Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart – Blu-Ray Review

This is the first of the Powerhouse Colombia Noir series to be focused on a specific actor, in this case Humphrey Bogart. The films included are all from the late 1940s to mid-1950s, made mostly after Bogart’s contract with Warner Bros. was up. Bogart was under contract to Warner for a very long time, starting with gangster movies in the ‘30s, and it took him ages to get out of the deal. Although the majority of his best films came during that period, he often didn’t like the scripts he was being given. The set is missing a very key film from his Columbia years—In a Lonely Place, which may be Bogart’s best film—but Criterion has re-released it.

The set starts with Dead Reckoning, directed by John Cromwell in 1947. It has such an over-the-the narration that it almost verges a self-parody of the hard-boiled style. Cromwell was later blacklisted, essentially bringing to an end a long career.

Dead Reckoning came out right after The Big Sleep, and is clearly a bit of a rip-off of that popular movie. You have Bogart as a former war hero investigating the sudden disappearance of his friend; Lizabeth Scott plays the femme fatale. It had originally been intended as Rita Hayworth’s follow-up to Gilda, but Hayworth was in the middle of a big pay row with the studio, plus she were making The Lady from Shanghai. So they turned to Scott, who was one of the great film noir actresses—surprisingly, this is the only time she ever co-starred with Bogart. Scott had just had a big hit with The Strange Love of Marta Ivers, this film features one of her best peformances.

The plot is very much by-the-numbers film noir, and that is fine. It’s well-made and well-shot—Cromwell was a really solid old-time director, and had directed Bogart on stage when they were young men in the 1920s. It’s one of the most enjoyable films in the set, and the combination of Bogart and Scott is so intoxicating that the film’s flaws no longer matter.

Knock on Any Door is the next film in the set, and one of the more well-known due to Nicholas Ray being at the helm. Ray was still fairly unknown at the time, but had just come off the sensational They Live by Night. It was a box-office disappointment, but industry people saw this “lovers on the run” film and were greatly impressed. Ray and Bogart would go on to make arguably both men’s best film, In A Lonely Place, a year afterwards. They got like a house on fire and were drinking buddies to the day Bogart died.

Bogart had read the novel by first-time African-American novelist Willard Motley, was impressed by it and thought it would make a good movie. It’s a fairly routine story of a troubled young delinquent, Nick Ramano (John Derek), who is facing a life sentence for killing a cop. Bogie plays his lawyer, Andrew Morton, who uses the fact that Nick grew up in the slums of Chicago to try to save him from the electric chair. Marlon Brando was being courted for the lead but eventually lost interest, he was still doing A Streetcar Named Desire on-stage and had yet to make the transition to the screen—his first film would end up being The Men in 1950. The film works due to Ray’s compassion for the outsider in society, although he did this better in They Live by Night and in his later films, like Rebel Without a Cause.

Knock on Any Door is a solid noirish courtroom drama with a left-wing bent. It falls into the camp of films occasionally referred to as “film gris.” These were made in the late ’40s and early ’50s, often by directors who were communists like Jules Dassin and Joseph Losey, or at least very sympathetic to left-wing causes, like John Huston. Bogart was a New Deal Democrat, and initially courageously tried to stand up against McCarthy and his cronies with his high-profile involvement with the Committee for the First Amendment, of which Huston was a founder. Bogart eventually felt used by some in the group, and he was to an extent—for example, Sterling Hayden, who was a past member of the Communist Party but hadn’t disclosed it. Bogart only agreed to be involved if nobody in the group was a current or former communist. Hayden would go on to name names to save his career, something which greatly pained him to the day he died. Despite all of this, Bogart continued to work with many of these “fellow-travellers,” although often the ones who named names, like Edward Dmytryk, who was one of the Hollywood Ten. Huston fled to Ireland, and would continue to work and drink with Bogart, although he did think Bogart was a bit of a coward in the end. Bogart was in the same privileged position as somebody like Gene Kelly, powerful enough in Hollywood that despite their clear ties to “communists” they would’ve escaped being blacklisted in any case.

Tokyo Joe and Sirocco are in the category of films that Bogart fans know all too well: rip-offs of Casablanca, always set in some exotic locale with some romance and intrigue. Bogie did to attempt to recapture some of that magic in Sirocco, which even has the tagline “Beyond Casablanca…,” something it’s very much not. Neither of these two are great films, but they are perfectly serviceable vehicles in which Bogart plays a morally dubious but ultimately good guy. Tokyo Joe is probably the better film despite its really dodgy politics, which are all for the continued imperialistic occupation of Japan well after the war. Sirocco is the more overt Casablanca rip-off with its setting in Damascus in the ’20s. Here Bogart plays an American black-marketeer, secretly selling arms to the Syrian guerrillas who are at war with French colonists. Both are super-formulaic, but it’s an enjoyable formula. Both films are around 90 minutes long so they also don’t outstay their welcome,.

The outlier of the set is The Family Secret, which Bogart produced for his own company, Santana (named after his yacht), but does not appear in. It’s a fairly routine noirish melodrama about a young man who kills his best friend and confesses to his family. The parents are conflicted, but when the father Howard Clark (Lee J. Cobb) and the young man walk into D.A.’s office to confess, it’s announced that the son’s friend’s killer has been arrested. Clark is a lawyer who takes the case. It’s your typical liberal morality tale, and you kind of know what the resolution will be from the get-go, but it’s decent, comes in at around 85 minutes, and Cobb is always a strong screen presence.

The collection ends with his last film before Bogart’s death, The Harder They Fall (1956). During the film’s production, Bogart’s health decided rapidly, but it wasn’t till after the film wrapped that his wife, Lauren Bacall, finally persuaded him to get checked out. Bogart was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and was gone by January 1957. If you were going to go out, The Harder They Fall is not a bad film to go out on. It’s a hard-hitting cynical noir on the world of professional boxing.

Bogart plays Sportswriter Eddie Willis who is hired by corrupt boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to be his PR man for Toro Moreno, a towering Argentinian. Unbeknownst to both Toro and his manager, all the fights are fixed to make Toro seem like a much better boxer than he actually is—despite his size, he is a fairly lousy boxer. There are shades of On the Waterfront, which itself has a boxing subplot. That’s no coincidence, because the script was written by Budd Schulberg, who also wrote the script and novel of On The WaterfrontThe Harder They Fall was an earlier effort, his second novel after What Makes Sammy Run?, which is considered by many to be the great Hollywood novel. Spielberg reportedly told Schulberg that the book was “anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed,” and unsurprisingly it’s been in development hell since the ’50s.

The Harder They Fall was directed by Mark Robson, who was one of those great workmanlike directors. Robson had a long and varied career: he made both The Seventh Victim and The Valley of the Dolls! Robson and Schulberg got on, but had different ideas on boxing. Schulberg saw the corruption within it but still loved the sport enough that he wanted it reformed, whilst Robson wanted it banned altogether. Robson had also made the equally cynical boxing noir film Champion years previously. They shot two endings that reflected the two men’s opposing views, with Willis writing op-eds on both. The “reformation” ending is what we have now, but reportedly it was released in some territories with the other ending. Bogart is great in the film, although it’s clear that his body is failing him. He reportedly had to do more takes than normal because his eyes were too watery, and even some of his lines are allegedly dubbed by impressionist Paul Frees (I didn’t notice).

The release from Indicator is packed with extras: every film has a commentary track from film scholars. French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier supplies appreciations for two of the films, these are ports from the French Blu-Rays but with English subtitles! The only films that don’t have appreciations are Sirocco and The Family Secret, but the Sirocco disc does have an excellent South Bank Show documentary on Bogart. Most of the films have an archival short film or documentary that the film’s director had some involvement with. Each film is accompanied by an image gallery, but Knock on Any Door is the only film that has a trailer. Finally, the set includes a lengthy 120-page book, which contains a new essay by Imogen Sara Smith, extensive archival articles and interviews, and new writing on the various short films.

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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