They say sex sells, but it never flew off the shelves quite like it did in the heyday of the studio system. Back then a guy didn’t need a six-pack to get us melting, though it didn’t hurt — just try to resist the swaggering muscularity of Brando, busting out of that white T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). What the stars had then was energy, suavity, glamour. Clark Gable drove us mad with the glint in his eye. Errol Flynn swashbuckled his way into our hearts, while Cary Grant smooth-talked his way into our dreams.
Humphrey Bogart was not this type of star.
Even in his early days playing second-tier gangsters in movies like The Roaring Twenties (1939), his face was slightly drawn, his voice as gritty as a gravel trap. Though he was the son of a New York surgeon, an attendee of Andover and Yale, he exuded blue-collar gruffness. Maybe it was just a mark of his talent, but I watch his unsavory trucker in They Drive By Night (1940) and see a city tough who made it to the big-time through guile. Dropping the “r” or the “g” off every other word, he steals Raoul Walsh’s classic noir from right under George Raft’s nose. When he grabs a shady compatriot by the collar, demanding the $300 he feels he’s owed, Bogart’s slim frame effortlessly mixes trickery and strength — he’s an actor whose unscrupulous means and moral ends are not contradictory but fitting.
To my mind it was They Drive By Night that made Bogart “Bogie.” Of course he’d have his shot as leading man, in some of the most iconic roles in the history of cinema: as Mad Dog in High Sierra (1941), Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (also 1941), Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). But to be fourth-billed (behind George Raft, Ann Sheridan, and Ida Lupino, for goodness sake), in a role just this side of underwritten, and emerge with a definable persona, well that’s what stardom is. Starting with They Drive By Night , the early Forties saw Bogart take sex appeal in a new direction. He didn’t request attraction but demanded it. He didn’t use seduction. He used force.
It turns out Bogart was that type of star. He just predated the vogue for the sexy antihero — the end-of-the-bar misfit, moody and cynical — by about three decades. Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, and others discovered this in the Seventies. After the end of the Production Code, there’s surely more violence in the leading men, which takes them to places darker than even Bogart could reach. But with Bogart sex became less about conventional beauty than about melding outer toughness with inner fragility. The grifter with a heart of gold, you might call it.
In his films with Lauren Bacall, particularly The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), the double entendres flare from the end of cigarettes. In one scene, the camera comes in tight and the lounge recedes. It’s just Bogie (as private eye Philip Marlowe) and Bacall (as femme fatale Vivian) over highballs, trading Hawks’ unmatched sexual innuendoes like champion tennis players in an extended rally. They build momentum, getting into the groove. Bacall leans back and pulls a smoke suggestively from her purse, goading him to lean forward and light it for her:
Marlowe: You've got a touch of class. But I don't know how — how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle. Go ahead Marlowe, I like the way you work. In case you don't know it, you're doing all right.
Marlowe: There's one thing I can't figure out.
Vivian: What makes me run?
Vivian: I'll give you a little hint. Sugar won't work. It's been tried.
Marlowe: Then why’d you try it on me?
Notice how he leans back as he says that last line. He doesn’t try sugar with her, and won’t let her sugar work on him. ( The Big Sleep is one of the great ones. If you haven’t seen it and can’t take a two-hour lunch break at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday to watch it, for the love of God please record it on your DVR or find it on Netflix.) We’re talking here about why we go to the movies in the first place, which is in part to fantasize about being this cool.
Surely, though, the reason AFI ranked Bogart its top male “Legend” is not simply erotic devotion. I think it has mostly to do with the way Bogart used sex to get at something all his characters share on a deeper level, which is desire. This is most clear when there’s not even a woman in sight: as Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre , which sadly is not included in TCM’s retrospective, Bogart gives his finest performance. The desire’s not fleshly but financial; Dobbs is a prospector looking for the mother lode, pushed to insanity by the belief his partners are trying to pull one over on him. A tragic hero in ratty denim, Bogart plays Dobbs almost like a leading man — you barely realize he’s the villain until the credits have rolled. See Bogart in the firelit camp, greed flashing on his face like lightning.
“Summer Under the Stars” with Humphrey Bogart shows Wednesday on TCM, featuring The Big Sleep , 12:45 p.m.; High Sierra , 2:45 p.m.; They Drive By Night , 4:30 p.m.; and The Maltese Falcon , 8:00 p.m.