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Three Bogart Films June 13, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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This is the wonderful time of my year when I get to watch tons of old movies in between catching up on reading the ever-growing stacks of books culled from thrift stores and yardsales over the past months.  Over the past couple of days, I watched a bunch of Bogie movies I’d never seen before, and they were all pretty good in their own way.

As much as Bogart always got typecast as a tough guy, watching more and more of his movies makes me see how wide a range he had as an actor. Sure, he admitted he’d never do Shakespeare, but he wasn’t always playing gangsters, either.

In the earliest of the bunch, 1937’s Black Legion, Bogart starts out as a good guy family man & dad – working at his lunchbucket job and coming home to his happy blue collar small town existence, that is until he loses an expected promotion to the hotshot book learnin’ kid on the factory floor (played by a young Henry Brandon, who spent much of the rest of his career playing Indians like Scar in The Searchers). Bogart looks very young here, especially in the early scenes before he gets deeper & deeper into the Klan-inspired Black Legion that starts terrorizing immigrants around town in those wonderful social-movie-by-Warners-in-the-’30s sets of montages that follow. The movie follows the change in Bogie’s Frank Taylor from easy going family man to paranoid angry hater, eventually lashing out at both friends and family, until an act of violence shocks him back into reality.  One of the interesting things about a lot of the “message” movies from Warners during this time, like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, is how they don’t give you the usual old movie endings,  and this one is no exception. And if you look really carefully near the end, you’ll catch none other than Frank Nelson (YeeeEEEEESSSSSS!) playing a radio announcer! Watching Bogart here shows how he can play tough yet weak at the same time – Frank Taylor becomes a robed bully who feels tougher when he goes along with his group, but deep down is terrified of crossing them up himself.

Bogart also showed how well he plays a weak & frustrated man in Conflict from 1946, where he’s the engineer husband in a failing marriage, in love with his sister-in-law. Bogie knocks off his wife, sets up a great alibi & then tries to express his honest feelings for his sister, but ultimately is rejected… and accepts it. At the same time, he keeps getting clues that his wife may still be alive… or that someone is pretending to be her in order to drive him insane. While parts of this movie worked, the plot runs around a little too much and in the end plays out more like one of those Alfred Hitchcock Hours I wrote about recently, but watching Bogart go through a drawn out paranoid nervous breakdown was different – and he did it well.  Clearly he drew upon this sort of material when he played unbalanced characters like Dixon Steele or Captain Queeg later in his career.

The best movie of the three was Dead Reckoning from 1947 (it and Conflict sandwiched Bogart’s appearance in The Big Sleep). This postwar noir has a rather silly plot device to keep it going (basically someone doesn’t hand Bogie a letter when they easily could – and only then can the entire story happen), but Bogart’s narration and the overall feel of the thing are on the mark. The photography of Gulf City, especially at night, is beautiful – dark, shadowy, mysterious – and the story of Bogart investigating the murder of a GI buddy of his involving a femme fatale nightclub singer (Lizabeth Scott) and a local gangster isn’t too bad – my main problem was how the Scott character was underdeveloped compared to a Phyllis Didrickson or Gilda – she became a little too predictable, and the best dames from this type of movie have you guessing about their motives even after the movie is over.  But Dead Reckoning has its moments as well as the same atmosphere of cold fatalism that works so well in this genre. And Bogart is terrific here – he’s the tough Sam Spade type, yet also exhibits a self-destructive vulnerability when it comes to Scott, one that he’s totally aware of, yet powerless to do anything about. It reminded me a little of Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past (although that’s a better movie).  However, this one earned my affection simply when Bogart called Scott “Husky Cinderella.” She always sounds like her vocal cords are made of sandpaper.

Then again, her role could have been played by Frank Nelson. Now THAT’S a noir I’d like to see.



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