Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Best Bogie

A century and a bit ago our great great grandfathers flocked into darkened theatres to view the new cinematograph and see such amazing sights as a train pulling into a station.

As J G Ballard has pointed out cinema today is largely back to where it was in those pioneering Victorian times. The spectacle is the thing. Today crowds go to the multiplexes to see CGI blockbusters in 3D with visual effects that are little short of magic.

Between then and now though was an era when movies were no longer novelties, but when technology largely kept the action in the studios and special effects were limited to the occasional ropey model shot.

During this brief, but glorious, period film makers had to sprinkle a different kind of angel dust on their productions. Unable to summon up armies of extra terrestrials, they instead explored the inner space of the human condition; love and betrayal, loyalty and intrigue, sex and death.

This was the age of the studio system, when eight companies pretty much had the world of cinema sown up. They employed their own actors, directors, set designers and the rest and turned out films by the truck load. Most were pants, but scattered amongst the slag was pure gold.

There were many stars in Hollywood at this time, but my personal favourite is Humphrey Boggart.

His early career was unremarkable and he claimed to have made more bad movies than anyone else - although he did have a bit part in excellent Angels With Dirty Faces - mostly playing villains.

Then, the wrong side of forty, he finally had a hit with John Huston's High Sierra. After that he had the cinematic Midas touch.

1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Bogie plays Sam Spade, the fictional hard boiled detective invented by real life hard boiled detective Dashiell Hammett, as he searches for cinema's most famous McGuffin.

Directed by a young John Huston, it introduced a memorable villain in the "Fat Man", played by Sidney Greenstreet in his first cinema roll.

As a former Pinkerton's man Hammett knew a bit about the seedy side of life, and he based the character on Maundy Gregory, a shady Peter Mandelson character who sold honours for Lloyd George, probably helped forge the Zinoviev Letter and possibly helped bump off a ILP MP threatening to expose corruption in high places.

Bogie does all the things a film noir hero is supposed to do; he wears the trench coat, he flirts with the femme fatale (Mary Astor), gets sandbagged in an alleyway (thus missing all the crucial plot development) and engages is some sparkling double talk with the baddies.

 The stuff that dreams are made of.

2. Casablanca (1942)

Citizen Kane usually gets the critics vote for best movie ever. I've watched it once and, whilst I thought it was clever, I have no plans to see it again. But if Casablanca was on tomorrow I'd stay in to see it.

The film was almost a lesson in how not to make a movie. The producer and the studio boss were at loggerheads, the director abused the crew, the actors mostly hated each other, their was zero chemistry between Bergman and Bogie in real life, the ending was only agreed upon at the last moment and the final line dubbed on after shooting had finished.

However, despite all that, they produced a classic.

There was no auteur behind Casablanca, this was a collective effort. From the seven screenwriters who turned an unsuccessful play into the film, to the ensemble cast of characters actors and Jewish refugees, everyone did what they did best. The main players were mostly reprising familiar roles - all except Bergman who remained baffled by hers throughout.

Bizarrely Claude Rains, who played the Vichy Captain brilliantly, was a born and bred cockney.

For Bogie the film gave him the character he is best remembered for - the hard boiled cynic with a heart of gold.

Mostly though its the lines that get remembered. The last five minutes are a veritable assault of cinema classics. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine", "We'll always have Paris",  "Round up the usual suspects", "Here's looking at you kid" and "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" (lets not read anything untoward into that please...).

Two scenes usually make me blub when watching it. Firstly the "duel of the songs" when the locals drown out Nazis singing by striking up La Marseilleuse. The song the Germans are singing is not actually a Nazi one at all. The film couldn't use the Horst Wessel song as it was under copywrite!

But mainly the manly tears come at the end.

The guy doesn't get The Girl but he does find a Cause.

Hey, it can happen.

3. To Have and Have Not (1944)

So what does a studio do after having a hit like Casablanca?

Well, you make the film again of course.

Just substitute Martinique for Morocco, put Hoagy Carmichael on the piano instead of Dooley Wilson and cast a nineteen year old Lauren Bacall in place of Ingrid Bergman and, voila! another classic.

And it really is too.

Partly this is down to performances like Walter Brennan's as Bogie's Korsakoff's Disease afflicted sidekick, but mostly this is down to the electric charge between Bogie and Bacall.

Considering he was older than I am at the time, this really should have been a great big yeuch! But it isn't. The lines are good, but it's the delivery that makes it. Bacall smoulders, Bogie plays it cool.

Bogie and Bergman were just acting, this is the real thing.

Classic cinema.

4. The Big Sleep (1946)

What's the Big Sleep all about? I don't know, and I don't care.

During filming the production team actually rang Raymond Chandler to ask who'd killed the chauffeur, and he admitted he didn't know either.

But that doesn't matter. Bogie plays Philip Marlow, lifting the stone to reveal what's really going on under the surface of polite California society. He does the hard boiled detective thing a bit, but mostly he just falls in love with Lauren Bacall.

Once again this is amazing cinema. The Hays Code meant everyone had to stay fully clothed, but that doesn't stop it being one of the most sexually charged films ever made. In To Have and Have Not they were clearly just flirting. Now they really get it on.

All told I think Marlow, a more moral sort of character than Sam Spade, is just too soft to be a real detective, but that doesn't matter either. This isn't a film about death, but love.

5. The African Queen (1951)

What, not Dark Passage, or Key Largo, or the Treasure of Sierra Madre?

Well, yes, those are probably better films, and if I had to take up a missionary position in the heart of Africa I'd go with Bergman or Bacall before Katharine Hepburn.

But The African Queen is such a part of the Bogie story you can't ignore it.

The tale of how the film got made is in many ways more interesting than the movie itself. Clint Eastwood has even made a film about it. They were in the middle of Africa, director John Huston was obsessed with shooting an elephant, Bacall washed Bogie's underpants for him and everyone got sick except for Bogie who didn't touch the water and only drank whisky.

The film is all right too, although the real story its based on is in many ways more amazing and less believable.

Bogie was 52 when he made it, and clearly showed he could still cut it as a leading man. But the partying was about to catch up with him. He's already founded the Rat Pack, but four years later he was dead.

His last words were reported to be "I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis"

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