Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Humphrey Bogart, by David Thomson

Humphrey Bogart, by David Thomson. Faber and Faber, 2010. Trade paperback, $14.00.

As the publisher’s blurb that adorns the flyleaf of this book attests, David Thomson is, “among many other things, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” one of the few film books that can uncontroversially lay claim to the much-overused accolade of “essential.” Among the many things Thomson is not, however, is an unequivocal admirer of Humphrey Bogart. Anyone who’s a fan of both Bogart and Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary will inevitably have experienced a disconcerting sense of conflicted loyalties on reading the entry devoted to the iconic star of such indelible Hollywood masterpieces as The Big SleepCasablanca, and In a Lonely Place. Casting a cold eye upon the “cult of Bogart,” Thomson writes:

Underlying everything was the idea that Bogart had been honest, truthful, and that he looked chaos in the eye, that he knew the odds and was the only reliable companion in the night. Which is nonsense and probably only possible if Bogart took something like the same view of himself in the cinema. It is time for a reappraisal, and while Bogart is often close to the illusory heart of movies, by the highest standards — Grant, Stewart, Mitchum — he is a limited actor, not quite honest enough with himself.

Thomson, the author of all of Penguin’s initial entries in their new Great Stars series — might seem an odd choice to concoct a potted biography of an actor he clearly does not consider to belong in the first rank. Then again, nowhere does Thomson suggest that Bogart, whatever his shortcomings as an actor, does not warrant inclusion in a list of great stars. For Bogart was both actor and star, and if his range as an actor was limited, the luminescence of his star was not.

This is a short book, but it’s rich in detail and written with Thomson’s customary elan. Its opening paragraph demonstrates the author’s knack for combining seriousness of intent with lightness of tone, as well as his enviable ability to say a lot about a subject in just a short burst of words:

Look, I’m hardly pretty, he seems to say. I sound like gravel; I look rough and tough; and, honest, I don’t give you the soft, foolish answers the pretty boys will give you. You may not like what I have to say, but you better believe it. I know, I’m a star in a funny kind of way, but not because I set out to be one, and not because I sold out. Honest.

Later on, he does something similar with a laconic character sketch of John Huston, when Huston makes his crucial entry into the Bogart narrative, as the director of The Maltese Falcon:

Huston was thirty-four in 1940, and he was the son of the actor Walter Huston. He was an unusually adventurous young man, self-taught in everything from poker to literature. He had accompanied his father on the travelling theatre circuit. He had been a boxer and an officer in the Mexican cavalry. And as an ironic storyteller, he had slipped into screenwriting in the early 40s. He had been married twice. He had been the driver in a fatal traffic accident that was successfully hushed up.

Unfurling across the page like wisps of a femme fatale’s cigarette smoke, Thomson’s taut, elegantly constructed sentences carry the reader inexorably, effortlessly along. If the seductively rhythmic flow is occasionally interrupted, it will generally be because he has thrown out a phrase so exquisite, or an image so startling, that we feel compelled to indulge in a savouring pause. Thomson can spin a mean simile; his turns of phrase are like hairpins. Comparing Bogart and Bergman’s contrasting demeanours in Casablanca — Bergman looking “so open” while Bogart remains “so guarded” — he likens Bergman to “a great flower waiting to be inhaled, and he not wanting to remember how to sniff.”

Every now and again, his flights of verbal dexterity reach a crescendo, conjuring pungent descriptive phrases that employ a dash of surreality to seamlessly combine the poetic with the matter-of-fact. Who else could have come up with this, an annotation for a scrap of dialogue between Bogart and Ida Lupino in High Sierra: “There it is, the Bogart snarl, the willingness to put himself on a plate, like a cooked sausage, grinning at the mustard.”

Lacking the space to cover everything in detail, the temptation might have been to focus only on the big marquee-hogging titles. But Thomson doesn’t skimp on Bogart’s hard-scrabble early days in Hollywood, making some of his most resonant points while considering Bogart’s lesser-known films. He’s excellent at tracing the threads that run out of Hollywood fantasies into contemporaneous reality — the racism and xenophobia depicted in Black Legion, for instance, a film that “understands the kind of thinking that is ready to blame others for hard times”; or the way in which Dead End highlights “the unjust social contract in the 1930s.”

Great fun is had with the mind-boggling mule-headedness of George Raft, who (contrary to all evidence) considered himself above everyone in Hollywood, especially Bogart, and continually turned down great parts, many of which (including Sam Spade) became milestones in both Bogart’s career and Hollywood history. “What was Raft holding out for?” asks Thomson. “Did he want to play Emile Zola or Vincent Van Gogh?”

Unlike Raft, who was “half-German, half-Italian, and all low-life,” Bogart was born into high society and, while he rebelled against his parents and took several personal and professional downward steps on the social ladder, he always retained at least some of the proclivities of a gentleman, even if he did value whiskey and wisecracks over hauteur and social standing. He became a successful actor only after a long hard yomp through Hollywood’s nether regions, meaning that by the time he finally became a star, he had, as Thomson puts it, “the advantage of having failed.”

It’s possible to detect a sort of triangulation of sensibilities at work beneath the surface of The Big Sleep, between the character of Marlowe, the actor who portrayed him, and the author — Raymond Chandler — who created him. Bogart, says Thomson, was a “chronic dreamer,” a tag that could just as well be applied to Chandler, who Thomson describes as a “dreamy public schoolboy.” So when Marlowe meets General Sternwood in his fuggy greenhouse den, he’s there because his knowledge of the underworld will enable him to rid the General of the blackmailers who’ve been pestering him. But Marlowe (and Bogart, and Chandler) “knows Sternwood’s world, too, and he impresses the General as a man to be saluted.”

One of the most quintessentially “Hollywood” films ever made, The Big Sleep, reckons Thomson, is “the film that most Bogart people would cling to at the day of judgement.” Who could argue with that? If Bogart went on to give better performances, later in his career — and he did — he never found himself in a more perfectly Bogartian film. It is a truly great movie, one of the jewels in the crown of the Golden Age; rather than having dated (as so many otherwise fine films have), The Big Sleep is “still as fresh as a Meyer lemon picked from the tree. Taste it.”

In his monograph on The Big Sleep, for the BFI Film Classics series, Thomson recalls watching the film three times in a day — “coming out of one screening at the National Film Theatre’s original Hawks season [in 1961] and joining the queue for the next (as if the movie were a ride on a sensational fairground entertainment).” Ever since then, he says, he has — and pay close attention here to the proprietorial label he affixes to the film title — “regarded Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep as my favourite film.” In other words, Thomson loves it most of all as a “Hawks film” rather than as a Bogart movie.

Although in that earlier book he praised the actor for “just generally looking so damn good and being so wry that you feel better about everything,” and admired how “Bogart handles himself and the space as deftly as Joe DiMaggio running left field,” here he suggests that some of Bogart’s less satisfactory films — such as Dead Reckoning and Dark Passage — prove “how much the easy flexing of The Big Sleep — its turning inside and outside, on the spot — had been just Hawks.”

The committed Bogart fan, then, perhaps cannot help but feel somewhat downcast on reading some of Thomson’s less generous appraisals of the man whose voice, and face, have so much to say about why we still cherish the era of which he was, for a while anyway, such a central component. They may even go so far as to experience a hot wave of indignant anger at the disservice done to their man. On the other hand, Thomson is markedly equivocal about most of the actors whose careers are dissected under the harsh white critical lights of his biographical laboratory.

And if he can sometimes even find quite negative remarks to make about some of Bogart’s most widely acclaimed performances — as when he damns, with faint praise, Bogart’s convincingly unhinged channelling of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, rating it as only “quite impressive” — Thomson makes up for it by seeking out more subtle yet equally remarkable qualities in scenes for which others would probably allow their critical eye to glaze over: in The Maltese Falcon, for instance, he notes that there are a lot of shots of Bogart “just strolling around, crossing through space, leaving the room. These are mundane movements, but they are like music for the man’s song.”

Bogart may not have been “the best” or “the most important” actor in Hollywood history, but he was surely one of the most significant, and remains, almost certainly, the most passionately beloved. And when Thomson does say something unambivalently positive about him, we can feel him momentarily shedding the objective critical trenchcoat and fedora, and succumbing to the naked rapture of the mere fan. Analysing Bogart’s enduring appeal, he concludes that, “He was one of us. So we became a little like him.”

Whatever the “something special” is that constitutes star quality, Bogart had a special kind of it, and in abundance. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Thomson, who has his own fiercely idiomatic “special quality,” is the Bogart of contemporary film critics. Like the subject of this brief, equivocal, but ultimately salutatory book, Thomson has class, and style. If Bogart were around today, we can easily imagine that he might raise a brimming cocktail glass to Thomson and indulge him with a gruff but good-natured “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

John Carvill was born in Northern Ireland in 1968. He is a chronic media addict and sometime critic, whose work has appeared in PopMatters, Bright Lights Film Journal, PRAE, and The Guardian. He is also the Editor of Oomska, an online arts & pop culture magazine oomska.co.uk. You can contact him at johncarvill@gmail.com