Grifter with a Heart of Gold

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.

Read the rest of my column on TCM's Bogart retrospective at TOH! And catch a more in-depth look at The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in my 2009 piece at The Filmgoer. 

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