1940s: The Beginnings of Bogart

Tom Munday

Humphrey Bogart, unquestionably, is the coolest and most enviable leading man in cinema history. Inspiring the performance styles of everyone from Harrison Ford to Henry Cavill, the Oscar-winning icon is the quintessential example of the man guys want to be and dames want to be with. With his slick back hair, fedoras, and silky voice, the movie star swept us all off our feet.

Along with his undeniable charm and good looks, the US Navy veteran turned actor took on a variety of good guy and bad guy roles over a 30-year career. Bogart turned in mesmerising, morally ambiguous performances in film noirs, romantic dramas, and gangster flicks. His top three movies – The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra and Casablanca – capture crystal clear portraits of the era’s coolest cat.

Casablanca (1942)

04 Apr - Bogart - Casablanca
Casablanca focuses on Rick, a bar owner slumming it in the aforementioned Moroccan paradise. The American expatriate’s prized nightclub/gambling den shelters some of the world’s sketchiest and smarmiest characters. Caught up in a gunrunning fiasco, Rick’s situation transforms when his old flame, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), walks through the door.

Casablanca, thanks largely to Bogart’s inclusion, is one of the best movies ever created. The movie itself sums up the 1940s – an original, ground-breaking time in history filled with clear-cut protagonists and despicable antagonists. At the time, Bogart, Bergman and co. swept audiences up in a smooth, rich slice of pure escapism. The romance, balancing Rick’s grizzled, frayed outlook with Ilsa’s deep desires, gave viewers something to cheer for in an indecent time.

Today, Casablanca’s sizzling romance still holds up as cinema’s greatest bond between lead characters. Bogart, bringing a resonance to his dark, decrepit role, provides one of cinema history’s most profound and intriguing characters. Supported by memorable lines – “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world…she had to walk into mine” – the audience falls into Bogart’s aura.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

04 Apr - Bogart - Maltese Falcon
Based on the novel by legendary author Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon centres on private investigator Sam Spade in the deepest, darkest depths of San Francisco. Soon enough, Sam, struggling to adjust to his business partner’s grizzly murder, becomes embroiled in a plot featuring three adventurers attempting to obtain a jewel-encrusted falcon statuette.

 The Maltese Falcon is one of several classic film noirs from the 1940s, delivering a mix of elaborate, complex plots and relatable characters in a fragile, realistic world. Bogart was the star of the era, delivering strong performances in some of the genre’s most prescient examples. Believe it or not, this magnificent crime-thriller was John Huston’s first directorial feature.

Bogart, like with Key Largo and The Big Sleep, cements The Maltese Falcon as one of the best in a long line of cunning film noirs. Sam, dealing with a sexually explicit femme fatale (Mary Astor) among other kooky characters, struggles to come to terms with the outlandish situation. Bogart leaps perfectly between multiple modes; crafting a character simultaneously frightened, fearsome, and fascinating. Bogart takes control of every scene, proving his worth as a talented performer and movie star.

High Sierra (1941)

04 Apr - Bogart - High Sierra
High Sierra sees Bogart as Roy Earle, an aged, cold-hearted gangster at the end of his rope. Planning a record-smashing robbery, Earle – released from prison thanks to a governor’s pardon – is forced into a rock and a hard place by his superior Big Mac (Donald MacBride). Leading the heist, Roy recruits three sketchy characters to pull off this remarkable feat of felony.

High Sierra is the quintessential heist flick, inspiring an array of quality heavy-hitters including Heat (1995) and The Town (2010). The plot boils everything down to its essential elements – four men, an impossible task, the throws of love, and one last, mad dash for freedom. Inspired by westerns, gangster fiction and everything in between, High Sierra delivers an anti-hero pushed to the physical and psychological brink to achieve wealth. Its social and cultural impact saw Bogart continue his reign as America’s favourite leading man.

This heist-thriller/film noir saw Bogart contend with a wholly different character type. Earle, although smitten by Marie’s (Ida Lupino) charm, can’t help but go after the riches and glory. Tussling between love and wealth, Earle’s impulsive nature sees his character’s eventual demise.

Images courtesy of United International Pictures, Warner Bros & Chapel Distribution 

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