Humphrey Bogart is practically the face of film noir. While not quite a genre, the very flexible film movement reflected America's malaise following the Great Depression and eventually World War II. There was a grimness and heightened sense of realism to the movies, often made on lower budgets and with a documentary intensity. Even when the movies ended happily, as many did, the feelings unearthed in the telling of the story would be left unresolved to gnaw at viewers indefinitely.
Bogart, the Broadway actor turned B-movie character actor turned one of the biggest stars in the world, fit the mood perfectly. His scars and trademark lisp separated him from his more conventionally beautiful peers and gave him a natural feel for the hardboiled material. His way with dialogue — spat out with ferocity or tenderness — colored the films as well. His cinematic stature, helped by his refusal to do television, also meant that few costars could match him in presence. His generous nature as a performer, however, meant that he never stole the spotlight from the movies' large ensemble casts.
Through his work in the '40s and '50s, Bogart was in a number of international crime films, melodramas, romances, and detective movies that all fit broadly into the world of film noir. Whether they were dealing with ripped-from-the-headlines tales or tales of spiritual redemption (and corrosion), the movies were all unified by their star. Here's an overview of Bogart's noir films, ranked worst to best.
If nothing else, 1951's "Sirocco" attempts to draw similarities to the much-loved Humphrey Bogart classic, "Casablanca." Like that movie, it's exotic and has a hard-to-locate moral compass, with Humphrey Bogart as Harry Smith, an amoral figure just trying to make a quick buck. He's an arms dealer in Syria, selling weapons to the guerilla Syrians fighting French Colonial rule. The movie was one of a handful that emerged from Bogart's ill-fated company, Santana Productions, which he used as a means of making films independently from the big studios.
While a "Casablanca" type of thriller was not a bad call, "Sirocco" makes the mistake many such movies did — focusing on the convoluted plot mechanics ahead of the rich atmosphere and lovesick emotions. It also lacks the memorable side characters and tangents that give film noir its sense of vitality. Bogart, however, is in good form as a cynical black marketeer. "What do you care whose gun it is as long as it isn't aimed at you?" he asks as Harry, summing up the survival instinct some of his most enduring protagonists live by.
15. Tokyo Joe
Another Santana Productions international thriller, 1949's "Tokyo Joe," is one of many movies that cast Humphrey Bogart as a veteran of World War II. As if to directly address the fears many felt following the end of the war, the movie is set in Japan during its postwar occupation, with dozens of opportunists seeking to capitalize on the chaos of the nation. As Joe Barrett (Bogart) returns to Tokyo to see how his old bar (Tokyo Joe's) is doing after the war, he soon finds out more is going on than he realizes.
A conspiratorial feeling surrounds him, faced with distrust from the American military officials he meets there, as well as the Japanese gangsters whose work he agrees to do for a paycheck. Finding out his presumed-dead wife Trina (Florence Marly) is alive with a seven-year-old daughter adds to the sting. Sessue Hayakawa, some years before his major work in "Bridge on the River Kwai," makes for a great villain as Baron Kimura, but the plot is chintzy and busy, so much so that even Bogart strains to hold it together. When you learn Trina's daughter is actually Joe's, it's no shock. Still, the movie's second unit location footage of Tokyo makes for an intriguing document of a city in flux, even if it's decidedly from a western point of view.
14. Knock On Any Door
1949's "Knock On Any Door" has a hint of sensationalism and a lot of social conscience. It was a project that made some sense for a lifelong progressive like Humphrey Bogart to put himself behind via his Santana Productions company. And by hiring director Nicholas Ray to make a movie about juvenile criminality, Bogart also inadvertently set the stage for something like "Rebel Without a Cause" years later.
Bogart plays a lawyer named Andrew Morton, tasked with defending Nick Romano (John Derek), a young man accused of killing a police officer. Even though the movie shows Romano's guilt early on, Morton sees in Romano a twisted version of himself, one who took the wrong path out of the slums. He finds a great deal of sympathy in the tormented young man, and — convinced of Romano's innocence — defends him on the basis of the experiences they share.
Per Eric Sperber and A.M. Lax's book, "Bogart," film critic Pauline Kael said the titular actor was "wearing" in the scenes in which he preached the ways that slums produce violence. Bogart, however, has all the needed electricity for a courtroom drama performance — the problem is John Derek, who came in as a replacement when Marlon Brando dropped out of the movie. Derek doesn't have the necessary brooding quality that Brando or a younger Bogart would have delivered, which weakens the movie's sense of tragedy.
13. Deadline — U.S.A.
Casting Humphrey Bogart as a journalist always yielded positive results. Something in his demeanor suited the archetype of the sweaty, fast-talking newsman, and 1952's "Deadline – U.S.A." understands that better than most movies. Ed Hutcheson (Bogart), managing editor of "The Day," is fighting for justice, his ex-wife, and to keep the lights on at his valued paper, owned by his late friend.
As the paper's reach is diminished and its widowed owner (Ethel Barrymore) seeks to sell it, Ed struggles with trying to capture the ongoing case against a gangster named Rienzi (Martin Gabel). It may not be one of the great newsroom movies, but "Deadline – U.S.A." is compelling, and its ethical quandaries make for an exciting Bogart performance. When a woman who turns out to be Rienzi's mistress turns up dead, Ed makes the difficult call not to put her pictures on the front page. The bait is instead taken by their competing paper, which is also set to purchase "The Day." By the movie's end, the sale goes through, but not before Ed puts out the story accusing Rienzi, even as the gangster viciously threatens him.
Bogart wasn't the original choice for Ed. According to TCM, that role almost went to more magisterial presences like Gregory Peck or Richard Widmark. But it's hard not to watch the movie and see he was the right choice, even if it was demanding for him.
12. They Drive By Night
With Ida Lupino dominating and quickly overtaking the movie, it's hard to call Humphrey Bogart the star of "They Drive By Night." You can't even call him the male lead, a title that belongs to George Raft. But even with a supporting role in this seedy trucker melodrama, Bogart leaves a big impression. For director Raoul Walsh, it wasn't as groundbreaking as his unsung early John Wayne Western, "The Big Trail," but it was a well-told story of unsavory desire.
As Paul Fabrini (Bogart) looks to leave the independent trucking business, his brother Joe (Raft) looks to expand their reach. Joe's friend's wife Lana (Lupino) lusts after him and is willing to kill so that she may have a chance with Joe. Bogart is well-cast as Paul, who loses his arm in a trucking accident and grows bitter toward his brother before the movie's inevitable happy ending. While Raft's fairly bland performance fails to function as a foil for Lupino's vivid, memorable work as a woman gone mad, it's hard not to think of how Bogart could have matched her, as he would later on.
The movie would end up being a necessary stepping stone for the actor, one that set up his working relationship with Raoul Walsh and Ida Lupino shortly before his star-making turn in "High Sierra," their next collaboration.
11. The Enforcer
1951's "The Enforcer" casts Humphrey Bogart as District Attorney Martin Ferguson in a case that draws heavily from the real-life investigation of Murder, Inc. in the early 1940s. While that landmark case exposed the power held by the mobs comprising the National Crime Syndicate, as well as their methodology for hiring contract killers to execute "hits," the movie narrows its scope to a single leg of the investigation.
At the film's outset, Ferguson hunts after the crime lord, Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane). When his star witness, Rico (Ted de Corsia), a reformed contract killer for Mendoza, falls off the edge of a building to his death, Ferguson needs to dig back into the case, looking for anything he can find to put Mendoza in "the chair." From there, the movie executes a series of flashbacks into the investigation, and then flashbacks within flashbacks, digging into the complex moral structure of the mafia and the price tag associated with murder.
No role was too small for Bogart, and he dutifully plays the role of an investigator here, one loosely based on the real-life attorney Burton B. Turkus. Rather than the enigmatic and sly investigators of his detective films, Ferguson is fairly straightforward and most compelling when he's cruel to the lowlifes he's interrogating. The taut, realistic filmmaking of Bretaigne Windust and longtime Bogart director Raoul Walsh (uncredited as a result of stepping in when Windust fell ill) makes for a very strong late-period Bogart noir.
With its story of a man murdering his wife, 1945's "Conflict" marks a villainous role for Humphrey Bogart at a time when his screen appearances were becoming more heroic than ever.
Richard (Bogart) is at odds with his wife Kathryn (Rose Hobart), wanting only a divorce so he can leave her for her younger sister, Evelyn (Alexis Smith). Knowing a divorce won't happen, he takes matters into his own hands. After crashing his car, Richard feigns paralysis. Kathryn attempts to take him out for some therapeutic hiking but he stays behind, claiming he has to work. As Kathryn's hike progresses, she spots an abandoned car, one that distracts her before Richard emerges from the mountain fog to presumably kill her, a moment that is ambiguous and evocatively cut.
Bogart never felt comfortable filming love scenes, and playing bad men like Richard was his way around that — this is not an affectionate human being. Most of the movie is set following his crime, depicting his failure to woo Evelyn and the walls closing in on him as he realizes he didn't properly cover his tracks. The twisted evolution of Richard's paranoia and his suffocating guilt gives Bogart wonderful, meaty material with which to work.
9. Dark Passage
1947's "Dark Passage" has one gimmick, but it gets a great deal of mileage out of it. It tells a huge chunk of its story in first person, where the camera acts as the Humphrey Bogart character's eyes. Since he's a criminal on the run about to get facial reconstruction surgery, it's a crafty way for writer-director Delmer Daves to avoid having to cast the role multiple times. If not quite on the level of "Hardcore Henry," it's an innovative take on a film noir story.
Vincent Parry (Bogart) has been accused of killing his wife, and his round of hitchhiking has led him to the abode of Irene (Lauren Bacall). The movie's first-person setup lets moments like this play out almost in real-time, with tension ramping up as the minutes go on. As Irene's friend Madge (Agnes Moorehead) attempts to come in, Vincent realizes he knows her — she was a former girlfriend who testified against him for murdering his wife. After his plastic surgery fixes him up to look like Bogart, Vincent is forced to take matters into his own hands, finding out who really murdered his wife.
While the movie mostly dispenses with the point-of-view gimmick following the surgery, the story remains gripping, and the cast is fantastic throughout.
8. The Desperate Hours
One of Humphrey Bogart's final roles brought his entire film career full circle — the actor consdiered his performance in 1955's "The Desperate Hours" as a deliberate homage to his performance as the central villain, Duke Mantee, in 1935's "The Petrified Forest." In the latter film, he played an unhinged gangster who terrorized characters played by Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. That movie, based on a play of the same name, effectively saved Bogart's Hollywood career, showing what a thrilling presence he could bring to even a heavily theatrical, stagebound story.
In "The Desperate Hours," where Bogart is 20 years older and moving slower, he tasked himself with playing a similar character. Perfectionist director William Wyler — a master of translating theatrical productions into cinematic language — also might have tested Bogart's patience with the film. Per Sperber and Lax's book, "Bogart," the director often ran up against the actor's 6 p.m. clock-out time. Wyler draws a terrifying performance out of Bogart, however, who plays Glenn Griffin, an escaped convict who breaks into the suburban home of the Hilliards. Led by patriarch Dan (Fredric March), the family at first cowers under the pressure of the criminal and his gang. But over the course of the movie, the situation evolves as Dan stands up for himself.
7. Dead Reckoning
The rich tragedy of 1947's "Dead Reckoning" gave Bogart new characterizations to play around with. It also paired him with the young rising star Lizabeth Scott, whose distinctive and menacingly attractive features made her a regular face in the noir films to come from Columbia Pictures. According to the Washington Post, she was known in Hollywood as "The Threat" — a woman who played characters whose beauty on the outside wasn't always met with goodness on the inside.
Like other Bogart noir films, "Dead Reckoning" has a loose and rambling plot, but it retains suspense throughout. As former paratrooper Rip Murdock (Bogart) finds a priest to confess to, the movie reveals how he ended up there from his beginnings in Paris. He and his military buddy, Johnny (William Prince), are invited to Washington to accept the Medal of Honor, but Johnny disappears, not wanting the publicity. As it turns out, he lied about his identity because he had been accused of murdering a wealthy old man whose wife he loved.
The wife is Coral (Scott), and her own criminal activity marks her as a classic femme fatale. As she wraps up Murdock in her network of passion and desire, you learn more and more about her dangerous capabilities. Bogart plays well against Scott and deftly depcits Murdock's affection for Coral as well as his suspicions. It's a wonder that she's not considered one of the greatest femme fatales of all time.
6. High Sierra
The 1941 gangster movie "High Sierra" was a major change of pace for Humphrey Bogart, one that firmly made him a bonafide movie star. Teaming up again with director Raoul Walsh and co-star Ida Lupino after "They Drive By Night," he vividly summons both the darkness and sentimentality of his gangster character Roy Earle. In particular, he gives his character a sense of regret and longing that deepens the familiar story of a legendary robber called on to execute One Last Job.Marie (Lupino) is on that job too, much to Earle's chagrin. She ends up falling in love with the man, who reveals the depth of his kindness in paying for the surgery of young clubfooted girl Velma (Joan Leslie). To Marie, he remains cold, even after the robbery goes horribly awry, leaving the two of them alone with tainted jewels in need of laundering.
The movie took the gangster character archetype that Bogart, along with other actors like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney (and George Raft, who refused the role of Earle), developed throughout the 1930s and found the existential misery in it. Where those gangsters would find redemption in a Hays Code-approved death, Earle is complicated in a more realistic way. He's not a glamorous gangster in good suits but a sympathetic human being making hard decisions. And the movie's climax finds the most dramatic possible setting for the death of the gangster movie: Mount Whitney.
5. The Harder They Fall
1956's "The Harder They Fall" was Humphrey Bogart's final film performance, and one of his best. Set in the mob-infested world of sports public relations, the movie brought Bogart back to the role of intrepid journalist after his excellent work in "Deadline – U.S.A." It also threw him into a cast with some of the best up-and-coming actors of the day, which would have been a touching passing of the torch if not for the awkwardness it lent to the production.
Eddie Willis (Bogart) is a sports writer fallen on hard times, and he immediately takes up the employment offer from shady PR manager Nick Benko (Rod Steiger). Benko's particular scheme involves marketing an up-and-coming "boxer," a giant Argentinian man named Toro (Mike Lane), who can't actually fight at all. Eddie's got to throw out his values for money, writing about the fraudulent rise of the fighter whose fights are all fixed to ensure he wins.
Bogart, weakened from esophageal cancer, worked hard to complete the film before passing, and his dogged determination comes through in every scene. The moral difficulties Eddie face make for some of the most compelling drama of Bogart's career. And when he does the right thing for the movie's conclusion, it makes for a riveting and rousing final screen moment from the actor.
4. Key Largo
"Key Largo" was one of director John Huston and Humphrey Bogart's 1948 collaborations alongside the classic "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." It pairs him up not just with Lauren Bacall for their final film together, but also with Edward G. Robinson. In 1948, that may have meant less than it should have. Where once Robinson had top billing over Bogart, the situation had switched by this point.
Like "High Sierra," the movie is a tribute to a gangster movie that had vanished. Set in a stormy night at a hotel in the Florida Keys, "Key Largo" took a similar play by Maxwell Anderson and modified its backstory. Where the play told the story of Mexican bandidos overtaking the hotel, the movie turned them into gangsters — the kind that Bogart used to play years before. They've lost their hold on organized crime since the end of Prohibition, at which moment leader Johnny Rocco (Robinson) was effectively exiled to Cuba. Tonight, he's coming back.
Rocco's cruelty and sadism are executed over the course of a single night, as veteran Frank McCloud (Bogart) searches for a means of defusing the old gangster. To see these two masters go at each other's throats makes the movie great, but its thick sense of atmosphere and eccentric supporting cast makes it a classic. One unforgettable moment comes when Rocco's moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) is forced to sing an old Tin Pan Alley song, the glamor of her showgirl past having worn off.
3. The Maltese Falcon
1941's "The Maltese Falcon" was a first in many ways — it's one of the first times Humphrey Bogart was the protagonist of a major film, and it gave John Huston his first shot at directing a movie. It was also revolutionary and a miracle for Bogart's career, and it played a major role in the shaping of film noir. The fact that it's nearly perfect helped too.
Every shot, cut, and piece of blocking has the expert craftsmanship of a director who had been wanting to make a movie for a very long time. That level of quality also reflects the headspace of its protagonist. Sam Spade (Bogart) is a true professional detective, played with steely intelligence by Bogart as he's led on a chase for a mysterious, centuries-old artifact, the titular Maltese Falcon. The movie is made with such energy and clarity that even long scenes of dialogue are impossibly suspenseful.
The long take of Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) explaining the nature of the Falcon while waiting for his drugging of Spade to take effect is one example, but that impeccable filmmaking sense runs through the whole movie, making the complex mystery easy to follow. More importantly, it also makes it wildly entertaining.
2. The Big Sleep
Unlike "The Maltese Falcon," 1946's "The Big Sleep" is deliberately imperfect, with convoluted plotting around gambling debts, drugs and pornographers alluded to in oblique, censor-abiding ways, and a number of strong, seductive women out for detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart). It's not a detective movie designed with a resolution in mind — new characters with new motivations drop in seemingly every other scene, expanding the plot while giving Marlowe new threats. Smoky interiors and smoggy LA streets make up the physical layout of the movie and the psychological layout of the viewer.
As the story goes, nobody behind the scenes of the movie understood the story. In the process of adapting Raymond Chandler's grimy, complex detective story, director Howard Hawks told his writers "not to change a word," per Eric Lax and A.M. Sperber's book, "Bogart." Still, his penchant for incorporating improvisation and script rewrites led to the movie shifting to something incomprehensible, anchored only by Bogart's expertly played sense of confusion. The actor tugged on his ear with every new piece of information Marlowe received, a tic designed by him and Hawks to endear him to the audience.
Investigating the blackmail attempt on the flirtatious socialite and "wild child" Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), Marlowe is led deep into a rabbit hole, steered in many directions by her sister Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) and a vast array of other characters. To capitalize on the chemistry between Bogart and his future wife, Bacall, the film had reshoots that essentially just let the two flirt with each other some more, and important priority for the movie.
1. In A Lonely Place
1950's "In A Lonely Place" marked the ultimate Humphrey Bogart performance, one that A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax's book, "Bogart," calls one of his most personal. It reunites him with "Knock On Any Door" director Nicholas Ray for a movie with a more Bogart-appropriate role, that of possibly homicidal screenwriter Dix Steele. It was the crown jewel of Bogart's short-lived Santana Productions company, and a contender for one of Bogart's best films.
Like many of Bogart's most memorable characters, screenwriter Dix Steele has the air of a loser to him and gave off a sense that — removed from the actor's grinning charisma — he wouldn't be worth making a movie about. Tasked with adapting a lousy book by his agent, he ends up talking with Mildred (Martha Stewart), a hat-check girl who's reading it. The next morning, she ends up dead.
The question of whether or not he did it is beside the point. As viewers, we have no reason to think he's responsible. And yet, our suspicions simmer. The more we get to know Dix, the more we realize he's just as capable of great tenderness as he is of bursts of violent rage. By merging this mystery with a love story, wherein Dix falls for aspiring actress Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the movie puts viewers in her shoes. As much as she loves Dix, she's frightened by him as well. And his creepy insistence on acting out what the murder would have been like with his friends, as well as a road rage incident that nearly ends with him killing a man, adds to her suspicion. The movie's bitter final moments balance Dix's love and rage on a wire, producing some of the most emotional work of Bogart's career.
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