‘The Death of Humphrey Bogart’ (1957)

‘The Death of Humphrey Bogart’ by André Bazin
Cahiers du Cinéma 68, February 1957)

Who does not mourn this month for Humphrey Bogart, who died at fifty-six of stomach cancer and half a million whiskeys? The passing of James Dean principally affected members of the female sex below the age of twenty; Bogey’s affects their parents or at least their elder brothers, and above all it is men who mourn.

Beguiling rather than attractive, Bogey delighted the women in his films; no fear of him leaving millions of widows, like Valentino or James Dean; for the spectator he seems to me to have been more the hero with whom one identifies than the hero one loves. The popularity of Bogart is virile. Women may miss him, but I know of men who would weep for him were not the unseemliness of emotion written all over this tough guy’s tomb. No flowers, no wreaths.

I arrive a little late to launch into my funeral oration. Much has already been written about Bogart, his persona and his myth. But none put it better, perhaps, than Robert Lachenay more than a year ago(1), from whom I cannot help but quote the following prophetic lines(2): ‘Each time he began a sentence he revealed a wayward set of teeth. The set of his jaw irresistibly evoked the rictus of a spirited cadaver, the final expression of a melancholy man who would fade away with a smile. That is indeed the smile of death.’

It now seems clear indeed that none more so than Bogart, if I may speak thus, epitomized the immanence of death, its imminence as well. Not so much, moreover, of that which one gives or receives as of the corpse on reprieve which is within each of us. And if his death touches us so closely, so intimately, it is because the raison d’être of his existence was in some sense to survive. Thus in his case death’s victory is twofold, since it is victorious less over life than over resistance to dying.

I will perhaps make myself better understood by contrasting his character with that of Gabin(3) (to whom one could compare him in so many ways). Both men are heroes of modern cinematographic tragedy, but with Gabin (I am of course speaking of the Gabin of Le Jour se lève and Pépé le Moko) death is, after all, at the end of the adventure, implacably awaiting its appointment. The fate of Gabin is precisely to be duped by life. But Bogart is man defined by fate. When he enters the film it is already the pale dawn of the following day; absurdly victorious from the macabre combat with the angel, his face marked by what he has seen and his bearing heavy with all he knows, having ten times triumphed over his own death he will doubtless survive for us a further time.

The Face of Death

Not the least admirable feature of the character of Bogart is that he improved, became sharper, as he progressively wasted away. This tough guy never dazzled on the screen by dint of physical force or acrobatic agility. He was neither a Gary Cooper nor a Douglas Fairbanks! His successes as a gangster or as a detective are due first to his ability to take a punch, then to his perspicacity. The effectiveness of his punch testifies less to his strength than to his sense of repartee. He places it well, true, but above all at the right moment. He strikes little, but always when his opponent is wrong-footed. And then there is the revolver which becomes in his hands an almost intellectual weapon, the argument that dumbfounds.

But what I mean is that the visible stigmata marking the character more and more over the last ten years or so only helped accentuate a congenital weakness. In more and more resembling his own death, it was his own portrait Bogart was completing. Doubtless the genius of this actor who knew how to make us love and admire in him the very image of our decomposition will never be sufficiently admired. As though bruised a little more each time by all the bad blows he had taken in the preceding films, he had become, with color, the extraordinary creature with the belching stomach, sallow, spitting out teeth, just good enough for the swamp leeches, and yet the man who will steer the African Queen safely to port. And recall that decaying face testifying at the trial of the officers of the Caine. It was clear to see that death had for a long time been unable to conquer from without the being who for a long time had so internalized death.

The ‘modern’ character of the Bogart myth has been rightly stressed, and J.-P. Vivet is doubly correct in taking the adjective in the Baudelairean sense, since in the hero of The Barefoot Contessa we admire precisely the eminence and dignity of our decay. But I would none the less like to comment that to this far-reaching modernity which guarantees the profound poetry of the Bogart character and indisputably justifies his entry into legend, there corresponds a more precise modernity within the compass of our generation. Bogart is, without doubt, typically the actor/myth of the war and post-war period. I mean the period between 1940 and 1955. True, his filmography signals some seventy-five films since 1930, of which forty or so predate High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon (1941). But these were only supporting roles, and it is beyond question that his character emerged with what is commonly called the noir crime film whose ambiguous hero he was to epitomize. In any case for us it was after the war and especially through the films of Huston that Bogart won such popularity. Now one is aware that the years 1940-1 mark precisely the second major stage in the evolution of the American talking picture. 1941 is also the year of Citizen Kane. It must be the case, therefore, that there is some secret harmony in the coincidence of these events: the end of the pre-war period, the arrival of a certain novelistic style in cinematographic écriture, and, through Bogart, the triumph of interiorization and of ambiguity.(4)

One can in any case easily see in what respect Bogart differs from those pre-war heroes for whom Gary Cooper might be the prototype: handsome, strong, noble, expressing much more the optimism and efficiency of a civilization than its anxiety. Even the gangsters are the conquering and active type, Western heroes who have gone astray, the negative version of industrious audacity. In this period only perhaps George Raft shows signs of that introversion, a source of ambiguity which the hero of The Big Sleep will exploit to a sublime degree. In Key Largo Bogart overcomes, in the person of Robinson, the last of the pre-war gangsters; with this victory something of American literature probably makes its way into Hollywood. Not at all through the deceptive intermediary of the scenarios but through the human style of the character. Bogart is perhaps, in the cinema, the first illustration of ‘the age of the American novel’.(5)

Bogey is a Stoic

One must certainly not confuse the interiority of Bogart’s acting style with that developed by the Kazan school and made fashionable by Marlon Brando prior to James Dean. All they have in common is their reaction against psychological-type performance; but taciturn, like Brando, or exuberant, like Dean, the Kazan style is postulated upon anti-intellectual spontaneity. The behavior of the actors is intended to be unforeseeable, since it no longer translates the profound logic of the feelings but externalizes immediate impulses whose link with the inner life cannot be read directly. Bogart’s secret is different. It is of course a case of Conrad’s prudent silence, the phlegm of one who knows the perils of inopportune revelations but above all the unfathomable vanity of these skin-deep sincerities. Distrust and weariness, wisdom and skepticism: Bogey is a Stoic.

I particularly admire in his success the fact that he never in the final analysis depended in any respect on the character of the roles he embodied. They all fall short, indeed, of being sympathetic. Let us even admit that the moral ambiguity of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon or of Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep redound to their advantage, in our estimation – but how to defend the miserable scoundrels in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the baleful commander of The Caine Mutiny? For a few roles as redressor of wrongs or as phlegmatic knight in a noble cause, there are doubtless as many less commendable if not frankly odious exploits. The permanence of the character thus lies beyond his roles, which is not the case with a Gabin, for example, nor could be with James Dean. One can hardly see, too, Gary Cooper claiming to play scoundrels. The special ambiguity of the roles which first brought Bogart success in the noir crime film is thus to be found again in his filmography. Moral contradictions meet as much within the roles as in the paradoxical permanence of the character caught between two apparently incompatible occupations.

But is not this precisely the proof that our sympathy went out, beyond even the imaginary biographies and moral virtues or their absence, to some profounder wisdom, to a certain way of accepting the human condition which may be shared by the rogue and by the honorable man, by the failure as well as by the hero. The Bogart man is not defined by his accidental respect, or his contempt, for bourgeois virtues, by his courage or his cowardice, but above all by this existential maturity which gradually transforms life into a stubborn irony at the expense of death.

Translated by Phillip Drummon

1 – François Truffaut (under the pseudonym Robert Lachenay), ‘Portrait d’Humphrey Bogart’, Cahiers 52, November 1955, translated (in revised version) as ‘Portrait of Humphrey Bogart’ in Truffaut, Films in My Life, pp. 292-5.
2 – Bogart died on 14 January 1957.
3 – Cf. André Bazin, ‘Jean Gabin et son destin’, originally published in Radio-Cinéma-
Télévision, October 1950, translated as ‘The Destiny of Jean Gabin’ in Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. 2.
4 – Bazin refers here to the complex of theses about realism in the cinema developed by him in different instances but particularly in the essays ‘L’Evolution du langage cinématographique’, originally published in 1958, but made up from articles written in 1950, 1952 and 1955, in Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? tome 1, translated as ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’ in Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. 1; ‘William Wyler, ou le janséniste de la mise en scène’, originally published in La Revue du Cinéma, no. 11, March 1948, translated as ‘William Wyler, or the Jansenist of mise en scène’ in Christopher Williams, Realism and the Cinema, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980, pp. 36-52; ‘Le Réalisme cinématographique et l’école italienne de la Libération’, originally published in Esprit, January 1948, translated as ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neo-Realism (Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation)’ in Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. 2. As regards interiority and ambiguity, cf. Rohmer, ‘Rediscovering America’, and Chabrol, ‘Evolution of the Thriller’, both in this volume (Chs 7 and 21 respectively).
5 – The reference is to Claude-Edmonde Magny’s Age of the American Novel: see Rohmer, ‘Rediscovering America’, note 4.