Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bogart's Breakthrough

When you think of Humphrey Bogart, which of his film roles comes to mind?

In 1999, the American Film Institute picked Bogart as the top male film star of all time. Along with such a designation, I assume, comes a wide variety of answers to the question I posed in the preceding paragraph. After all, he appeared in roughly 75 movies.

My father, for example, probably would tell you that he thinks of "The African Queen," and that would probably be true of many people. It was Bogart's only Oscar–winning performance. He was nominated three times, but that was his only victory.

Other folks think of his roles in "Casablanca," the iconic Best Picture winner from 1942, or "The Caine Mutiny," both of which earned him Oscar nominations but no statuettes.

My personal favorite has always been "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

Bogart made quite a few movies in the 1930s, but he didn't really become the star who would be recognized by AFI until 1941, when "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon" were released.

Both can be seen on Turner Classic Movies tomorrow, when TCM will devote its daylong salute (as part of its annual "Summer Under the Stars") to Bogart. You can see "High Sierra" at 1:45 p.m. (Central), and you can see "The Maltese Falcon" at 7 p.m. (Central).

"The Maltese Falcon," which was released on Oct. 3, 1941, is a film noir classic. I'm not a movie historian, but I have heard genuine film historians say it was the first film noir.

The American Film Institute ranks it 31st on its list of Top 100 movies of the last century. Movie critic Roger Ebert and Entertainment Weekly, among others, have ranked it high on their all–time lists as well.

Looking back over 70 years, it's hard to imagine how it could have missed.

It was based on Dashiell Hammett's third published novel. It starred Humphrey Bogart — and many other talented, although lesser known, people. John Huston was the director. In fact, it was Huston's directorial debut.

As I say, it was not Bogart's debut, but many moviegoers of the time certainly would have asked the question that was asked by the trailer for "The Maltese Falcon""Who is this man?" If they racked their brains, they might remember his face from the many B movies in which he appeared — but most probably couldn't attach a name to that face.

Nevertheless, Huston's inexperience appears to have played a decisive role in the casting of Bogart as Sam Spade. As I have heard it, producer Hal Wallis wanted George Raft, who was a more bankable star at the time, to play the lead, but Raft refused, choosing to work with a more experienced director (Raoul Walsh) — as well as more familiar co–stars (Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich) on a now mostly forgotten film called "Manpower" — it was mentioned in the movie "Bugsy."

Some of the supporting cast in "The Maltese Falcon" were unknown and making their film debuts — 61–year–old Sydney Greenstreet comes to mind. Others — i.e., Peter Lorre and Mary Astor — were veterans of the film industry but not very well known.

Anyway, Bogart was Huston's choice, and his performances in "The Maltese Falcon" and "High Sierra" are often said to have elevated his career to the superstar status he enjoyed in the last years of his life — and Raft's career decisions appear to have played decisive roles in both.

Raft reportedly turned down the part in "High Sierra," which was one of Walsh's projects, then supposedly took the part in "Manpower" to compensate for not taking the other one. Bogart wound up playing both roles — and went on to the legendary career that was recognized by AFI and others.

Almost prophetically, Bogart utters the line that AFI recognized as #14 on its list of the 100 all–time greatest lines in movie history — holding the statuette, a policeman remarks that it is heavy and asks Bogart, "What it is made of?"

"It's the stuff dreams are made of," Bogart says.

"The Maltese Falcon" was the stuff Bogart's dreams were made of, to be sure.

The two Bogart movies that were released 70 years ago changed everything, and, while "High Sierra" certainly did its part to make Bogie's name a household word, it was really "The Maltese Falcon" that transformed him from actor to star.

Tomorrow, you can see how the legend began.