Showing posts with label Humphrey Bogart. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Humphrey Bogart. Show all posts

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Today is the 100th anniversary of Nicholas Ray's birth. You could make the argument that he was the best American film director of the 1950s, but rather than do that I'll just call him my favorite (the argument gets simpler when you consider Douglas Sirk was German and Hitchcock was English). I love the way his movies look, he got great performances out of his actors, and his eye for Otherness was unmatched in his time and rivaled only intermittently ever.

I've liked every Nicholas Ray picture I've ever seen—even his Jesus picture was pretty good—but three stand out as particular favorites:

1—In A Lonely Place (1950)

A noir picture that departs, per its director's habit, from a lot of the usual noir norms. Humphrey Bogart stars as a screenwriter with serious anger issues. He might have killed a guy, we're kept guessing about whether or not he did it until the end, but we're still totally compelled by him. I'd go as far as to call it Bogart's best performance ever. You feel the anger and danger, but also totally understand what Gloria Grahame sees in him (and her performance is top-notch). Their relationship is vivid, harrowing, all too real, leading to Gloria Grahame being both madly in love with and abjectly terrified of Bogart.

The ending is one of the greatest ever, even if it's pretty damn far from happy. It turns out that Bogart didn't actually kill the guy . . . but he still totally fucked up his relationship with Gloria Grahame, and the last absolutely stunning shot is Bogart walking away, tiny and alone, into the darkness. It's an ending where you exhale for the first time in like half an hour, saying “wow.”

In A Lonely Place is just a really good fucking movie. There's no way you can watch it and not go “That was a really good fucking movie.” You all gotta realize, me saying it's Bogart's best performance, I really like Humphrey Bogart. I think he's the greatest movie star in the history of America, and I give him more credit than most as an actor, too. The fact that this was Nicholas Ray's second feature—his first, They Live By Night, is pretty great too—is unreal. It's a completely assured, confident movie that goes nowhere you expect it to. I mean . . . it's just a really fucking good movie.

2—Johnny Guitar (1954)

Okay, Joan Crawford in a Western is a high concept that I'd greenlight with my zipper down. That alone is the greatest fucking idea of all time (I'll sacrifice all that stupid verisimilitude shit to have Joan Crawford in a Western, fuck y'all) but the fact that we got Mercedes McCambridge up in this too, as the villain, that's just icing on the cake.

Also, Sergio Leone copped the plot and everything else about this he could carry for Once Upon A Time In The West and that's very, very important. Like Keith Richards appropriating a Chuck Berry riff. But even more than that, a Western in the 50s (before John Ford ended the era with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, because there ain't really shit new to say about the genre after a picture that good) where both protagonist and antagonist are women is notable. A movie that isn't romance-based where the hero and villain are both women and the guy is the love interest (even if he does get the movie named after him) today would be an outlier, but back then? Revolutionary. Again, there's that eye for Otherness.

This one doesn't quite hold up to the scrutiny of In A Lonely Place, but there's a wide expanse of gray area between “not as good as In A Lonely Place” and “not good.” Johnny Guitar is more for those moods when you're like “I want to see Joan Crawford in a Western, and I want to see some hawt 50s color cinematography.” Those moods are valid, make no mistake, and luckily for them there's Johnny Guitar.

3—Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

The first time I saw this was on TV when I was about 10 or 11 or something and my mom said “You need to learn about James Dean” or something along those lines. I watched it and learned all about James Dean (and, it must be said, all about Natalie Wood, too . . . meowwww; yes, I was a little precocious in that regard).

The second time I saw this was in a film appreciation class in high school that was a bit of a misnomer, as we watched everything on VHS and the class was only an hour long so we had to break every movie up over at least two classes and if too many of the hair-gelled “ey, fuck you, arright” guys and equally hair-gelled “ewwww, that's retaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarded” girls evinced any degree of boredom we'd abandon the picture at the hour mark and watch something else next class. The fact that we finished Rebel Without a Cause and then spent a third hour talking about it is a testament to the power of that movie, even if the discussion was peppered with “I didn't get it” or “that was old, that doesn't got nothin to do with nothin, people don't tawwk that way.”

Look, that's just the way teenagers are. Jesus Christ could do the Dougie across a swimming pool and turn tax forms into tits and at least one teenager would go, “Pssh, that's lame, the Dougie was so 2010.” And it's not because teenagers are shitheads, even though they are. The reason teenagers are shitheads is simple. You may remember how it went: there you were, little kid, short, squeaky voice, less than optimal cognitive abilities, when all of a sudden BOOM! Some mad scientist shot you in the ass with something that was part Viagra (which must have been doubly frustrating if you were a girl), part HGH, part evil mad scientist serum that caused bipolar disorder and whose side effects included horrible things happening to your skin. That shit would turn Gandhi into a shithead (and it probably did, too). Being a teenager sucks. It's no wonder they all turn into shitheads.

But even the shithead deserves empathy, up to a certain point, and that brings us to Rebel Without A Cause. The aftermath of World War II, which found America frantically trying to build a utopia as a means of dealing with how fucking horrible the war was (make no mistake, we got off easy, but that didn't mean the war didn't abjectly fucking suck), but not succeeding all the time. The kids were the ones who bore the brunt of their parents' freaking out, and so some movies were starting to be made about the troubled youth. Nicholas Ray sensed this trend, and was like “*sniffsniff* . . . I smell existential alienation . . . Otherness . . . there's only one man for the job! Get me a script, a camera, and some really pretty, emotionally damaged young people, and get me that shit five fucking minutes ago!”

The title Rebel Without A Cause sums the movie up perfectly. Outwardly, one can be excused for looking at James Dean and going “Fuck's his problem? He's growing up prosperous, in Los Angeles so we can't even write his gloominess off to the weather. Nut up, fucko.” But that's the thing. Being a teenager sucks sufficiently that even under relatively ideal circumstances like this one—like, seriously, his biggest problem is that his dad's henpecked, and that shit happens when you get in relationships with strong women, it doesn't mean strong women are bad and shouldn't be that way, it's just one of those things—the mere fact of being a teenager sucks balls.

Even though things turn out all right for James Dean (if a night or two with Natalie Wood doesn't take the edge off, you're beyond being worth saving), they end tragically for Sal Mineo. This is Nicholas Ray (widely said to be bisexual), clearing his throat pointedly and being as obvious as he was allowed to by the censors that sure, being a teenager is a headache, but being a gay teenager is a migraine.

Of course, Rebel Without A Cause is primarily remembered today for the whole James Dean thing. He died a month before the movie premiered, and it's been hard if not impossible to separate Rebel Without A Cause (or Giant or East of Eden for that matter) from the James Dean cult. (Eerie coincidence: I typed “James Dead” and had to correct it like 90 kajillion fucking times writing this.) I maintain that if he hadn't died, James Dean would have ended up being competition for Marlon Brando in the weird, annoying genius Method actor sweepstakes, flaming out in the mid 60s in some hushed-up scandal Kenneth Anger wrote about in Hollywood Babylon II before showing up in a few Paul Morrissey movies in the early 70s with his dick out fucking Joe D'Allessandro in the ass, then ending up bombed out of his goddamn mind on Hollywood Squares for a few years before croaking in 1981 or so with prostitutes of both genders trying in vain to flush the rest of the coke down the toilet before the cops arrive.

Had that seedy if highly lulzy series of events transpired, Rebel Without A Cause would probably be remembered today in much the same way as Nicholas Ray's earlier pictures were: as a really well-directed, well-acted tale of the Other, and maybe even his most multi-faceted look at the Other, because you've got James Dean, the handsome heteronormative (hahahahahahahaha oh that's funny because it's James Dean) white dude who's an Other because he's a teenager in the 50s, then Natalie Wood, who's the Other because she's a girl, with that subtle edge that she's olive-skinned (shit, people in the 50s were so racist Irish people were still barely white), and Sal Mineo is an Other because he puts the boldface and italics in the word “gay.” The pacing is much like it is in In A Lonely Place, not fast, but steady enough that it enchants, bringing the audience along with it into a world they probably wouldn't think to explore. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Nicholas Ray is fucking awesome.

So, happy 100th to the man, and may his contributions to cinema not be forgotten. I may have only talked about three of his movies here, but if you look up anything that says “directed by Nicholas Ray,” watch the shit out of it. Nicholas Ray is the truth.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Casablanca was, arguably, the first cult classic in the cinema. Upon its 1942-3 release it got fairly enthusiastic reviews, nothing too adulatory. It won Best Picture at the Oscars, did moderately well at the box office (though it was only Warner Bros. third-most successful WWII movie). But then something weird happened: inspired by a popular 1957 screening of old movies in Cambridge, Massachussetts, an annual tradition of screening Casablanca during Finals Week started at Harvard. Other universities followed suit, and soon enough everyone was walking around quoting it and arguing about whether it or Citizen Kane was the greatest movie of all time. (Clearly, there are other contenders, but that's a debate for another time.)

Now, not far from the 70th anniversary of its release, Casablanca has assumed mythic proportions in cinema history. The endlessly quotable dialogue, Bogart in the white tux, the twinkle in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes, Claude Rains’ glib, cheerful corruption, the bad guys are Nazis . . . the mythos has substance. The size of its cult elevates it to the status of legitimate classic; at this point, enough people have seen the movie enough times that a lot of the mythos has solidified into perceived fact. But, as with anything that everyone knows, some misconceptions arise, and some important things fall through the cracks. So, as a public service, here are five things you should know about Casablanca:

1) Victor Laszlo is awesome

This warrants mention primarily because of a popular misconception—articulated by Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally—that Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) should have ended up with Rick (Humphrey Bogart) just because Humphrey Bogart’s the coolest man ever to walk the earth and they were so passionately in love. While Rick and Ilsa were clearly wild about each other, and Humphrey Bogart is the coolest man ever to walk the earth, Victor Laszlo is a great man. Maybe he doesn’t look as good in a tux, get laid as often, or have snappy comebacks as readily handy, Victor Laszlo is the leader of the Resistance. He catches a lot of heat for that conversation he has with Ilsa where he basically says he’d carry on without her; women, in particular, tend to tsk tsk at this, forgetting of course that the only reason they’re having the conversation is because Ilsa asked one of those evil lose-lose Girl Trap questions that invariably leaves everyone’s feelings hurt. But, in Victor Laszlo’s defense, he’s been spending the past few years leading the fucking Resistance against the Nazis (ahem) and hasn’t had the downtime to polish his ability with the ladies. In the end, all the “Ilsa should end up with Rick” people are the slightly older versions of the people who whined about Harry Potter not ending up with Hermione. Ilsa gets on the plane with Victor Laszlo, sorry. And he deserves her. Billy Crystal was wrong. Meg Ryan was right, it wasn’t just because she hadn’t had great sex yet.

2) Ronald Reagan was never going to be cast as Rick

I used to be under this misperception, and am greatly relieved that it turned out to be bullshit. Kind of beside the point, since Warner Bros. did have the good sense to cast Bogart, but still, Ronnie was a choad.

3) There will never be a better way to troll auteur theory advocates.

I admit this freely as a great admirer of directors. Even Andrew Sarris admitted Casablanca is “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory,” to which The New York Times' Aljean Harmetz middle-fingered “nearly every Warner Bros. picture was an exception to the auteur theory.” There’s nothing as satisfying as a good flame war, and as we all know, the level of satisfaction derived from a flame war is inversely proportional to the sense of humor of its participants; thus, a flame war between critics is usually almost as fun to watch as Casablanca.

On the other hand, Michael Curtiz shouldn’t be slept on as a director. He directed Casablanca, didn’t he?

4) Nearly everybody in the movie except Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were actually refugees from the Nazis.

Well, and Claude Rains. But for just about everybody else, it was personal.

Conrad Veidt, who played Major Strasser, was pissed off enough about having to split Germany that he spent the whole rest of his career kicking the Nazis in the balls: “Typecast as the Nazi again? Fuck it: I’ll make this one really oily.”

S.Z. Sakall—Carl the waiter—had three sisters die in a concentration camp. I imagine the line “Welcome to the fight. This time I know we’ll win” brought tears to a variety of eyes for a variety of reasons.

5) There will never be a better movie made at a studio.

A broad statement, to be sure, but so many of the things that made Casablanca great were total accidents: four different writers working separately worked on the script, which ended up, as Roger Ebert put it “wonderfully unified and consistent”; the director was solid but never made another movie nearly this good before or after; Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo) let it be known that he felt like he was slumming and talked shit about Bogart’s acting ability, leading Ingrid Bergman to call him a “prima donna”; the famous last line was written months after production wrapped and Bogart only just barely made it in to overdub it; and there were plans to shoot another ending that literalized the next step in Rick and Louis’ “beautiful friendship”—joining a detachment of Free French on a ship invading North Africa—but David O. Selznick saved the day by ordering it not to be.

Also, due to radical changes in the role Hollywood plays in American life, and a hardened, more cynical American populace, the chances of the studios being able to make out-and-out propaganda movies again are slim to none. Clear-cut villains like the Nazis are fewer and farther between these days, even if propaganda still worked. Fox News churns out rabid bullshit that operates on the non-rational level of consciousness, but there are other media outlets providing counterpoints. Without a media working as one, or a people reacting as one, the chances of another Casablanca being made are near non-existent.

In the end, we don’t need another Casablanca. We already have one. It’s called Casablanca. And we’ll still have it, as time goes by.