Breaking the Bravado: Interpreting the Subdued Performances of Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey BogartWhile it is true that iconic actor Humphrey Bogart’s career was driven by star power, this should not shortchange his assured ability to master a wide range of film roles, none that were too far out of his reach. Most of them were channeled by a flair of bravado that ultimately helped shape his enduring image as the “tough guy.”

What makes Bogart such an interesting figure of movie maleness is, as James Neibaur notes, “not because he was particular strong and virile, but almost totally because he was not” (72). Bogart was small in stature and, unlike James Cagney, did not have the muscular frame or fighting prowess (Sklar 87). So he smoked, drank, linked his thumbs in his belt, put his hands in his trouser pockets, and suddenly the bravado managed to speak for itself.

He was the macho smoker who, in the 1930s, embodied “the gangsters’ crude bravado combined with violence and sexuality in a heady mixture scented with smoke and whiskey” (Starr 51). By the 1940s he became the guy “who ‘didn’t believe in’ patriotic action or sticking his neck out, only to eventually stick his neck out farther and more heroically than anyone else” (Starr 52).

Bogart had a screen personality of several sorts, unified by a bold air of masculinity. Today, popular thought generally simplifies Bogart’s roles as that cynical hero and wise guy who, cigarette in mouth, got the job done and was rewarded with nobility and, just maybe, a woman’s heart. Even Stefan Kanfer – perhaps involuntarily – makes a similar assumption in his 2011 biography of Bogart: “the Bogart of the old was cynical, unyielding, yet with a patrician nobility winking just beneath the surface” (149).

In Kanfer’s case, this “old Bogart” refers to his rise to stardom, which occurred at the midpoint of his career in the early 1940s when he played the smooth existential shamus Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon”(1941) and tried to whistle with wife-to-be Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not”(1944). Ironically, the “old Bogart” should in fact refer to his earlier roles as the young, Cagney sidekick who “could exude formidable snarling meanness to meek sniveling cowardice” (Neibaur 72). This all instead of, in the literal sense of “old,” his more coy, compassionate, and beaten-down characters from the 1950s.

Age was a big player in Bogart’s late career. After coasting through a rather subdued tough guy role as Frank McCloud in “Key Largo” (1948), Bogart had to confront a difficult question: now in his late forties, how much longer could he be esteemed as a romantic hero? Bogart had his romantic revival with “Casablanca”(1942) almost ten years prior; and by the time he was acting in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre”(1948) he was wearing a toupee.

By 1948, Bogart wanted to rework his screen personality, which was part of the reason he eluded the overbearing clutches of Jack Warner of Warner Brothers and started his own production company Santana the same year. That Bogart’s first Santana-produced project would be directed by one of Hollywood’s anomalies Nicholas Ray, under these circumstances, is fitting. Although coming from different generations, Bogart and Ray, as biographer Bernard Eisenschitz writes, “were drawn together by a number of things in common, in both their work and their private lives: a show of rebelliousness not proof against the demands of social life, honesty in their work, antipathy towards the studios…and also alcoholism, marriage to younger women” (116).

Ray – the filmmaker “never able to follow a formula” (Ray 72) – was the ideal director to subvert Bogart’s classic tough guy persona. Ray lived to play against the rules of Hollywood, when he could turn the Hollywood conventions of genre and form on its head in his films. Ray’s protagonists, quite appropriately, were loners racked by the troubling inner paradox of “at once contemptuous of the complacent normal society world and tormented with a longing to be reaccepted into it” (Weismann).

Ray perhaps saw this struggle in Bogart – the aging star looking to break away from the confines of his straightforward tough guy roles with Warner Brothers and, at the same time, ensnared by a “resentful dependence on an industry [Warner Brothers] that rewarded lavishly and punished fearsomely” (Sperber and Lax 435). Complimented (or, more so, conflicted) by the booze, smoking, and womanizing, Bogart – for Ray – was an emblem: “he was much more than an actor: he was the very image of our condition. His face was a living reproach” (Ray 105).

The attraction was evident. Bogart would star in Ray’s two films “Knock on Any Door” (1949) and “In a Lonely Place”(1950), both based on famously angry novels, but so profoundly different in character. “Knock on Any Door”is explicit as it is talky, under the guise of a “message movie” that, on that token, is not without its subversions. On the other hand, “In a Lonely Place”was a fiercely enigmatic melodrama where nobody says what they think and showed “Bogart, the physical presence – aging, stripped of his aura, in pajamas or with short-sleeves rolled up over hairy forearms – no longer the icon in the inevitable immaculate white shirt of his last Warner films” (Eisenschitz 143).

At first, it may seem odd that Bogart chose “Knock on Any Door” for his first independent project under Santana. If Bogart wished to revise his typical persona one might think he would first take to “In a Lonely Place,” which offered a role as a screenwriter who was more vulnerable, insecure, and unhinged than any Bogart character before. It is a role that, despite its subtleties, makes an explicit statement about its demystification of the classic wise guy Bogart hero.

Instead, Bogart played attorney Andrew Morton in “Knock on Any Door,” a socially conscious melodrama centred rather on the wayward juvenile Nick Romano – played by John Derek – and his murder trial. The film was, above all, about the negligence of youth by American society – not the nobility of the forty-something star. Bogart was a supporting player, who used his modest amount of screen time to “revert to atavistic mannerisms. He rubbed his thumb under his lower lip, bared his upper teeth, pulled his jacket back, and placed his hands on his belt” (Sklar 231).

It was this return to form that gave Bogart an air of traditionalism: “Morton is wised-up. Morton is part of the system; he knows about its hypocrisies and dirty deals, but is mature (or compromised) enough to choose to dwell within its limitations” (Weismann). Morton embodies the attitude and composure of a man with experience, which on the surface suits his “Casablanca”-era personality as, according to French critic Andre Bazin, the “man with a past. When he comes into a film it is already ‘the morning after’; his face scarred by what he has seen and his step heavy from all that he has learned” (Starr 52).

But Ray was not a filmmaker who merely repeats conventions; this return to Bogart’s classic form in “Knock on Any Door” was in fact an act of criticism. Ray turned Morton, like so many of his adult protagonists, into “an inmate of the institution” (Weismann) with enough experience to know he cannot subvert the system, only work it to his advantage.

Bogart’s “man with a past” in “Knock on Any Door,” unlike the one of “Casablanca” or “The Maltese Falcon,” was unable to use his wisdom to affect the film’s outcome. In the end, Romano is sentenced to death and Morton is left with nothing but platitudes and empty promises (“I’ll do everything I can to…keep other fellas like you [Nick] from…help fellas like you…as long as I live” (“Knock on Any Door”)). Although Morton is confident and outspoken, unlike Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he cannot smooth-talk his way to defeating the corrupt and selfish backbone of American society.

On the other hand, “In a Lonely Place” deviated from the composed character of Andrew Morton. Bogart, it seemed, amalgamated his early and later screen personalities to create Dixon Steele, a washed-up screenwriter who acts from charming to violent; outspoken to laconic; romantic to downright cold.

Dix speaks tersely, concealing his true feelings beneath a hard surface. It is difficult to determine whether Bogart was playing Harry Morgan from “To Have and Have Not”or Fred Dobbs from “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” In the days of “The Big Sleep” (1946), “Dead Reckoning” (1947), and “Dark Passage” (1947) Bogart appeared to be riding on the former.

With Dix, these personalities blurred, which contributed to much of his ambiguity. Dix, like Andrew Morton, wants to work against the system while at the same time is inevitably bound by it: “Dix is a special figure moving through a vulgar world. […] His status as an ambiguous figure can either stay above the corruptions of the world or be tempted to embrace them” (Polan 35).

This cut to the core of Bogart’s personal life, one ridden with fits against the machine of Hollywood, which “had undervalued and underpaid him time and again, as well as the “popcorn salesmen” more interested in the speedy earning of profit than the labored journey of art” (Bramble).

Ray saw beyond the veneer of Bogart’s slick detective roles and, with Dix, delved into the darker depths of a successful man afflicted with selfishness, drunkenness, and insecurities. With “In a Lonely Place,” Ray took the bravado and gusto of Bogart’s noir hero and churned out the sadness and fatigue he may have always been concealing.

There was now something tragic in Bogart’s step, an indication that no bit of wisecracking could save his character from a finale of disillusionment. In truth, the real Bogart repressed much of Fred Dobbs: he was “the dynamite that had to explode sometime” (Telotte 9). Remarkably, Ray would concur: “[when] writing a hero or leading character, I try to find the keg of dynamite he’s sitting on” (Ray 120).

What is also interesting about “Knock on Any Door” and “In a Lonely Place”is how little adulation they have for Bogart’s star status. Bogart’s big films of the 1940s always situated him at the centre of the action, in control and ennobled with the voice of reason. But “Knock on Any Door” and “In a Lonely Place” refuse to continue that pattern.

“Knock on Any Door,” as has been pointed out, effaced Bogart’s Andrew Morton behind the debut performance of Derek as troublemaker Nick Romano. Based on the didactic novel by Willard Motley, “Knock on Any Door”’s courtroom dramas, blatant themes, and flashback narrative were essentially precursors to the elements of Stanley Kramer’s movies, such as “Inherit the Wind” (1960) and “Judgment at Nuremberg”(1961) – with Bogart playing the supporting part Spencer Tracy would.

It can be argued that the voice of reason in “Knock on Any Door” transparently belongs to Andrew Morton, whose highfalutin final speech near the end in fact states Motley’s case. But Ray, who expressed his affection for the youth with his first feature “They Live By Night”(1949), channeled most of our sympathy towards Nick Romano – the unruly youngster poorly bred by society, led to commit murder, and eventually sentenced to die combing his hair one last time to the thought of his motto: “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” (“Knock on Any Door”).

The film emphasizes the reckless ambitions of the young; only Bogart no longer embodied that youthful attitude. The voice of reason in Bogart’s character, unlike in his noir movies, is overwhelmed by the corrupt and unscrupulous ways of American society – a subject Ray would far more subtly prod at in “In a Lonely Place.”

A quick glance at “In a Lonely Place” may cause one to assume Bogart had returned to the center of attention. In the spirit of noir, “In a Lonely Place,” “focuses on a single, finally drawn character – portrayed by […] Bogart – and creates a believable causal pattern, and opts for a conventional third-person point of view” (Telotte 1-2). On the surface, the film appears to be pure noir: it has “tough guys, tough gals, street-smart cops. It’s got loads of betrayal.”

The film is filled with “all sorts of losers and loners” (Polan 12). It is also true that Dix Steele – for all his flaws – is a sympathetic character who “can be tender and considerate under the influence of love” (Sperber and Lax 435). In this sense, “In a Lonely Place” has a redemptive force: “the possibility of love is held out as a chance for redemption from a cruel world” (Polan 53).

But if Dix Steele was an easily relatable character, “In a Lonely Place” would be deprived of its unsettling ambiguities. The precise limitation of Bogart’s roles of the 1940s (save Sam Spade) was the lack of ambiguity from the fact his behavior was extroverted and his motivations plainspoken: “he was what he was: a man who was in it for more than $25 a day plus expenses, a man who tested the world against his standards for it – first through language, ultimately through action” (Sklar 175). However, Dix is an unstable character who may earn our sympathy, but not our trust. This is interesting since Ray typically preferred his protagonists “to be just as screwed up as you or me so that [we can] identify with [them]” (Ray 119).

Watching “In a Lonely Place,” the viewer is constantly at odds with Dix trying to sort out his sentiments: “we inevitably stand apart from Dix, not quite able to identify with him. And this distance is significant, given the allure of the Bogart persona” (Telotte 3). It was as if Ray had returned to the years of a rising star with Bogart’s Sam Spade and Roy Earle of “High Sierra”(1941) and revitalized the “doubleness, his hardness and his humor; his ambiguity, leaving the spectator in doubt until the very end; his sudden, powerful bursts of temper” (Sklar 135). Only this time these mannerisms were contained in a less approachable Bogart character who was growing old and drifting away from what made him romantic.

This alludes to the element that, perhaps above all, drew Bogart and Ray together: age. Ray never idealized his characters, or characterized them in a way incongruent with their nature. From the young to the old, Ray’s characters were heavily influenced by their age, because that affected how they made sense of and positioned themselves in a corrupt and prosaic American society (Weismann). This reveals an important, if underdeveloped theme in “Knock on Any Door”: the father-son relationship of Andrew Morton and Nick Romano.

Since Ray himself was considered a mentor of the young (such as: Farley Granger, James Dean), it makes sense “Knock on Any Door” tries to explore a similar affinity. Morton, who we learn survived the same mean streets as Nick, holds a paternal quality of wisdom and shrewdness Nick has yet to obtain. This fits in the sense that Bogart – the aging, erstwhile star – would play a character who acted as a role model to another played by the young and upcoming star Derek.

Perhaps Ray saw in Bogart a man who knew the ropes, had been places and left his mark. With “Knock on Any Door,” Ray chose not to hide those mature qualities of Bogart, but to exercise them within a character – i.e. Morton – who honestly fit Bogart’s age and condition.

On the other hand, “In a Lonely Place” seems to enshroud the darker depths of Bogart’s (and Ray’s) personality. Many critics have stated that Bogart’s performance as Dix Steele was his strongest, mostly due to the fact the role was so close to home: “the best of Steele and the worst of Bogart crisscrossed several times in the movie. No doubt old memories were stirred up, and Humphrey didn’t know how to handle them except by playing the part as honestly as he could – and then, as usual, dissolving his fears and memories in alcohol” (Kanfer 151).

At the same time, much of Ray was in Dix, and so this is where the two breeds mixed: “Ray and Bogart lived lives that blended passion and violence and rendered their relations with women chaotic, bitter and violent” (Polan 24). This, of course, refers to the marital relationships of both Bogart and Ray to young actresses – Bogart to Lauren Bacall and Ray to Gloria Grahame.

Bacall was originally to play Dix’s wife Laurel Gray, but could not due to obligations to Warner Brothers (Kanfer 150). It would have been odd at any rate for “In a Lonely Place”to be a Bogart-Bacall product since the two – off screen – were so blissfully in love. Ray casted Grahame because she was the right one – she was the onethat Ray could project his bitter and hurt alcohol-fueled feelings onto.

What Ray and Bogart both shared with Dix was his ‘I want it, I don’t want it’ attitude – that Ray-inspired inner paradox: wanting “both to work on something he can be artistically proud of and to succeed financially in a system which requires that success entail compromise and submission” (Polan 49). At his age, this was a big challenge for Bogart, and Ray could sympathize with that.

It was through Bogart (and thus Dix) that Ray depicted the mindset of a has-been star struggling to reach the status of artist as a way for Ray to reveal new dimensions of Bogart’s persona and also his own emotional wounds.

This interpretation of Bogart’s performances in Ray’s “Knock on Any Door” and “In a Lonely Place” speaks to one key point: Ray discovered the hidden traits of the classic Bogart persona and used them accordingly to subvert his wise-guy routine. Ray had broken the bravado and discovered a Bogart who was unkempt, vulnerable, and – above all – tragic. This is not to say Ray made Bogart weak, but merely aware of his limitations and that, despite all his experience, the world was not under his sway.

Perhaps Ray had influenced the Bogart persona of the 1950s, one that “unlike all the others, exhibited human compassion […] a compassion coming from the aging process that mellowed this tough guy into a beaten man who still retained his masculine traits” (Neibaur 85). If this be the case, Ray had brought truth to another being quite in need of a reality check. That the iconic tough guy Humphrey Bogart, after “Knock on Any Door” and “In a Lonely Place,” was less frequently without a gun was far from a bad thing.



Bramble, Serena. “The Heart is a “Lonely” Hunter: On Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place .” Senses of Cinema. 59 (2011). “lonely”-hunter-on-nicholas-ray’s-in-a-lonely-place/.


Eisenschitz, Bernard (trans. Tom Milne). Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. 3. London, England: Faber and Faber, 1993. Print.


I’m a Stranger Here Myself. Dir. David Helpern. 1975. DVD.


Kanfer, Stefan. Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart. 1. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011. Print.


Knock on Any Door. Dir. Nicholas Ray. Perf. Humphrey Bogart and John Derek. 1949. Cornerstone Media, 2010. DVD.

It's only fair to share...Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponShare on TumblrShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Digg this

Related posts:

Leave a Reply