dead Reckoning,” there’s an actual relationship to support that reasoning, but there’s no denying the origin of the sentiment. Cromwell’s film also employs a clear MacGuffin, or essentially worthless object that drives the story. In “The Maltese Falcon,” it was the falcon statue; in “Dead Reckoning,” it’s a letter Sgt. Drake asked his friend Louis Ord (George Chandler), to pass on to Rip. The similarities add up, but they don’t add up to a copy nearly as good as the original.

Bogart’s tough-and-humane performance aside, though, there’s one area where “Dead Reckoning” succeeds roundly: Leo Tover’s murky, alluring cinematography. The film establishes itself early as one of the best-looking noir efforts in the genre with an opening shot of Gulf City, its sign flashing brilliantly against the dark, clouded sky. Rip, being the flawed protagonist, gets the heavy shadow treatment from scene one. His story begins in the shadows of a church pew, his face obscured, and ends in the white light of a hospital room. That can’t be a coincidence.

Grade: B-

My thought on today

Review: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

(This review kicks off Humphrey Bogart Week at M. Carter @ the Movies, cooked up solely because I’ve found myself in the throes of a hopeless, all-consuming Bogey obsession.)

They just don’t make couples like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall anymore. From the playful repartee to those lingering glances and smoldering chemistry, Bogart and Bacall in the same spot was a recipe for romance — and not the grating, swoony kind, either. Theirs was a crackling relationship that had smarts and sex appeal. Every time they eyeball each other in “The Big Sleep” it’s like the two are dancing Tango to music only they can hear. They always look to have a dirty secret they won’t let us in on … which is why the Bogart-Bacall pairing is irresistible, and unmatchable.

Their onscreen chemistry is legendary — Bogart married Bacall, 26 years his junior, three months after he divorced his third wife — and evident just about everywhere in Howard Hawks’ wildly convoluted “The Big Sleep.” Though devoid of anything so flirtatious as the “put your lips together and blow” scene from “To Have and Have Not,” there’s one moment in particular, a small one that almost goes unnoticed, that feels positively sinful. The magic happens like this: Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) pays a visit to private investigator Philip Marlowe (Bogart) in his office. Instead of taking a chair, she perches on his desk demurely, trying to look innocently alluring but not, under the gumshoe’s keen gaze, succeeding. She rubs her skirt casually, almost absentmindedly while Philip, never taking his eyes off her, fires off a “go on and scratch.” The skirt gets a tug an inch above her knee; Marlowe gets a peek he doesn’t take, a wry grin he doesn’t shape his lips into. But something has happened. The air is charged. Elicit sex scenes have less electricity than a scratch and a look.

There are scores of red-hot little moments like that between Bogart and Bacall in “The Big Sleep,” and the film’s plot, penned by William Faulkner, works triple-time to overpower them. Because of the strength of the leads, the story, quite blessedly, never succeeds. Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s first novel, “The Big Sleep” introduces Bogart’s Philip Marlowe, a private detective who never lets chit-chat get in the way of a scalding quip. He’s hired by Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron), an aging widower with two saucy daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Bacall’s sharp-tongued Vivian. Sternwood wants Marlowe to get to the bottom of who’s blackmailing Carmen for her latest scandalous act. This appears to be a simple job, which means Marlowe will tumble down a rabbit hole far deeper than he foresaw. The blackmail trail leads him into a much knottier situation. There’s an early murder followed by another (or suicide?), with Marlowe butting heads with casino owner Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) and a ruthless lackey named Lash Canino (Bob Steele).

Is it possible for any viewers to unravel the intricately knotted threads that comprise “The Big Sleep”? Tougher feats have been accomplished, but even Faulkner admitted ignorance about directions his script took, as if he started writing and the story got away from him. Keeping tabs on all the characters, and how they know the Sternwoods, and what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it, is daunting. Faulkner’s script will test — and likely exhaust — the patience of everyone except the most determined viewers. It’s so complicated that there’s the maddening sense that the writer wants to ensure we never know the final score. And because there are so many layers, more than one character gets shafted in terms of development, like the dangerous Eddie Mars, or Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), paid to tail Marlowe, or Carmen, painted as a one-note sex kitten.

Somewhere in the mess, though, the diversions, chases and beatings (shocking in the ’40s) start to fade into the background. Bogart and Bacall shift into the foreground, and their sexually charged exchanges become the reason to hang in there. Any couple who can turn a discussion about horse racing — Vivian: “You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free”; Marlowe: “You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go” — into sizzling foreplay deserves top billing.

Grade: A-

No. 2 (tie): “Casablanca” (1942)

“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
~~Rick Blaine

“Casablanca” is remembered as the motion picture industry’s happiest accidental success, and there’s much evidence to suggest the film deserves that reputation. This was a motion picture of meager ambitions: tight budget, hastily scribbled lines, an ending even leading lady Ingrid Bergman didn’t know until the last moment. It should have been a fiasco.Yet in a display of jaw-dropping magic, these elements combined to create a sly, wistful, sizzling romantic drama and one of the greatest films ever made.

Surely there are scads of essays and reviews to support this claim, but it’s better to speak from the heart. And “Casablanca” reminds this heart why directors keep making motion pictures: because they create worlds outside our own, with characters with hurts and longings that mirror our own yet seem so much bigger. We have room to explore all our feelings in these worlds. “Casablanca” reminds this heart why people love movies: because a cherished few take us on journeys we don’t want to come back from. “Casablanca,” adapted from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” takes us on such a trip, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman leading the way. The film captivates so partly because of their talent and their palpable chemistry; they don’t make onscreen pairings like this anymore. They don’t make leading men like Bogart anymore, either, actors who exude charm and crack wise while hinting at emotional damage that’s nearly beyond repair. When Bogart bites into lines like “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he doesn’t leave a crumb behind.

Thus, Bogart is a fine choice to lead the A-list cast of “Casablanca.” Bogart is Rick Blaine, a scornful merican expatriate living in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. Rick runs Café Américain, the local watering hole with a back room for gambling, and his ever-so-slight nods determine who sees that back room. His café is home of sorts for the downtrodden and the ones who trampled on them: Nazi officials like Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a member of the German army, and self-serving local police captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains); underhanded wheeler-dealers like Signor Ferrari (first-rate character actor Sydney Greenstreet) and small-time crook Ugarte (Lorre, always a delight), who stole coveted letters of transit — a free pass from German-run Europe to Portugal to the U.S. — from two murdered couriers; and refugees hoping to get to America. Rick welcomes them all, but he’s loathe to take up any cause that doesn’t benefit him … until Ilsa Lund (Bergman), the woman who burned him, turns up at the café wanting papers for herself and her husband Victor (Paul Henreid). This is the one thing that flaps the seemingly unflappable Rick: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Bogart’s weary, wry delivery of that famous line remains unmatched. It also suggests Ilsa’s reappearance is about so much more than letters of transit.

So many iconic lines are there in “Casablanca” that the movie nabbed six of the 100 spots in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movie Quotes.”  There must have been a cap to let other films in, for nearly every snippet of dialogue is exquisite enough to deserve a spot. Every line has a purpose. Unearthing old hurts or covering them up. Generating intimacy or backing away from it. Kowtowing to German authority or subverting it. “Casablanca” is one of the rare films with a script where every line feels deliberate and faultlessly placed. Arthur Edeson’s cinematography offers stunning backlighting for a script like this, with his palette of blacks and grays surrounding Bogart — the lighting in Bogart’s drunken scene with pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) is masterful — and special lighting used to envelope Bergman in a hazy cloud. Details like this do more than set the mood; they provide a look for the characters that is potently unforgettable.

The performances, too, are the kind that don’t fade. Bergman’s Ilsa is innocent  and yet has seen too much, sagged under the weight of the mistakes she’s made. Her beauty is ethereal, undeniable, but it’s her spirit and her will, dented though not broken, that beguiles us. She’s bewitching, and still she finds her match in Bogart, an actor renowned for his ability to play cynics ready with a quip and a cigarette. He deserves more attention for what he can do with his face, at once handsome and remote and amazingly expressive. Every time he says “here’s looking at you, kid,” those eyes make it different. Just as every time we see “Casablanca” it is different. It is never less incredible.

(Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait 10+ years to watch “Casablanca” again, discover it’s awesome and have to revise your Top 100 list. Again.)

Review: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a consummate gumshoe. He has the ability to spot a liar from a mile away, and he knows he’s found one when Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) saunters through his door. He pegs her as trouble on a pair of stunning gams, but he cares more about her $200 than her honesty. In truth, her lies are what hold his interest. When she confesses her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and claims she’s done things “worse than you could know,” he doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” Good thing he doesn’t charge extra for the witty rejoinders.

Sam’s unflappability and lack of warmth make him something of an anomaly as a “good guy” in John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Bogart churns out quips like an assembly line, and while they’re canny or downright comical they serve a greater purpose: to create distance between Sam and everyone else. He wants things on an even keel, and emotions have a way of mucking up the peace. So he’s an off-putting choice for a traditional hero. Then again, there’s not much about “The Maltese Falcon” that plays by any cinematic rulebook. If anything, Huston’s taken the book, ripped it to shreds and then written a new one. Huston’s noir film, based on Dashiell Hammett’s thorny detective novel, was a game-changer. Whether “The Maltese Falcon” is the first noir film is up for debate, but there’s no denying the movie’s impact on Hollywood. Few noir films since have boasted ensemble casts or cinematography this good, femme fatales as slinky and devastating as Astor or leading men as exquisitely droll as Bogart. This was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of directing, writing, filming and acting.

“The Maltese Falcon” would lose immeasurable impact if Bogart were even one inch off in his timing and delivery. He isn’t. From the minute Sam Spade appears onscreen, Bogart makes it plain he’s a hard nut to crack. He barely has to say anything; just the sight of him behind that desk, cigarette smoke swirling, is enough. Along comes Brigid and the drama begins. She wants Sam and his partner Miles (Jerome Cowan) to find the dangerous man who has kidnapped her sister and taken her to San Francisco. Miles tails the would-be kidnapper and ends up with a bullet in him. When his widow (Gladys George) shows up, Sam wastes no time putting the moves on her … something he started doing long before Miles died. But despite his lack of compassion, Sam has principles, and they dictate that he find the man who killed his partner. The investigation will prove rocky because of Brigid’s sheer inability to tell the truth. She has many faces that she counts on to fool everyone, since most fall for her knockout looks. Sam’s immunity to her charms is the one thing she didn’t count on.

And so “The Maltese Falcon” starts unspooling. Every lie is followed by another, and more unsavory characters appear: “dandy” Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); the ominous Frank “Fat Man” Gutman (a pitch-perfect Sydney Greenstreet); and Wilmer “Little Boy” Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.), Frank’s flunky. The only commonality is their desire to find the Maltese Falcon, a mysterious and priceless artifact. Convoluted as it is, the plot, ultimately, isn’t the point, just like the falcon statuette isn’t the point. These are merely devices to lead all these characters to the same place: the unavoidable showdown. It’s coming and we know it, but those final 20 minutes are thrilling to behold, a showcase of fine acting. Greenstreet, in his first film, exudes a quiet menace that catches us by surprise (particularly in the scene, so subtly filmed and acted, where he drugs Sam; in the end, he still seems kinder than Sam. Lorre kicks in the comic relief, and Astor is a tempest of an actress (a precursor for Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois), whirling from sobs to doe-eyed swoons with alarming speed.

Still, all roads lead back to Bogart. He’s tough, diamond-hard at the edges, yet lets us see that somewhere deep in there, there’s a reason for all of it. That he won’t reveal the “why” makes his performance all the more powerful. It’s the stuff Oscars are made of.

Grade: A

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