Casablanca [1942)

Time goes by.  Time goes by.  Sitting in his own gin joint…stinking drunk.  It’s like Pythagoras is hammering on Bogie’s heart…searching for a certain ratio.  Left to die in Casablanca.  The money is good, sure!  But the heart is broken.

The heart that loves and the heart that fights…these are the same heart.  If she can take it, so can I.  And Dooley Wilson strides into the song.  It was in the piano all along.

The piano…that musical typewriter…where Beethoven wrote novels as much as chiseled sonorities.  Truth is, nobody is listening.  There are those in this world we trust.  At present we wait.

And then she arrives.  And we blow it.  All of that crestfallen love transformed into angst.  She was the most beautiful woman we ever saw.  When Belmondo and Seberg joyride around Paris, it is in tribute to them.  And perhaps Héloïse and Abelard really are buried at Père Lachaise.  Maybe, maybe not.

But when she hummed that tune in the noir shadows…then the piano started to play.  It’s no use.  She’ll never come.  Oh, but she does come.  And then she leaves again.  We begin to wonder whether she ever existed at all…whether Pythagoras ever passed a blacksmith and heard an anvil chorus.  Anytime’s a good time to be born…and anytime is a good time to die.  Harry Partch said that.  And Casablanca’s as good a place for it as any.  Bogie said that.

Ten thousand dollars/at the drop of a hat/I’d give it all gladly/if our lives could be like that.  Bob Dylan said that.  There’s blood on the tracks…greasing the rails…from the concentration camps to North Africa.  Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world…  And now Bogie has to think for all of us.  And he does.

Laszlo had to go all Charles Ives and instead of the Fourth of July, it’s the 14th and “La Marseillaise” is drowning out “Die Wacht am Rhein”…tentatively at first, but ultimately in a rousing rout.

I lost my place…my train of thought.  Rick lost his place…the train from Oran.  It must have been that song…Herman Hupfeld.  Humbert Humbert?  No, that’s more Claude Rains’ department.  Have you tried 22 tonight?  Leave it there.

It’s more Schindler than Schindler…because it’s cinema.  Mostly because it’s Bogart.  The harder they fall…in love.  And so now the piano is silent.  Another proprietor has taken over.  I was always on the side of the underdog…an expensive habit.  Was never much of a business man.

And she flies away.  He remembers the day…the last time.  For me, it was Messiaen.  Turangalîla.  An airport in New Orleans.  I’m not qualified to shine Faulkner’s shoes, but here I am…none the less.

Deep underground is the resistance.  Love.  Maybe.  For now we have cinema…when we can allow ourselves to indulge in such.  We burn in darkened halls…or simply darkened bedrooms on a laptop.  Maybe she has come and gone.  Ingrid, painted so lovingly by Curtiz as she first hears the song again…like the other Bergman…like the overture to The Magic Flute.

I coulda been someone.  I coulda been a contenda.  No, another film.  We merely have our thoughts to cache until the library disappears like mandala sand.  Back to the bottle.  Scorsese gets it!

A lovely day and a lovely actress and Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev with the windows down.  Honey.  He did the right thing.  The hard path.  The road less-traveled.  The true saint.  The golden agitator.  Some say the French invented love.

We’ll always have Paris.  That hour in a van…stuck in traffic.  How very Tati!  There’s Sacré-Cœur…and the Arc de Triomphe from the side.

And then…getting on that plane.  The hardest part.  Like seeing the Eiffel Tower…only on departure.


The African Queen [1951)

For people who try to do the right thing, the world is a cruel place.  Ebola virus disease was named after the Ebola River in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Near the start of this film we see a hurried burial of the Methodist minister Samuel Sayer (played by Robert Morley).  That scene was filmed near the village of Biondo (DRC):  about 450 miles from the Ebola River.

In 1951 (and ostensibly 1914) it was the Germans who came to burn huts and round up the villagers of Rev. Sayer (most likely forcing the natives to become soldiers). In 1976 it was a strange virus which came to the region near the Ebola River to inflict terrible and mysterious suffering.

This tangent serves the purpose of relating our subject (an amazing piece of cinema) to the present times.  Our principal players (Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn) gradually made their way about 300 miles northeast to Lake Albert (actually further…to the Ugandan side), but not before many real and fictional travails.

Reality and fiction…  The Ebola River is the headstream of the Mongala River.  Fact.  The Mongala River is a tributary of the Congo River.  Fact.  Scenes of the African Queen (the boat) going over the falls were filmed at Ubundu (formerly Ponthierville) on the Lualaba River in the DRC using a model with tiny Bogart and Hepburn figurines.  Fact.  The Lualaba River is the greatest headstream (by water volume) of the Congo River.  Fact.  Ebola virus disease is a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Definitely maybe.

Everyone needs a little help from their friends.  Hollywood makes no pretense to being anything but a pretense–except when the projector is rolling.  The suspension of disbelief which is at the essence of fictional films requires audience participation.  Rarely have directors taken a different approach to the process, but one notable exception was Roberto Rossellini.  His version of Neorealism created a tributary in reverse (flooded by directors like Godard) which traced cinema’s roots back to the source:  truth.  Twenty-four times per second (historically) a frame was given its moment to shine.  The shift was imperceptible.  Through the phi phenomenon we perceive motion on the screen.

We see Charlie Allnut scratch his steamer beard.  We see Rosie Sayer transform from a teetotaling harmonium pumper into a war strategist for improvised explosives.  We laugh when Bogie monkeys around.  We swoon with the romance and gravity of it all.  We relate to Sisyphus as skipper–mired in mud and pulling his own ship with a rope.  After the Spar torpedoes eventually serve their purpose, we believe that our heroes swim to safety in Kenya.

But what we really learn is to not drink the water.  For director John Huston and Bogie it was whiskey all the way (while filming on location in Africa).  They were the only two not to succumb to dysentery.  Hepburn had to play the pump organ with a bucket nearby (in case she got sick).

Through immense struggle we learn not to drink the Kool-Aid.  I bet Humphrey Bogart wouldn’t have dismissed Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz without giving Emerging Viruses (1996) a fair shake.


The Big Sleep [1946)

If you’ve seen Mulholland Drive, you know the pleasure which being confused can bring.  Where is that confounded plot?  Yes, that is exactly what can happen here if you are not paying strict attention.  This film is notorious for being convoluted.  Perhaps the assertion is unfair.  Unlike Finnegans Wake, there is actually a plot (complete with characters) here, yet you must hold on tight to come out with any specific sense of what has just transpired.

In some ways The Big Sleep is similar to Hitchcock’s Vertigo in that both films seem to be buoyed along primarily by their mood and tone.  Whether it was specifically the doing of Faulkner (one of three screenwriters here) or not, the dialogue is perhaps the best ever written.  Inextricable from the razor-sharp repartee are the talents of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  An underappreciated addition to this grand concoction of Howard Hawks is the contribution of Martha Vickers.  This was perhaps the only significant film role of her acting career (which also included television), but it is one for the ages!

Bogart, for his part, is stellar in his versatility.  His “undercover” stint at Geiger’s book shop is hilarious!  Dorothy Malone has a short-yet-incendiary part as the proprietress of Acme Bookstore.  She would go on to win an Oscar for best supporting actress by way of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956).  Even as late as 1992 she was making an impact on the film world (in Basic Instinct).

But it is Bogart who gives one of his greatest performances as the truth-seeking, street-smart Philip Marlowe.  Passion drives Marlowe to “soldier on” just as much as justice.  Bogart is the supreme example of insubordination gone right.  His fierce independence is infused into the character of Marlowe to stunning effect.  Bogart won’t quit.  Howard Hawks makes the whole thing seem real by having Marlowe shake with fear near the climax.  All we needed was a glimpse of his humanity to truly appreciate the insouciant superman we’ve been following.


To Have and Have Not [1944)

Was you ever stung by a dead bee?  Their sting can’t possibly be as piquant as 19-year-old Lauren Bacall in this classic.  Humphrey Bogart would agree.  It was Bacall’s first film and the beginning of a “beautiful friendship.”  Their on-screen charisma here is both impossibly cute and sweltering (the latter due to Bacall’s sultry acting).

Walter Brennan can’t stop talking about dead bees (or stop talking in general).  His performance is magnificent.  The sub-plot involving Brennan’s character Eddie and Bogart’s Capt. Morgan (rum, anyone?) is truly touching.  Bogart plays the tough-yet-compassionate friend to the old alcoholic Eddie.  It is an underdog story and we are glad to see someone looking after the unfortunate Eddie.  It is significant that the novel upon which this film is loosely based was written by Hemingway, yet Eddie seems to bear a slight resemblance to Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  To round out the American literature lesson, William Faulkner is credited as one of the two screenwriters.

Of additional note (no pun intended) is the acting, singing, and playing of Hoagy Carmichael.  There are such fantastic musical moments herein.  One wonders whether Tom Waits was inspired by the songs from this film (and by Carmichael in general).  We must also remember that Ian Fleming envisioned 007 as looking like Carmichael.  His presence in this film adds immensely to the whole.

The direction of Howard Hawks is stunning, though deftly “invisible.”  We believe the events are actually happening.  Though it is Hollywood through and through, there might be a case made for Hawks’ own neorealism at this time when Rossellini was about to release the seminal  Roma città aperta (the epitome of cinematic veritas). 


Passage to Marseille [1944)

The Maginot Line was the greatest “oops” in the history of military strategy.  It’s not often we walk into a movie theater and hear about this relic, nor about the Siegfried Line on the other side.  That is why we must look to classic cinema for these and other lessons.  Make no mistake, this film is not primarily about that ill-fated Titanic of fortifications which was outflanked.

Sydney Greenstreet makes mention of both lines in the fictional build up to real war.  Greenstreet is once again the slippery villain…this time a Major in the French army who would side with Petain and the Nazis.  Peter Lorre, for once, is a good guy (though a pickpocket/safecracker by profession).  Claude Rains is convincing and distinguished as Captain Freycinet, but it is Humphrey Bogart as Matrac who leads the show.

For Bogart’s character Jean Matrac we must look to another chapter of history:  that of Jean-Paul Marat.  Bogart plays a radical journalist who ends up being framed by the government of France and sent to the penal colony at Cayenne, French Guiana.  Sound familiar?  To Francophiles it certainly should.  We must remember Lieutenant-colonel Alfred Dreyfus (another great “oops” of French history).  Dreyfus was wrongly accused of being a spy and sent to (you guessed it) French Guiana [in fact, to the worst part:  Devil’s Island].

And so…we have Bogart and Lorre and three other “convicts” (some legitimately guilty and others, like Bogart, there on dubious charges) escape in a canoe.  I won’t go too much into plot detail in case you feel like actually watching this thing (what a concept!).

The theme, on the other hand, is worth elaboration.  We are dealing with patriotism in spite of corrupt governance.  As St. Thomas Aquinas said (and I paraphrase), “An unjust law is no law at all.”  Another page from history.  Here we see the principle of Natural Law which would attract none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. (who cited the same sentiment in his Letter From Birmingham Jail in 1963).

We now live in a time and (we in the United States) a country which is as dynamic with vile antagonists as was France during WWII.  Knowing history becomes paramount.  Knowledge (as James Madison pointed out) is essential for popular governance.  Facts are weapons.

Bogart ends up worthy of being a subject for Jacques-Louis David by film’s conclusion (I’m being purposefully cryptic), but not before giving the Nazis a good lashing.  Bogie’s character is similar to the one he played in Key Largo.  Matrac’s disillusionment almost makes him become the complete opposite of his former self.  In an instance fit for bystander law, Bogart intercedes on behalf of a young boy.  The young boy revives the national pride in Bogart–that fire for justice.

We in America would do well to remember the Maginot Line when disillusioned with a government we feel no longer represents us.  Even the Prophet Mohammed spoke of the scholar’s ink as superior to the martyr’s blood.  Everyone with a mouse to click is fighting.  Every blog, post, and tweet is a riposte.  Every dollar a vote.

Vive la France!  And long live the United States of America!


Action in the North Atlantic [1943)

Where to start…  This is a time capsule from another world and, most of all, a damn good film.  It might be argued that this picture proves a certain fallibility of the French auteur theory, but only insofar as director Lloyd Bacon never having been canonized like, for instance, Howard Hawks.  Sure…this is a propaganda film, but it’s hard to argue with gentle optimism.  We were even allies with Russia (Soviet Union) back then!

I hadn’t seen a Raymond Massey performance in a long while and it was good to remember his excellent acting skills.  Bogart is great the whole way through, but what else would you expect?  Ruth Gordon does a fine job in her small role as Massey’s wife.  Not many female roles here as the majority of the film is at sea during wartime (in the 1940s).  Julie Bishop is likewise lovely as Bogart’s new bride (though we see very little of her too).

The ensemble acting is really remarkable and vivid…particularly aboard the oil tanker at the start of the film.  Dane Clark has a strange role–a sort of “doubting Thomas” who finally sees the light of patriotism.  Truly, this film is not just American propaganda, but also proto United Nations perception management.  But like I said, this was a different age and the whole thing comes off as quite the opposite of heavy-handed.

Alan Hale, Sr. is pretty hilarious the whole way through as O’Hara:  the guy who never shuts up.  To be fair, none of these salty dogs ever shut up.  Only Bogart and Massey retain any sense of distinguished cool.

Of particular note are the action sequences.  What a huge undertaking!  This is truly a movie which gives a glimmer as to the breadth at issue in WWII.  The aerial shots of the maritime convoy are astounding!  Amid all of this bombast I failed to notice Robert Mitchum’s one line appearance, but if Wikipedia claims it’s so then it must be.  Ha!

The specific topic of recruitment (as per propaganda) is for the U.S. Merchant Marine and their Academy.  Like I said, none of it is too terribly offensive to logical thought.  Of particular interest is the dialogue of the German U-boats.  All of it is in German and without subtitles.  We also hear different tongues throughout the film (such as Russian).  No “foreign” character is ever made to speak English.

Speaking of mixed messages…Wikipedia also credits Raoul Walsh and Byron Haskin with directing this film.  Now what the heck is that all about?  No wonder Lloyd got the auteurist shaft!




Across the Pacific [1942)

Spies, spies; every where, Nor any secret to glean.  Je t’aime… moi non plus

“Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither.”  Ah, Dalí.  Only a man who enjoyed roasted grapefruits as an appetizer would have the twisted wit to turn Western logic upon its head.

Coleridge.  Gainsbourg.  Bogart.  Indeed, the albatross was heavy round the necks of all at this time…not least for John Huston.  We begin with détournement and continue with dérive.

Dear Mr. Huston didn’t even get the chance to complete this film before having his work taken over by Vincent Sherman.  This was truly an age of war.  Hot war.

The original film premise was to depict a Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor…until the Japanese actually did just that.  Oops!  And so it was rewritten to focus on the Panama Canal Zone.  A sabotage incident (which would have likewise sparked off American mass involvement) is the linchpin of our drama.

Sydney Greenstreet once again plays a slippery character (and what is more, referred to again as “the fat man”).  It wouldn’t be too long before Greenstreet’s soubriquet was transposed onto the plutonium bomb which destroyed Nagasaki.  This was no coincidence.

After arriving in Panama Bogart continues his work for Army intelligence by meeting with A.V. Smith (Charles Halton).  On Smith’s desk, conspicuously in plain view, is a calendar and the date:  Dec. 6, 1941.  Time is of the essence.

Bogart’s character is named Rick.  His pal Lee Tung Foo is called Sam.  Sound familiar?

Yes, just two months after Across the Pacific, Casablanca would be released with Bogart as another Rick and Dooley Wilson as Sam the piano player.  Greenstreet had been “the Fat Man” the previous year in The Maltese Falcon (also directed by Huston).  That film had likewise starred Mary Astor who appears in Across the Pacific as Alberta Marlow.  Bogart would go on to play Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ masterful version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946).  It all gets a bit confusing, doesn’t it?  Let’s just call it the fog of noir, shall we?

To keep accounts straight…we should remember that Casablanca was directed not by Huston, but by Michael Curtiz.

Reentering the atmosphere of film criticism proper…this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but not the juggernaut that some Bogart outings came to be.  It is perhaps most of interest as the precipice which our star occupied just before Casablanca.  Though it is less known than The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (among many other Bogie films), it is well-worth watching.



They Drive by Night [1940)

When most of us think about truck drivers we probably picture a redneck chewing Red Man and listening to Merle Haggard (or, to keep the motif going, Red Sovine).  Our truck drivers do an unenviable job which requires great intestinal fortitude (figuratively and literally).  It’s a hell of a thing to have a profession where the transport of goods (or people) requires driving at all hours of the day and night.  If you’ve never slapped yourself or blasted the A/C to try and stay awake–never searched desperately on the dial for some music to spur you on, then you may not understand this cautionary film noir from Raoul Walsh.

It’s cautionary in at least two ways.  Early in the film we see a couple of drivers go over a cliff and burn alive in their rig.  Even our hero Bogart loses an arm in a particularly nasty crash.  But the other half of the moral tale involves a theme common to film noir:  crimes of passion.  In this case, it is the jealous love of Ida Lupino which causes her to murder her husband in hopes of clearing the way for a romance with the straight-laced George Raft.

Raft can’t be tempted because, along with that intestinal fortitude of which I spoke, he has a salt-of-the-earth righteousness which keeps him from betraying his friend (the soon to be murdered husband of Lupino’s character).  That and he’s in love with Ann Sheridan.

Laced throughout this gritty struggle is the thread of capitalism.  We see Raft and Bogart appreciate the first fruits (pun intended) of their labor when they sell a truckload of lemons and are able to pay off the accrued debt on their truck.  Just when it’s paid off, tragedy strikes in the form of a wreck and they are back to square one.

Raft is excellent if stiff as Joe Fabrini.  Bogart plays his brother Paul.  Though Bogie is not really the featured player here, he delivers his lines with such wry languor and cool that we recognize the true star on set.  Sheridan looks lovely throughout as Cassie Hartley, but it is the overwrought Lupino who takes center stage as Lana Carlsen by throwing a wrench into Raft’s acquisition of the American Dream.

For me, the most beautiful aspect of this film is in its beginning sequences…when we see the brothers work and sweat and dream.  They have nothing but debt, yet they persevere and put their street smarts to work.  Film noir may have given us a heroic dose of scandals, but it also brought us the verismo of such as the Fabrini brothers.  It’s nice to see this slice of life on the silver screen.  As Alfredo instructs Toto in Cinema Paradiso (1988), “Life isn’t like in the movies.  Life…is much harder.”  Sometimes directors like Walsh bring life into our living rooms.  We can thank Raoul…and Rossellini…even Leoncavallo and Mascagni.  Throw in Zola too.  It’s only natural!



Key Largo [1948)

By 1948, John Huston had honed his craft.  This may not be as highly-esteemed a movie as The Maltese Falcon, but it has several dimensions more depth.  The whole thing is a situation (meant in the philosophical sense). It reminds me most of Hitchcock’s minor masterpiece Lifeboat.  There is also a bit of Rope in this film which never leaves the Hotel Largo once all the major players are inside (save for the end which, like Lifeboat, takes us into the wine-dark sea).

There is something of Frank Capra in the touching scene where Bogie relates the death of the hotel patron’s son in the recently-ended war (a bit like Meet John Doe in the whole tone of it).  Perhaps, however, a more accurate comparison is to the heart-wrenching tenor of Anatole Litvak’s Out of the Fog.  It is interesting how Huston sets up Bogart’s character to be a hero, but surprises await.

Edward G. Robinson’s emergence from the bathtub is such an iconic film moment…smoking that cigar, a glass of brandy (perhaps) on the tub’s edge…a man worried about nothing…slipping into his silk bathrobe.  Robinson is fantastic as the cruel Johnny Rocco…most of all because Robinson’s depiction has such depth.  This is, after all, a man who we will shortly see is afraid of storms (to his credit, it is a proper hurricane).

This whole film is (for most of the movie) a very strange role for Bogart.  It is as if he were being thrust back into the days when he had to play second fiddle to actors like Robinson.  The beautiful Lauren Bacall loses faith in Bogart’s character as he not only seems to cower, but also contradicts the idealism of her father-in-law (the father of her dead husband…a genuine war hero).

It is no wonder Claire Trevor won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her work in this film.  When her alcoholic character is baited into singing a song from her long-gone heyday we are again gifted a one-of-a-kind film moment:  a pathetic has-been warbling out of pitch and just wanting a couple fingers of scotch.  It is, strangely enough, this point at which Bogart regains his cajones and pours the drink which Robinson would withhold on account of her shabby performance.  Bacall regains her faith and apologizes to Bogie.

I don’t want to spoil the ending.  [Now ain’t I nice?]  This is a must-see film and it only further adds to the Bogart legend which has been built upon his performances in more well-known films.  Sail on Bogie!







The Maltese Falcon [1941)

Bogart is our “three day stubble” hero–our five-o’clock shadow warrior.  “Tough without a gun,” said Raymond Chandler.  Indeed, Bogart as Sam Spade herein disarms a couple of gun-wielding punks through his ingenuity alone.  Quick movements.  Think fast.

In a tough profession one must roll with the punches.  Bogie’s partner is murdered?  Life must go on.  Extra space on the signage?  Put my full name:  Samuel Spade.

Yes, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is indispensable.  John Huston turns in an astounding film for a first-time director.  But the whole enterprise is carried by Humphrey.

There is a reason why Huston was slighted by the French New Wave and Bogart was not.  Huston was not at all a bad director.  It was just that the discrepancy became clear when the brilliant Bogart was placed at the disposal of Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray.  One needs only watch another juggernaut debut (Breathless by Godard) to see the esteem which Bogie accrued with the French film culture which would give intellectual validity to American films previously considered mere pulp entertainment.