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Bogie and Bogart

Strange but true: many of the stars most frequently accused of “just playing themselves” — John Wayne, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart among them — were those who took years developing and polishing their screen personas. Bogart is a particularly fascinating example of a late bloomer — a performer who found that the style he’d developed for Broadway didn’t work at all in the movies, thanks to a camera that read him, not has a handsome Park Avenue ingenue, but as a shifty, glowering malcontent. By the time “Bogie” appeared in his more or less mature state in Raoul Walsh’s 1941 “High Sierra,” Humphrey Bogart had been in movies for thirteen years, playing the kind of roles that Ralf Harolde or Barton MacLaine might have turned down. But something was there that even Bogart didn’t seem to know about, and once it emerged it took on a life of its own.

A new gift set from Warner Home Video, “Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection,” brings together no less that 24 features on 12 double sided discs, conveniently packaged in slim cases and priced at an irresistible $99.98, currently discounted to $69.99 at many outlets. There’s little here that most visitors to this space would not have already seen, and one might have wished for a few more of Bogart’s harder-to-see B pictures, like Frank McDonald’s “Isle of Fury” or Lloyd Bacon’s “Racket Busters,” rather than A films, like “Dark Victory” or “Virgina City,” in which he’s only a supporting presence. But as near as I can tell these are the same high quality transfers that WHV has been offering for years, now offered at approximately $3 a title. Was you ever bit by a dead bee? My New York Times review is here.

59 comments to Bogie and Bogart

  • By the way, David Ehrenstein reported on the HOUSE NEXT DOOR comments section for MYSTERIES OF LISBON that Mr. Ruiz is being treated for liver cancer. A follow-up from another poster states that he is recovering from an operation, and may not direct for film for another year or so (an eternity!); his next project may be a theatrical production of HAMLET in Chile. Best wishes to him and his family; one hopes we will be blessed with many, many more Ruiz films to come.

  • I recently saw CERTIFIED COPY here in Scotland. It’s sometimes remarkably beautiful with a interesting play with off-screen space and repetitions. It’s also playful and funny and I liked it a lot, even though it sometimes got a bit too clever for its own good, and William Shimell, playing the man, has a very boring voice (if you can actually say such a thing…) He’s not an film or theatre actor but comes from the opera stage, if that has something to do with it.

    I’m glad Walsh is still being discussed after the summer’s great thread. Been doing a little retrospective and I’m impressed by many things. Will continue to see as many films of his I can get my hands on.

    Bogart and Hawks is one of the greatest actor/director constellations I know of.

    Isn’t IN A LONELY PLACE a fantastic title?

  • I saw BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER (Ulmer) at the drive-in as a little boy. Had no idea who Ulmer was then. But the design of the futuristic world fascinated me. All those buildings made of triangles. In school later, kept trying to make pictures out of triangles, and re-create the architectural style.
    Films (and paintings and comics) of the future are wonderful. They open our eyes to amazing new possibilities. Every time I see METROPOLIS it overwhelms me.

  • Blake, thanks for the kind words (10.14 @ 3.17 pm). Funny how the same thinking can apply to Michael Winterbottom’s powerful yet unfortunately blunt “The Killer Inside Me”–plumping someone in the category of ‘serial killer’ is an easy way of explaining cruel behavior. I don’t think Dostoevsky ever settled for that–he suggested (or possibly recorded) pathological symptoms, but it was never ultimately and exclusively that.

  • Brian Dauth

    Jean-Pierre: Forgive my delay in responding. When I posted about VERTIGO being of its time, I was thinking of several things. On the most basic level, the clothes and automobiles are of the late 1950’s – presented in a stylish, “Hollywood” manner, but believable (to me) as what the characters would wear in “real” life as opposed to “reel” life. I get the same sense from other films, but in VERTIGO there is a special tang of verisimilitude (I have no doubt that Henry Bumstead’s set designs also play a role).

    There is the scene of afternoon dancing at the Fairmont. Also, Scottie’s nightmare seems just the sort of dream that a 1957 studio film would produce.

    Midge and Judy come across to me as inhabiting the role of “independent” women in a way true to the time. Midge is college educated, has her own place and job, but her current assignment is to make drawings of a new brassiere design tossed off by a man in his spare time. She also would like to be married. She seems anticipatory of the evolution in gender relations that is only a few years off. Judy is the shop girl updated for the late 1950’s – she left home when her father died (an intriguing scrap of information), and is on her own as well. She is independent, but on a lower socioeconomic scale than Midge and can be picked up (and has been). Both Midge and Judy have powerful moments when they make a choice – Midge to walk away and Judy to permit herself to be transformed (again). Each time the choice is made in the shadow of Scottie – very much the way women’s choices in 1957 occurred within boundaries set by men. Hitchcock captures the state that gender/social relations with accuracy and a deft touch. There is a sense of social flux that resonates behind the narrative.

    This sense of flux (repeated in the narrative itself) reminds me of Adorno’s force fields (or Benjamin’s constellations). There is a dynamic interplay of attraction and aversion in the film that for me connects/interacts with the change in social relations that were stirring in the late 1950’s. When I watch the film in 2010, I sense the start of the upheaval that continues to this moment. In one way, the 1957 specificity of VERTIGO illuminates the world I inhabit today. I agree with you that other films – surely Sirk’s – engage their times as VERTIGO does. But somehow, VERTIGO has come to seem to me to do it more powerfully than most others. And yet (and here is the paradox for me), Hitchcock accomplishes this with what I experience as a light and precise touch. For all of its intensity, VERTIGO strikes me as also being light on its feet (maybe all of those narrative ellipses create breathing room for the viewer).

    These thoughts occur as I engage in my once-a-decade-or-so reading of Melville’s fiction (“Moby Dick” onward). I am struck by how specific to the mid-19th century his work is, and yet I also feel that I could be reading a novel written within the last five years. Both “Moby Dick” and VERTIGO seem to possess a specificity that renders them completely contemporary.

    These are my thoughts at the moment – very rough I am afraid. Hope they are helpful.

  • Bob Cooley

    The lighting in that still from “The Big Sleep” is breathtaking.

  • There are literally hundreds of circles in Raoul Walsh films. The geometry is part of their visual style. In HIGH SIERRA the characters wind up staying at the “Circle Auto Court”.

    Metaphorically, Raoul Walsh had his headquarters at the Circle Auto Court. So did Fritz Lang, and Andre de Toth, Vincente Minnelli and many other classical directors whose films feature geometric patterns.

    Classical films have deep creative stylization, AND links to the zeitgeist.

    Raoul Walsh also loved sound equipment, which is everywhere in his work. In HIGH SIERRA the radio broadcaster on the rocks at the end is treated as a person of glamour: radio was vastly important in 1941, both in the public eye, and also, one suspects, in Walsh’s. The broadcaster is the best dressed man in the film. He is neither in the sports clothes of the idle rich, worn by the mean car driver and the well-to-do at the resort, nor is he in the poverty stricken clothes of the working people. Instead, he is a really good trenchcoat, suit and tie. He looks like the social ideal of the period, a man with a constructive, highly admired job.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Brian, I wasn’t living in the USA in the fifties and all I know about life there at the time I know from what I’ve read and from the movies. I can’t really tell to what extent Midge and Judy are women typical of the period, but it seems to me those characters could have been pretty much the same in the forties or even the thirties. Moreover, if you feel that Midge is “anticipatory” of the future evolution in gender relations (you must be thinking of the mid to late sixties) then she’s not really representative of the fifties.

    I find it particularly difficult to view Judy as your typical shop girl (even “updated”)and “independent woman” of the time considering that she accepts to: A. play the major role in a weird plot to murder another woman; B. for that purpose, completely change her physical appearance and demeanor (which suggests that she is more of a fine actress than an ordinary shop girl); C. recreate her impersonation as she switches again from Judy to Madeleine to satisfy Scottie. Throughout the film she has been manipulated, turned into a mere passive puppet, first by Elster, and finally by Scottie. Far from independent she comes across as one of the most dependent characters in film history. A dependency on men, as you noted, but while women’s dependency on men may be seen as typical of the fifties, the nature of that dependency in VERTIGO is of such a far-fetched, incredible nature that you just can’t fit it into a view of gender relations at the time except in the utmost metaphorical way.

    Actually VERTIGO is so dream-like, not to say nightmarish (let’s conflate the two into “onirique” — which sounds less pretentious than the English equivalent)that it provides a serious challenge to any attempt at viewing it as a period piece with a message about social relations and their evolution at the time. Of course VERTIGO’s unbelievable story, which constantly challenges our suspension of disbelief (yet fails to disrupt it), has to be rooted into the superficial “reality” of everyday life, which is narrative cinema’s common ground. The contrast and tension between the outlandish and the down-to-earth are ultimately what make the film so compelling, and in that sense I understand and respect what Brian was trying to say. Original approaches are always welcome. Who else would have compared VERTIGO with MOBY DICK?

  • Brian Dauth

    Jean-Pierre: My response to VERTIGO has evolved from indifferent to positive, but without following the path taken by many viewers. As I have stated before, I do not possess a Romantic sensibility, so if I experience VERTIGO as “onirique,” the nightmare is that of imbalances of power and control in society. I think one of Hitchcock’s great strengths as an artist is how he includes markers of social relations in his films – he pays close attention to the economic and class status of his characters. I do not think he is trying to send any message, but rather this attention to such details is just another instance of his insistence on authenticity in his films. I understand the experience of VERTIGO as a dream film about obsession and its pathologies. I also see how both Scottie and Elster can be viewed as representing the Romantic artist and his obsession to create the work of art. But those are subsidiary understandings for me.

    As I view the film, the level of manipulation Judy suffers is a perfect correlative for the manipulation of women by men in 1957 (and the way society forced women to become competitors with other women). Even today, male majorities control the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of American government (and let’s not even look at the economic inequalities experienced by women in the workforce). After World War II, there was a burst of social and geographic mobility not only among women, but among African Americans and queers as well. The recurring refrain the film about the “freedom and power” once enjoyed by men — now in eclipse – sets as much a tone as Bernard Herrmann’s music (Scottie hanging by his fingertips is a wonderful correlative for the sense of impotence an elite feels when the Other begins to assert itself).

    Midge has two important/powerful moments that both occur out of Scottie’s sight. The first is when she chides herself for painting her head on Carlotta’s portrait. She calls herself “stupid,” having realized that her sensible response to the evidence of Scottie’s growing obsession was not the answer. In addition, she has violated social codes: Carlotta’s portrait was most probably both commissioned and painted by a man. She has dared to alter a male-created representation (fetish object) of a woman, interpolating her own sensibility. She knows the rules, and calls herself “stupid” for having forgotten to play by them, believing that her long relationship with Scottie had created some flexibility between them.

    Of course, Judy’s moment is the letter-writing scene (one of my favorites in all of cinema) where she makes the decision to allow herself to be transformed once more. What can she do? Men want what they want, and in 1957 they had the societal power to achieve their desires (still so today). I do not see Judy as dependent – that puts the burden on her, i.e., if she hadn’t had a dependent personality, then she would have been strong enough to leave. Judy has limited options (even fewer than Midge who is of a higher social status). She makes a bet on her aspirations – that Scottie would love her (just as today thousands of people vote their aspirations and support politicians who enact policies that are not in the interests of those who elected them).

    But Scottie fails her. When she offers herself to him one last time at the top of the bell tower, he does not embrace her because in her real humanity she does not correspond to the woman of his dreams. Had he held her, when she is startled and steps back, he would have been able to prevent her falling.

    Both Midge and Judy make decisions in situations that are determined and circumscribed by the rules set down by men as they pursue their desires. Midge walks out of the movie (I have always hoped she leaves the sanitarium and heads to a Daughters of Bilitis meeting – but that is just me). Judy tries to go along with Scottie’s rules and still assert herself, but even with that strategy, she transgresses societal norms and pays the price.

    For me, VERTIGO is a movie about two women – Midge and Judy – and their encounters with male control and desire. It is also a film that is a perfect embodiment of the Romantic aesthetic and (at the same time) the sharpest critique of that aesthetic one could ask for (in this respect, the film reminds me of Visconti’s THE LEOPARD). If VERTIGO reminds me of “Moby-Dick,” it is because both work simultaneously (and with equal power) on the personal/psychological level and the cultural/sociological level. Ahab pursuing the white whale is as unbelievable and extravagant a tale as Scottie pursuing his Madeleine. But the very nature of these exaggerated narratives allows the reader/viewer insight into the social systems they are delineating.