Humphrey Bogart died on Jan. 14, 1957, exactly 50 years ago. By all accounts, notably those of his friends, John Huston and Alistair Cooke, he died with great gallantry, hiding to the best of his ability the pain of the cancer that wracked and decimated him.
It worked this way: He would rest in his bedroom most of the day; then, in the late afternoon, he would be dressed in a blue blazer and ascot and transported, by wheelchair and elevator, to his living room. There, with cigarette in hand, martini at his side, he would await the arrival of friends. They brought industry gossip, in which he remained avidly interested; they went away inspired by his courage. His illness was never discussed.
It was an act, of course. Bravery in the face of the ultimate challenge always is -- an attempt to spare loved ones and friends at least some of the anguish of tragic witness. But it was entirely typical of a man who was widely misunderstood over the course of a career in which authentic stardom -- the stuff of legend rather than mere top billing -- came somewhat belatedly.
The press, in a thousand headlines, routinely identified him as "Movie Tough Guy," mainly because he had first come to wide public attention playing Duke Mantee, the gangster-on-the-run in the film version of the risibly poetic "The Petrified Forest" in 1936. He was no more than all right in the part, but Warner Bros. couldn't think of much else to do with him, so he was kept on the criminal margin, sometimes ludicrously so (see "The Roaring Twenties"), for something like five years while, off screen, he brawled and squalled, notably with his third wife, the alcoholic actress Mayo Methot.
Many of his performances in this period were poor and unfelt. He tended to overact gangsters -- too snarling on the one hand, too sniveling on the other, and he was also bad as a straight-forward leading man (see him sing-songing the idealism of a crusading D.A. in "Marked Woman").
That's because he was not, by nature or nurture, a hard case. He had been raised in privilege in New York and had drifted into acting -- much as other young men of his class wandered into the brokerage houses; it was a not-too-arduous way of supporting a family that had suddenly lost its money -- a small, dapper youngster, said to have been the first person to utter the immortal question, "Tennis, anyone?" on stage.
One thinks of him in those days as a declassed gentleman -- rueful, appraising, doing his job in an uncommitted sort of way, dispassionately saying his lines but not often feeling them. He was a Hollywood loner whose friends were largely writers from the East. He spent a lot of time drinking with them at raffish watering holes such as Romanoff's.
But he spent as much time by himself -- reading, working out chess problems and, above all, sailing, a passion he had developed as a boy. He was liberal and civilized in his politics but "Bogie the beefer," as director Raoul Walsh called him, when he was working.
It was Walsh who observed the melancholy beneath his grousing bluster and cast him -- in 1941, when Bogart was already over 40 -- in his first truly memorable role, Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in "High Sierra." He played an escaped con "rushing toward his doom," as another character describes him. He wants to make one last criminal score, but he's distracted by a crippled girl (and her adorable dog).
Something almost soulful emerged in this performance. He was touching on emotions he understood in his bones and could express in silence as well as through sardonic dialogue.
His endemic ruefulness implied a disappointed knowingness that, by a hair, avoided cynicism. In "The Maltese Falcon" (which was released the same year), everyone thinks he's a shady private eye. But he cautions people not to understand him too quickly. The man has a code, which he refuses to articulate until the very end. And why bother? It is sufficient that he knows what it is and acts out of its principles, which are instinctive to him.
All he needed now was what every star who hopes his image may outlive his moment needs -- a defining role in a movie everyone loves and goes on loving forever. That, of course, was "Casablanca." Rick in his "gin joint," nursing his lost love and misplaced ideals, is a very fair projection of Bogart at that moment -- especially the lovelessness.
He emerged from these star-making roles without the girl, which chimed perfectly with his anguished, loveless real-life marriage. Two previous marriages had ended amicably enough, but Methot was, by this time, a truly pathetic case, and he was entrapped in her addiction and need; as an old-fashioned man of honor, he could not bring himself to abandon her.
Enter Howard Hawks. With his discovery, Lauren Bacall, on his arm. He had noticed what he called "insolence" in Bogart. And in Bacall. On screen, in "To Have and Have Not" and "The Big Sleep," he is bemused and playful with her purring sexiness. Off screen they quickly fell in love, though he anguished lengthily over leaving Methot. In the end, he had no choice; human beings are warmth-seeking missiles.
Bogart was pushing 50 -- late for the authentic stardom that now was his -- but happily married to Bacall he found he could play subtextual sadness without succumbing to it. Indeed, he began to transcend it. For he went confidently to a strange and wonderful place -- to psychopathy.
Nut jobs can be liberating for certain actors because they are beyond morality. You can bring to the surface all your suppressed anger without having to explain, justify or try to redeem it. You can just rip and snort and triumphantly live your whacked-out moments. So -- the comically menacing, paranoiac Fred C. Dobbs in Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and convincingly cracking up as Capt. Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny."
Between those films he created his masterpiece, Dix Steele, the near murderously angry screenwriter of "In a Lonely Place." In a sense, the 1950 film was his farewell to the Hollywood he had known earlier -- that place where small-timers nourished their sad little dreams in marginal bars and bungalows. Down on his luck, Bogart's writer is still natty, still well spoken, but the rage he once suppressed he now allowed to engulf him.
By now Bogart had everything -- an Oscar (for "The African Queen," merry and inconsequential) a beautiful wife and kids, the respect of the industry and public alike. So, of course, there was bitter irony in the fact that he died too soon (at 58) and at the height of his happiness. There was another irony in the fact that he almost immediately became the idol of all the sad, angry young men of the 1960s. Bogart would have scoffed at their notion that he personified existential heroism, though his persistent, posthumous popularity derives from that misunderstanding of him.
He did, however, take pride in his professionalism, which consisted, as good movie acting always does, in digging something authentic out of oneself and placing it before a public that, however dimly, perceives something of themselves -- something both discomfiting and reassuring -- in an evanescent screen image.
We are free, I think, to imagine that some of Bogart's strength in his final days derived from the knowledge that his singular rueful message had finally been received.