Few faces are as recognisable in the Hollywood era than Humphrey Bogart’s. Labelled by most rankings as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) actors of all time, Bogart found the peak of his career in the 1940s when the gangster flicks of Hollywood were re-emerging as film-noir.
Bogart didn’t break into Hollywood when he first started appearing in features in the early 1930s. He was a contract player, often starring in b movies and background fodder for gangster flicks, often supporting the likes of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. But Bogart got his chance for stardom in 1941 with both High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. Working with famed directors like Raoul Walsh and John Huston, Bogart’s collaboration with Hollywood’s finest provided as much esteem for the features as well as for the performances themselves.
Bogart was able to play characters with depth like no other, although his range was small, his ability to conceal emotions and reveal them with the slightest of touches or facial expressions is what makes his characters so memorable. His next classic role Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942) would be remembered as his best and mostly for this reason: the character of Rick is a selfish shell of a man, someone who should be completely irredeemable to most actors who would portray him, but long takes and close ups of Bogart reveal more to the character – a silent longing that further develops his character and story, eventually creating one of the finest love stories of all time.
What makes Humphrey Bogart such an interesting actor is the fact he’s not handsome or rugged like a James Stewart or Cary Grant would be. His face shows age, wrinkles from stress, saggy eyes from years of alcoholism, and these traits feel like extra details for his often troubled characters. His hardened image stayed the same but those glimpses of what’s underneath the surface would tell you more about his characters than anything else. In Casablanca, it’s realising he’s alone and can express his thoughts on seeing his previous love whilst in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), it’s a terrifying glimpse of something mad boiling under that is defining human greed.
His career continued and successfully so in the 1950s when working on other esteemed classics like The African Queen (1951) and Sabrina (1954) but his career fell short when he died from oesophageal cancer in January 1957. Bogart’s performance and looks were perfectly suited to a post-war America that filled their screens with stories of greed, corruption and malice. His persona was perfectly aligned to this darker era of Hollywood’s Golden Age and will remain as part of its legacy forever.
Header Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.