I was contemplating that moment in a film when an actor wows me, when I realize I need to see all of his/her work and possibly start decorating my rooms in fan posters à la a kid with a Teen Beat subscription. And the first actor to come to mind was Humphrey Bogart.
I was unmoved initially by Casablanca, arguably Bogart’s most famous film. A friend and I had decided we needed to acquire some culture and had learned in When Harry Met Sally that this was a love story for the ages. We were confused as we watched. What was all of this stuff about war? Where the hell was Casablanca? Why waste time with all of these confusing minor characters, especially that weird dude (Peter Lorre), when we could be watching Wings or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? Was I seriously supposed to think this Rick guy was attractive? He looked nothing like my high school crushes, Alec Baldwin and Kevin Bacon.
Due to this uninspiring beginning, it was years before I watched another Bogie flick, this time The Maltese Falcon, the mystery about a private detective, Sam Spade (Bogart), investigating the murder of his partner. I was enthralled. The script was breathtaking: “My guess might be excellent or it might be crummy, but Mrs. Spade didn’t raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a district attorney, an assistant district attorney, and a stenographer.”
My favorite moment (the moment) occurs shortly after Spade meets Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), the ringleader behind the crimes in the film. Spade has found him by confronting his gunsel (Elisha Cook Jr.), the lackey who has been trailing him. Spade asks about the “black bird” that has caused a killing spree, with his partner among the victims. “You know what it is,” he tells Gutman. “I know where it is, that’s why I’m here.”
Gutman’s wordy style contrasts with Spade’s brevity. Right away, the former admits he’s a chatterbox: “I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.” He stalls when Spade tries to make a deal for the bird, causing Spade to hurl the cigar and glass he’s holding and shout at Gutman: “What are you wasting my time for? I can get along without you. And another thing. Keep that gunsel out of my way while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill ’im if you don’t, I’ll kill ’im.”
Spade’s passion shocks the viewer. Since he’s remained so calm the entire film, the burst of violence alerts the audience to a fact that should have been obvious all along: the hero is fully as dangerous as his foes. I have always been in awe of the kind of efficiency of movement Bogart displays in this scene, something I admire in the dancing of Fred Astaire and brutal fights of Daniel Craig as 007 and Matt Damon as Jason Bourne.
But as the camera follows Spade charging out of the room, yelling about a 5:00 deadline, we witness his anger swiftly transform into an engaging grin.
That’s what did it for me—that quick, convincing rage, followed by a satisfied smile that reveals his action to be a ploy. In a moment, Bogart had excited me, fooled me, made me laugh. He had drawn me in with that seductive confidence, and thus sold me on his role as a leading man and sex symbol. I soon gobbled up The Big Sleep and so many of his other brilliant films. (Casablanca on a second viewing appeared to be a masterpiece.)
Bogart’s skill with The Maltese Falcon’s dialogue also steered me toward the beautifully written detective fiction of the 1930s-50s, to Dashiell Hammett’s dialogue, Raymond Chandler’s metaphors, and Ross Macdonald’s character development. And, of course, it led me to the amazing world of film noir.
So many thrilling performances. So much good writing. So much wonderful viewing. And all thanks to that 15-second shot of Humphrey Bogart’s grin.
I’m planning to do a The Moment I Fell for…blog once a month, with Thelma Ritter up next. I’d love to hear some of yours…..