Posts Tagged ‘Humphrey Bogart’

Naval Gazing

When the good folks at TCM recently chose Gregory Peck as their Star of the Month, it gave me the chance to revisit an old favorite that I had seen many times over the years, but not for quite a while, Raoul Walsh’s Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951).  Now, I am not normally a big naval-adventure guy; I’ve never read Patrick O’Brian’s work, and despite my affection for Peter Weir, I was “just whelmed,” as Dad used to say, by his Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003).  But I’m here to tell you that after seeing this film in my youth, I went out and bought and read all eleven volumes in C.S. Forester’s superb series about the Napoleonic Wars.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Forester was an excellent writer, and although his filmography is relatively lean, as Spencer Tracy said of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike (1952), “what’s there is cherce.”  The very same year in which Peck hit the high seas, Humphrey Bogart earned his overdue and only Oscar opposite Kate in the screen adaptation of Forester’s The African Queen.  Another BOF fave, Cary Grant, starred in Stanley Kramer’s The Pride and the Passion (1957), based on Forester’s The Gun, and starting in the 1990s, Ioan Gruffud (later well cast as Reed Richards in the disappointing Fantastic Four films) made an excellent Hornblower on A&E.

Warner Brothers apparently acquired the property as a vehicle for studio mainstay and longtime Walsh collaborator Errol Flynn, but that idea fell by the wayside for various reasons, and I can’t say I’m sorry.  I am second to none in my affection for Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but he would have been wrong for the part (as would Burt Lancaster, also considered).  TCM host Robert Osborne tells us that when the indigenous critics gave Peck high marks for this British-made film, it was rare for an American playing a Brit; significantly, leading lady Virginia Mayo was reportedly cast only after several British actresses proved unavailable or uninterested.

The praise is justified, for Peck is excellent in the role, although bolstered by skillful storytelling in which we learn about Hornblower’s character—or at least his public persona—from what his officers and crew say about him.  He must be ramrod-straight on the outside to command their respect and obedience, yet part of his appeal is that no matter how often he succeeds, he is full of self-doubt.  This ranks with Moby Dick (1956), On the Beach (1959), and The Guns of Navarone (1961) among my Peck favorites, and while I have issues with his two Alfred Hitchcock films, Spellbound (1945) and The Paradine Case (1947), those do not concern Peck’s performances.

Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. (as it is known in its native land, “R.N.” standing for Royal Navy) doesn’t exactly feature an all-star cast, yet there are some interesting names among the supporting players, starting with Robert Beatty as his best friend, Lt. William Bush.  Beatty later appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Where Eagles Dare (1969), and Richard Matheson’s miniseries The Martian Chronicles (1980), while an unnamed Spanish sea captain is played by Christopher Lee, briefly engaging in swordplay with Peck.  Also among Hornblower’s crew are James Robertson Justice and Stanley Baker, both of whom were reunited with Peck in Navarone.

Ordered to aid a Central American tyrant rebelling against Napoleon’s ally, Spain, Hornblower secures him a Spanish ship, only to learn that Spain has changed sides and he must destroy his prize.  Circumstances compel him to take Lady Barbara Wellesley aboard, and after she displays courage under fire his admiration grows into something more, but because he is married and she engaged, their love seems impossible; returning home, he discovers that his wife has died in childbirth.  Captured on their next mission and sent to Paris for trial, Hornblower, Bush, and Seaman Quist (Justice) escape en route, steal a ship, and return to England, where a widowed Barbara awaits.

Hornblower fans may be surprised to see that according to the credits, this film is based on “the novel” by Forester, since Captain Horatio Hornblower—the first book to appear, but not the first chronologically—is now published in three volumes:  Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colors.  Forester is credited with adapting the film from his work, presumably accounting for its fidelity despite the inevitable compression.  The other scenarists were Aeneas MacKenzie, who co-wrote the Flynn/Walsh They Died with Their Boots On (1941), and the team of Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, Oscar nominees for the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957).

There must have been a special place in Guy-Movie Heaven waiting for Walsh when he got there in 1980, and although a British naval saga might not immediately seem his cup of tea, it fits into his half-century as one of Hollywood’s greatest action directors.  He worked with Bogart on The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and Bogie’s breakthrough hit, High Sierra (1941).  Walsh also directed Flynn in Desperate Journey, Gentleman Jim (both 1942), Northern Pursuit (1943), Objective, Burma! (1945), and Silver River (1948), among others, while James Cagney’s gangster classic White Heat (1949) was an earlier Goff-Roberts-Mayo collaboration.

Composer Robert Farnon, whose BOF-centric credits include The Road to Hong Kong (1962), Bear Island (1979), and the series The Prisoner and The Champions, was adept at capturing the story’s many moods, from rollicking to romantic.  Indeed, those moods helped endear Captain Horatio Hornblower to me, especially in its judicious use of humor, as Bush repeatedly wagers (and wins) on his captain’s actions.  With Mayo as lovely and appealing as she was opposite Bob Hope and Danny Kaye in, respectively, The Princess and the Pirate (1944) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), this offers thrills, laughter, and love—in short, something for everyone.

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I’m savoring the prospect of introducing my daughter to The Blue Dahlia (1946), which I recently taped from TCM, and which I understand indirectly gave the 1947 Black Dahlia murder its name. Not because I’m under any illusion that it’s a masterpiece, but it does star the stellar screen team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (in whom, as noted, I perceive a resemblance to the youthful Madame B.), introduced in 1942 with back-to-back adaptations of Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. It also features an excellent supporting cast headed by William Bendix and Howard Da Silva and, most important, an Oscar-nominated screenwriting credit for one of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler.

Chandler (1888-1959) is, of course, better known as the creator of private eye Philip Marlowe, and one of his best films as a scenarist, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), was largely rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, with whom he shared screen credit. As is often the case, I came to Chandler’s work through the movies, specifically Howard Hawks’s 1946 version of his first novel, The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe was played by Humphrey Bogart. Since Bogart is my favorite actor, it’s no surprise that the same is true of Hammett, via John Huston’s 1941 version of his p.i. classic The Maltese Falcon, but as a lad I was too enraptured with Bogie to notice the nuances distinguishing Marlowe from Hammett’s Sam Spade.

In the novel, Spade is compared with Satan, a fact made explicit when Warren William essayed the role (albeit as “Ted Shane”) in Satan Met a Lady (1936); Ricardo Cortez was the first Spade in the 1931 version, which retained Hammett’s title and character names. Bogart’s famous line, “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it,” neatly conveys Spade’s lack of hypocrisy over the fact that, first, said partner was a skirt-chasing louse and, second, he was banging said partner’s wife. Marlowe, on the other hand, is a kind of displaced knight in tarnished armor, at once cynical and idealistic, and various interpretations have emphasized various elements of his complex character, with varying degrees of success.

Interestingly, “Marlowe” first appeared incognito in two 1942 films that are most notable for hijacking Chandler novels as vehicles for other literary and cinematic sleuths. The Falcon Takes Over shoehorned Michael Arlen’s eponymous character (played by George Sanders) into the plot of Farewell, My Lovely, while Time to Kill was a de facto adaptation of The High Window with Lloyd Nolan as Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne. In collaboration with director Billy Wilder, Chandler notched his first screenwriting credit on Double Indemnity (1944) the same year Marlowe made his official debut in Murder, My Sweet, which—with RKO Radio apparently counting on the public’s short memory—was also based on Farewell, My Lovely.

Despite Chandler’s notoriously poor relationship with Wilder (not much improved upon with Hitchcock), it must be acknowledged that Double Indemnity is a film noir milestone, and that he was an inspired choice to adapt fellow hard-boiled writer James M. Cain. In such cinema-friendly novels as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce, Cain excelled at depicting morally questionable characters who come to grief when they give in to criminal temptations, and nowhere is this milieu better captured than in the tale of adulterous murderers Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The film’s seven Oscar nominations included the script, Stanwyck, Miklós Rózsa’s score, Wilder’s direction, and Best Picture.

Sandwiched in between Chandler’s next two screenwriting gigs, And Now Tomorrow (1944) and The Unseen (1945)—neither of which I’ve seen—Murder, My Sweet marked Dick Powell’s bid to establish himself as something more than a song-and-dance man. This he did admirably as one of the screen’s better Marlowes, backed up by the villainous likes of Claire Trevor, Otto Kruger, and Mike Mazurki as Chandler’s immortal Moose Malloy, under the direction of HUAC name-dropper Edward Dmytryk. Chandler approved of the film (ditto The Big Sleep), but RKO quickly had to retitle it after previews to draw audiences who initially stayed home in droves, assuming Farewell, My Lovely to be yet another Powell musical.

Plenty of lore surrounds The Blue Dahlia, e.g., that Chandler was forced to change the ending (for reasons I can’t disclose sans spoilers) and, in order to accommodate Ladd’s imminent military service, finished the script at his home in a weeklong drunken marathon. Speaking of alcoholic authors in Hollywood, Big Bill Faulkner was credited alongside Hawks, Bogart, leading lady Lauren Bacall, and fellow scenarist Jules Furthman on both The Big Sleep (co-scripted by Leigh Brackett) and the Hemingway adaptation To Have and Have Not (1944). For me, Bogie was the definitive Marlowe, although the romantic side was played up to reflect his growing on- and offscreen chemistry with fourth and final wife Bacall.

To be concluded.

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Just a reminder that Turner Classic Movies kicks off its centennial celebration of legendary Japanese writer-director Akira Kurosawa tonight at 8:00 with a superb cross-section of better- and lesser-known films that display his diversity: Ikiru (1952), with the great Takashi Shimura unforgettable as a dying civil servant; Throne of Blood (1957), with Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth; The Hidden Fortress (1958), a major inspiration for Star Wars (1977); the little-seen The Idiot (1951), based on the novel by Fyodor Dosotyevsky; and The Lower Depths (1957), based on the play by Maxim Gorky. They’ll have more starting in prime time next Tuesday, and then on the 23rd, the actual 100th anniversary of his birth, they’ll pull out all the stops with a 24-hour marathon. So fire up your VCR or DVR or Tivo or just barricade yourself in front of the set, but don’t miss this chance to wallow in the work of one of the cinema’s greatest.

Speaking of TCM retrospectives, not to mention Japan, I’ve just started watching Tokyo Joe (1949), an early example of what I think of as Humphrey Bogart’s “sourpuss period.” In fact, it’s funny how neatly Bogie’s career breaks down by decade. During the 1930s, he was honing his craft and paying his dues in a series of largely similar and/or unrewarding roles, with a few standouts, e.g., The Petrified Forest (1936), Dead End (1937). The 1940s saw the full flower of his Warner Brothers years, including most of my favorites: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946). These culminated in 1948 with his Oscar-worthy The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for which he was inexplicably not even nominated, and his fourth and final film with fourth and final wife Lauren Bacall, Key Largo.

Afterward, right through the ’50s to his death in 1957, he obviously tried to vary his output, especially with the films (like Tokyo Joe) made by his own production company, Santana, but the results were mixed indeed. Again, there was the occasional standout such as The African Queen (1951), for which he finally won an Oscar, and The Caine Mutiny (1954), which featured another of his best performances. For the most part, however, those later films were lackluster affairs in which one could see his hard-drinking and -smoking lifestyle catching up with him. He didn’t look any too happy to be in some of them, a sentiment I sadly shared all too often.

Anyway, I know it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Tokyo Joe, which is why I’m watching it now, even though I don’t much care for it. But it must have been longer than I thought, because I don’t remember ever seeing it with the awareness that its leading lady is Florence Marly, who (as Florence Marley) played the title role in Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (1966). I mean, how can I take her seriously in this film when all I can see is her in green makeup draining Dennis Hopper’s blood? Well, at least it co-stars Alexander Knox, so memorable as George Smiley’s ailing boss, Control, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), and Sessue Hayakawa, Oscar-nominated for his supporting role as the camp commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), so there should be some compensations.

One final, and truly bizarre, small-world note. As many of you know (although I didn’t mention it in my morning-after post), a woman named Elinor Burkett interrupted the Oscar acceptance speech of Roger Ross Williams, whose film Music by Prudence won for Best Documentary Short Subject. I didn’t place the name until I saw the news reports on the kerfuffle yesterday, and realized that I had once been her publicist when she and her husband, Frank Bruni, published A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church in 1993. Although I wish I had some amusing anecdote about the time we worked together, I honestly recall only an amiable relationship with her and Frank. I’m not defending her actions, and have no idea what she’s been up to in the meantime, but no “Kanye West moment” alters the fact that we were doing our best to get the word out on a subject about which I felt (and feel) strongly, at a time when far fewer people were doing so than today.

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As noted, I have been using the occasion of TCM’s recent Humphrey Bogart retrospective (from which I taped no fewer than 25 films) to seek some larger patterns in Bogie’s career.  At least as interesting as his working relationships with lesser-known directors such as Lloyd Bacon [see “Makin’ Bacon”] were his collaborations with Mark Hellinger, a writer-producer from the Walter Winchell school of journalism.  They did not get off to an auspicious start, as Hellinger reportedly penned an uncredited treatment for Racket Busters (1938), which I have already mentioned unfavorably.  But then, one of his stories served as the basis for Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939), which—although it did not offer Bogie much more than the “supporting-gangster” role he often played opposite Warner Brothers stablemates James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft in that period—was at least one of the most accomplished of those films, and proved to be Cagney’s last gangster role until Walsh’s White Heat (1949) a decade later.

As a result of its success, Warners made Hellinger a producer, and it’s noteworthy that although Bogie played gangsters in three of his four consecutive Hellinger-produced efforts, the films and his roles varied considerably.  It All Came True (1940) is a light-hearted film in which Bogart, while on the lam, takes refuge in a boarding house populated by eccentrics who (along with Word-Man fave Ann Sheridan) gradually reform him.  Brother Orchid (1940) is a similarly comedic crime caper, in which Robinson—left for dead after an attempted rubout orchestrated by rival Bogart—finds temporary refuge in a monastery.  A change of pace was Walsh’s excellent They Drive by Night (1940), with Raft and Bogart as trucker brothers.  Bogie loses an arm after falling asleep at the wheel, while Raft gets Sheridan; the scene in which Ida Lupino cracks up on the witness stand, after she falls for Raft and then jealously frames him for the murder of hubby Alan Hale, is classic.  Finally, Bogie took a big step toward stardom with his multifaceted gangster Roy Earle in Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), co-scripted by John Huston, who would soon make his directorial debut with Bogart’s breakout hit The Maltese Falcon (1941).  If you’ve ever had a hankering to see Eddie (Green Acres) Albert as a lion-tamer, check out the one he made (post-Hellinger) in between, The Wagons Roll at Night (1941).  This remake of Bogart’s own Kid Galahad (1937) substitutes the big top for the boxing ring, with Bogie, Silvia Sidney and Albert in the roles originally played by Robinson, Bette Davis and Wayne Morris.  It’s almost certainly the only film in which Bogie meets his fate at the claws of a lion…and no, I’m not making this up.

But I digress, as usual.  For the next few years, Hellinger flitted back and forth among Warners, Fox, and Universal, during which time he joined Bogart in front of the camera, playing himself in a cameo in Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943).  Bogart’s own scene is mercifully brief, as a tough guy who is browbeaten by, of all people, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall (delightful as Carl, the waiter in Casablanca), but because the film was one of those all-star studio extravaganzas to raise funds for World War II, I will not complain.  Hellinger died suddenly (at 44) in 1947, but not before he had produced the noir classics The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), and The Naked City (1948)…and, alas, one of Bogart’s all-time worst films, The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), in which he plays a wife-killer (as he did in the similarly unfortunate Conflict [1945]) targeting Barbara Stanwyck as his next victim.

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Makin’ Bacon

Today we continue with some thoughts inspired by TCM’s recent Humphrey Bogart retrospective.  Unfortunately, among the few films they did NOT show were some of his earliest, rarest, and presumably worst, which I’ve been trying to see for decades.  But it’s been fun to be reminded of why some of these films occupy their lowly places in the Bogart oeuvre.  (Hmm…In a Lowly Place?)  It’s also fun to spot various trends, e.g., his collaborations with various directors.

Few of those who did repeat business made more than two with Bogie (his preferred spelling, although many use “Bogey”), although under the studio system, he may have had little say in that until late in his career.  Howard Hawks, for instance, did only two, although they’re both Top Ten or even Top Five material in my book:  To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946).

John Huston is probably the only one who can be said to have had a long AND legendary collaboration with him, as demonstrated by these films:

The Maltese Falcon (1941; Huston’s directorial debut, and the consolidation of Bogart’s stardom)

Across the Pacific (1942; loopy wartime fun with several Falcon veterans)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948; one of Bogart’s best performances, and 3 Oscars for Huston pere et fils)

Key Largo (1948; the last of Bogart’s four films with then-wife Lauren Bacall)

The African Queen (1951; Bogart’s only Oscar)

Beat the Devil (1953; a flop at the time, but now something of a cult film for subverting the whole Falcon subgenre)

When you consider that Huston previously worked as a screenwriter on Bogart’s films, including his star-stepping classic High Sierra (1941), it’s even more impressive.  Michael Curtiz made several films with Bogart; only one of them stands out, but since that’s Casablanca (1942), we’ll chalk them up as a good team.

What I find amusing is that the guy who worked most often with Bogart is a director most people have probably never heard of, i.e., Lloyd Bacon.  Again, he was probably just a contract director at Warner Brothers, where Bogart made most of his movies, and there isn’t a certifiable classic among them, but some of these are solid…

Marked Woman (1937; a rare heroic role for Bogie at that stage, and his only feature with dreaded third wife Mayo Methot)

San Quentin (1937; typical gangster role)

Racket Busters (1938; Bogie had top billing but neither his screen time nor his sullen performance merited it)

The Oklahoma Kid (1939; one of his mercifully few Westerns, as a villain opposite James Cagney)

Invisible Stripes (1939; co-starring George Raft and William Holden—some cast!)

Brother Orchid (1940; effective as another gangster villain opposite Edward G. Robinson)

Action in the North Atlantic (1943; a cracking good WW II yarn with Raymond Massey)

More next week…

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Dead (Reckoning) on Arrival

I’ve mentioned the recent month-long Humphrey Bogart retrospective on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).  There being only so many hours in a day, I used it primarily as an opportunity not to catch up on my favorites, many of which I own anyway, but to take another look at some of his lesser and/or lesser-known films that I haven’t seen for a long time.  I wasn’t crazy about some of them the first time around, and wondered if I’d like them better with a little distance between viewings.  One such film was Dead Reckoning (1947), and I’m afraid the answer was a resounding negative.  Here’s why:

*It’s pretentiously billed as “John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning.”  Cromwell had made some well-regarded movies (e.g., Of Human Bondage, The Prisoner of Zenda, Algiers), but come on.  I had to look him up to see what his claim to fame was, and I’d wager many of you have probably never heard of him at all.  So why the puffery?  (He is, by the way, actor James Cromwell’s father.)

*I’m normally more tolerant of voiceovers than most people (e.g., the original version of Blade Runner), but this one—in which Bogie explains his predicament (he’s gotten into a typical film noir jam while trying to solve/avenge the murder of a paratrooper buddy) to an army chaplain and fellow paratrooper over flashbacks—is the kind that gives voiceovers their usual bad name.  It has lots of lame faux-Chandler similes, and Bogart just sounds listless, which is in keeping with his whole performance.  And that brings us to…

*Most of the time, Bogie looks weary and ill at ease, but at one point he cheerily delivers an astonishingly sexist speech about how women should ideally be about four inches tall, so that men could carry them around in their pockets at their convenience, but not be bothered by them, and then return them to full size whenever they wanted some…well, you do the math.  Which brings us to…

*It took five screenwriters you’ve never heard of to concoct this ill-tasting brew, which is odd, considering the fact that most of it (situations, scenes, and characters) was simply strip-mined from other, better Bogart movies, primarily The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, with the main difference—other than quality and originality—being that here, he’s not a professional private eye but, for lack of a better term, an amateur sleuth.  Bogie’s climactic confrontation with his leading lady (whose character, in case we didn’t notice who was being ripped off, is named “Coral Chandler”) is a particularly egregious Falcon steal.  Which brings us to…

*Lizabeth Scott.  It would be too kind to call her the poor man’s Lauren Bacall, although her husky voice (which I normally hate, but not in Bacall), daffy beret, “cute” nickname (“Mike,” although she’s also nicknamed “Dusty,” but never mind), and backstory are obviously a lame attempt to evoke Bogart’s two previous pictures with Bacall, i.e., To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.  Instead of a poor man’s Bacall, she’s more like the Bacall of an unwashed, psychotic, drooling homeless guy.  According to the IMDb, the role in this Columbia picture had been written for house goddess Rita Hayworth, but she was then pre-empted by estranged hubby Orson Welles to star in his noir classic The Lady from Shanghai.  Since Rita is an eternal Word-Man fave, I don’t even want to THINK about how much more I would have liked it then…

*Two other minor peeves:  at one point, Bogart is beaten so badly by the villains that his face is supposed to look like a raw steak, yet after he sleeps for 36 hours, showers, and shaves, there isn’t a mark on him.  And playing a retired safecracker who gives him a hand is one of the era’s more annoying character actors, Wallace Ford.  When Bogie and Scott go to his house, after being referred to him by a mutual friend in Detroit (or wherever it was), Ford opens up an honest-to-God speakeasy peephole in his front door (are all the houses in this seemingly genteel community so equipped?), and Bogart says something like, “We’re from the phone company [since, as we all know, phone-company employees always travel with rich blonde widows in tow].  Have you recently had any long-distance calls from Detroit?”  Then, the second Ford lets them in, he says, “McGee?  I’m Murdock.”  Why not just say that when he opened up the peephole?  Why the stupid code?  The house doesn’t even appear to be in earshot of any others, and he’s obviously expected.

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