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Friday, March 28, 2014

THE BEST OF BOGART COLLECTION (The Maltese Falcon/ Casablanca/ The Treasure of the Sierra Madre/ The African Queen) -- Blu-ray review by porfle



When I made a list of my top 100 favorite actors a few years ago, the first three positions were pretty much a lock.  Number one, of course, was John Wayne.  Two--well, I'm a Bruce Willis fan from all the way back to "Moonlighting", and I even liked "Armageddon." 

But as for number three, there's only one actor who could knock either of them out of their slots at my slightest whim, and that's Bogart.  He invented cool, refined it, and perfected it to such a degree that nobody else could ever be quite that cool again. 

Now, Warner Home Video has brought four of Bogart's greatest and most varied performances together on Blu-ray with THE BEST OF BOGART COLLECTION, a four-disc set which contains "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "Casablanca" (1942), "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), and "The African Queen" (1951). 

Humphrey DeForest Bogart looked like he'd been around the block a few times and could take care of himself in a tough scrape, unlike a lot of the pretty-boy leading men who populated movie marquees then and now.  Which is ironic, since he started out as a male ingenue in film roles that were pure fluff. 

This prompted him to keep returning to his native New York and the stage, where he eventually landed the role of escaped killer Duke Mantee in the play "The Petrified Forest."  When this was slated to become a film, star Leslie Howard insisted that Bogart be cast as Mantee, and his chilling, tough-as-nails performance made him a movie star in the Warner Brothers gangster vein.

Bogart's screen persona wavered between no-nonsense good guy and fearsome bad guy, with sometimes a little of both.  If need be, he could also portray either a frightening psycho or a pathetic failure.  As an actor with a much broader range than one might first suspect, he could make any of these personas both convincing and compelling, with a nuance and intensity that few actors can ever achieve.  And there was something about that unforgettable face which seemed to express everything his character was thinking and feeling. 

One of the finest actors in the history of the medium, Humphrey Bogart's filmography contains several of the greatest movies ever made.  The best of these comprise quite a selection of Hollywood filmmaking at its peak as both an art form and a means of pure escapist entertainment.  


THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

The first great "film noir" set the standard both storywise and in its impeccably exquisite visuals.  First-time director John Huston does a masterful job orchestrating his actors and crew to create a visual experience which is consistently involving and often dazzling. 

The film, shot mostly on interior sets, was brought in on budget and ahead of schedule despite Huston requesting an extra day of rehearsal for the film's climactic sequence, which takes place entirely within a single hotel room with almost all members of the main cast.  The complex character interactions and the way the tangled plot is meticulously resolved during this scene makes for some of the most breathlessly riveting cinema ever filmed.

Huston uses clever direction and camera movements to keep things from getting claustrophobic, and never once lets the pace drag.  His screenplay follows Dashiell Hammett's novel almost to the letter (the two earlier, inferior adaptations, 1931's "Dangerous Female" and the comedic "Satan Met a Lady" in 1936, didn't), and crackles with scintillating dialogue, intriguing plot twists, and relentlessly building suspense. 

Hammett's celebrated anti-hero Sam Spade is the perfect noir detective--brash, resourceful, self-assured, keenly intelligent, streetwise, tough but not infallible, and opportunistic.  He does have a moral code, one not easily compromised, and a motto that is rigidly enforced: "Never play the sap for anyone." 

The first person to try and use him is quintessential femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy (exquisitely  played by Mary Astor), who hires San Francisco private detective Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to locate her missing sister along with a mystery man named Floyd Thursby.  When both Archer and Thursby turn up dead, it appears there's more to Brigid's story than she's letting on. 


Before long Spade discovers that she's after a priceless treasure known as the Maltese Falcon, for which she's in fierce competition against  "the Fat Man" Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and the wily, effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre).  Spade must spar with these conniving characters while fending off police detectives Dundy and Polhaus (Barton MacLane, Ward Bond), who suspect him in the murders although the more genial Polhaus tends to side with Sam.  All in all, these actors comprise one of the finest casts ever assembled for a film.  (Look for John Huston's father Walter in a quick cameo as a fatally wounded ship's captain.)

Huston delights in working with these masterful performers as any artist deftly employs his chosen medium.  The dialogue scenes between Bogart and Greenstreet are a verbal delight (Gutman constantly admits his glowing admiration for the crafty Spade), while the utter dishonesty underlying Spade's love affair with Brigid gives it an air of perversion. 

Lorre's Joel Cairo, both dangerously scheming and amusingly fussy, is always fun to watch.  I love the scene in which Spade disarms and manhandles Cairo, whose main concern is expressed with the heated accusation "Look what you did to my shirt!"

Even young character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. gets to shine in the plum role of Gutman's "gunsel" Wilmer Cook, a callow trench-coated hood hiding his cowardice behind guns and tough talk.  (Dwight Frye played the part in the 1931 version.)  The ever-sharper Spade delights in yanking Wilmer's chain, and in one incredible closeup we see fat, glistening tears suspended in each of the young killer's eyes as he's overcome with burning frustration and impotent rage (another bravura touch by Huston).


But it's Bogart's show, and his performance is a pure delight.  We know Spade's a stand-up guy, yet the moment his partner's murdered he has the signs around the office changed from "Spade and Archer" to "Samuel Spade."  He's even having an affair with Archer's wife, Iva (Gladys George), but loses interest once he meets Miss O'Shaughnessy.  Yet we know he's an okay guy as long as his faithful gal Friday, Effie (Lee Patrick), still secretly loves him. 

In one delightful moment, after storming out of a tense encounter with Gutman and Wilmer in the Fat Man's swanky hotel room, Spade smiles when he realizes that his hand is shaking and his palms sweating.  Spade may be brave, but he still gets scared, a fact which both amuses and excites him.

This vintage detective yarn sizzles with suspense and excitement for viewers who are able to plug themselves into its high-voltage current.  For me, it took several viewings before I finally began to appreciate just what a finely-rendered thing of beauty it truly is.  Others (as some IMDb comments would indicate) seem to take a strange kind of pride in remaining immune to its charms, believing that such classics are revered by many simply because they're "old." 

But if it doesn't hit you right away, just keep watching and remain open to it.  Sooner or later, hopefully, THE MALTESE FALCON will weave its magic spell over you.  Like the rare and unique artifact of the title, it's "the stuff dreams are made of.

1080p High Definition 1.33:1, DTS-HD Master Audio: English 1.0, Dolby Digital: Espanol 1.0
Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

·         Commentary by Bogart Biographer Eric Lax
·         Featurette The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird
·         Breakdowns of 1941: Studio Blooper Reel
·         Makeup Tests
·         Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart
·         Warner Night at the Movies
·         1941 Short Subjects Gallery
·         Audio-Only Bonus: 3 Radio Show Adaptions
·         Vintage art card


CASABLANCA (1942)

This is one of those films which we can now look back on as an undisputed classic in which everything seems to come together perfectly.  At the time, however, it was regarded by the studio as just another production, whose script, based on the unproduced play "Everyone Comes to Rick's", was being written on the fly and didn't even have a proper ending worked out until shortly before it was shot.

The story takes place in 1942 in the Vichy-controlled Moroccan city of Casablanca, which overflows with refugees desperately struggling to gain passage to America and elsewhere in the free world to escape Nazi encroachment in Europe .  Exiled American (and ex-freedom fighter) Rick Blaine, played to perfection by Bogart , runs a nightclub called "Rick's Café Américain" in which many of these people meet to buy and sell the hope for freedom. 

Also on hand is Rick's friend, Captain Louis Renault (THE INVISIBLE MAN's Claude Rains in one of his best performances), the head of the local police and an opportunist of the first order whose greatest pleasure is accepting bribes both monetary and sexual.  Renault openly admires Rick's similarly self-serving qualities and even displays a platonic crush on him ("If I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick," he admits). 

We wonder how Renault would react if Rick started reverting back to his old, noble self, especially in the presence of the vile German officer Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI,  THE MAN WHO LAUGHS), newly-arrived and on the trail of famed Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried). 

While Rick starts out as an anti-hero, he gradually and without really meaning to becomes more heroic as the story progresses.  Early on, Peter Lorre's oily Ugarte--who recently killed some German soldiers to attain two letters of transit to sell in Casablanca--begs Rick for help before he's captured ("Hide me, Rick!  Hide me!").  Rick's terse response: "I stick my neck out for nobody." 


And indeed, Rick seems grudgingly content to sit out the current world war as manager of his bustling nightclub until one night, when an old flame named Ilsa (the utterly radiant Ingrid Bergman) comes through the front door with her husband, none other than Victor Laszlo.  Rick, once an idealistic crusader himself but now cynical and disillusioned, has never forgiven Ilsa for inexplicably running out on him during the fall of Paris, at the height of their love affair--not knowing that Laszlo, whom they both thought dead, had turned up alive.

When Rick obtains the two letters of transit from Ugarte, he has the means of whisking Ilsa back to America with him and resuming their love affair while leaving Laszlo behind to carry on alone and devastated.  But will he do something so selfish and immoral?  Or regain his soul and commit the supreme act of sacrifice for the sake not only of Ilsa and her husband but of the free world itself?

This is the dilemma which gives CASABLANCA much of its power to effect us emotionally while simmering with a growing suspense.  As a film, everything clicks-- Michael Curtiz' sharp direction, the gorgeous black-and-white photography, great performances by a stellar cast, a powerful musical score by Max Steiner, and a story that's always totally engaging. 

Action and romance are perfectly balanced and compliment each other, while comedic touches abound, especially from the delightfully corruptible Renault,  the antics of Rick's eccentric staff (including S.Z. Sakall), and a fez-topped Sydney Greenstreet (again) as a competing club owner who wants to acquire Rick's place along with his loyal piano-playing band leader Sam (Dooley Wilson, who croons the classic "As Time Goes By"). 

But when Laszlo exhorts Sam and his band to strike up a stirring rendition of "La Marseillaise" in response to Strasser and his fellow German officers belting out "Die Wacht am Rhein", the move (which Rick okays with a subtle nod of his head) not only stirs the patriotic fervor of everyone else in the club but may bring the viewer to tears as well.  (Steiner uses this same anthem as a fanfare for his own musical credit during the main titles.)


The climax of the film takes place at the airport, a focal point for dreams of freedom throughout the story.  Rick now literally holds the ticket to a new life with Ilsa, who will join him if he asks her to.  Yet his newly reawakened sense of duty to humanity now fights for precedence.  Meanwhile Renault, his own duty to Strasser  putting him at odds with his friend, awaits Rick's decision. 

When the plane fires up its engines, Steiner's music swells, and there comes a stunning, perfectly-edited series of  closeups of Bogart,  Bergman, and Henried which generate a dramatic tension few films could ever attain.  It's pure, undiluted Hollywood magic at its most sublime, and the resolution which follows couldn't be more perfect.  CASABLANCA is an intricate jigsaw puzzle of seemingly disparate pieces which fit together to form a beautiful picture.

1080p High Definition 1.33:1, Dolby Digital: English 1.0, Francais 1.0 & Espanol 1.0
Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

·         Commentary by Roger Ebert
·         Commentary by Historian Rudy Behlmer
·         Introduction by Lauren Bacall
·         Additional Scenes & Outtakes
·         Scoring Session Outtakes
·         Bacall on Bogart
·         You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca
·         Featurette As Time Goes By: The Children Remember
·         Production Research Gallery
·         Homage Cartoon Carrotblanca
·         Who Hold Tomorrow? : Premiere Episode From 1955 Warner Bros. Presents TV Series Adaptation of Casablanca
·         Audio-Only Bonus: Radio Production with the Movie’s 3 Key Stars
·         Theatrical Trailers
·         Vintage art card


THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)

With this epic outdoor action-drama, based on a novel by enigmatic writer B. Traven,  Bogart once again joined with director John Huston and his father Walter for a grueling tale of the devastating effects of greed on average men.  During the film's arduous shoot in the wilds of Mexico, any hint of Hollywood glamour would soon become a distant memory. 

As Fred C. Dobbs, Bogart loses himself in one of his grittiest and least sympathetic roles.  Dobbs is an American stuck in a small Mexican town with no job or money, wandering the streets and begging for pesos.  (The younger Huston has a funny cameo as a well-to-do man Dobbs keeps hitting up for change.)  Dobbs will fling water in the face of a small boy (Robert Blake) pestering him to buy a lottery ticket, yet we sense a modicum of decency somewhere beneath his gruff exterior. 

This early sequence of him trudging his way through life, getting bad haircuts, chasing after prostitutes, etc. lets us sit back and watch Bogart at work creating one of his finest characters.  Dobbs hooks up with a fellow American named Curtin (Tim Holt) for a job in which they're cheated out of their pay by a crooked foreman (Barton MacLane of THE MALTESE FALCON) whom they beat senseless after he attacks them in a bar.  (This well-choreographed fight scene is brutally effective.)  Then, after meeting grizzled old prospector Howard (Walter Huston) in a flophouse, they take his advice and set out to find gold in the mountains of the Mexican desert. 

Walter Huston enjoyed recounting the story of how he told his son John that if he ever became a filmmaker to "write me a good part."   The old gold-hunter Howard is that part, a role the elder Huston,  sans dentures, inhabits so fully that he almost manages to steal the picture right out from under Bogart.  (He would go on to win an Oscar for it.)  Howard is a goodnatured, level-headed old man, and we believe him when he warns of the evil effects gold can have on weak-willed men.  


Dobbs blusters against such talk, thinking himself above any negative influences.  Yet without missing a beat, he will fulfill each of Howard's admonitions one by one as the lure of gold transforms him into a paranoid,  resentful,  and ultimately dangerous man.  By the time he's gone over the deep end, he's a frightening character, convinced in his mindless desperation that everyone's out to get him and that he's justified in whatever heinous act he may commit to protect himself and his newfound fortune.

When Dobbs and Curtin finally find themselves locked in a life-or-death battle of wills in the middle of the desert, the film almost takes on the eerie inevitability of a horror movie.  The only thing that undercuts it, along with much of the rest of the film, is one of Max Steiner's worst musical themes--a loping, folksy motif that  I find jarringly out of place.

In addition to being a fascinating character study,  TREASURE is a terrific action-adventure.  Alfonso Bedoya is unforgettable as the ruthless Mexican bandit Gold Hat,  whose gang attacks our heroes' train during their trip into the mountains and then later stumbles upon their mining camp, leading to a blazing gunfight.  Gold Hat may be a monster, but Bedoya manages to make him funny, especially with his immortal response to Dobbs' question "If you're federales, where are your badges?"

"Badges? We ain’t got no badges...we don’t need no badges...I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!"


Tim Holt is solid in the less flashy role  of sturdy, dependable Curtin, who shares Howard's dismay at Dobbs' growing instability.  Walter Huston is a delight in a truly wonderful performance--he even gets to break the fourth wall and give us a sly look during one sequence in which he's being given the royal treatment by a tribe of Indians after doing them a good turn.  We don't even hold it against Howard when he votes along with the others to execute another man, Cody (Bruce Bennett), who tries to horn in on their find. 

But it's Bogart, as a man susceptible to bouts of pure, wild-eyed insanity, who makes the film as truly memorable as it is.  No matter how low he sinks and what horrible things he does, we always remember the relatively decent guy he was before gold changed him, and feel some remorse for what he's become.  And just like Dobbs, I'd like to think gold wouldn't make me act that way--but who knows?

1080p High Definition 1.33:1, DTS-HD Master Audio: English 1.0, Dolby Digital: Francais 1.0 & Espanol 1.0 (Both Castilian and Latin)
Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

·         Commentary by Bogart Biographer Eric Lax
·         Discovering Treasure: The Story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
·         Documentary Profile John Huston
·         Warner Night at the Movies
·         1948 Short Subjects Gallery: Leonard Maltin Introduction, Newsreel, 2 Classic Cartoons, Comedy Short, Theatrical Trailers.
·         Audio-Only Bonus: Radio Show with the Movie’s Original Stars
·         Vintage art card


THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

Here's the story of two people you'll want to get  to know very much--Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut, a goodnaturedly uncouth little man who runs a tiny supply boat up and down the river in German East Africa in 1914,  and Katharine Hepburn as Miss Rose Sayer, a Christian missionary who, along with her brother Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley), brings God's word to the natives until German soldiers burn down the church and village, kill her brother,and leave her all alone in the jungle.

Director John Huston deftly blends comedy with tragedy in the opening scenes.  Shortly before their horrific encounter with the German military, the Sayers invite Charlie to tea during a supply stop.  He hasn't eaten in awhile, so his stomach starts making the most impolite growling noises to which Rose and her brother react with growing dismay until finally Charlie explains brightly, "Ain't a thing I can do about it!" 

Charlie returns later to bury the brother and take Rose away in his boat, the "African Queen".  But her first thought is to somehow aid in her country's war effort by whatever means available.  Hearing of a German gunboat, the "Louisa", which is terrorizing the countryside from a large lake somewhere downriver, she hatches a scheme in which Charlie will devise a couple of torpedos out of compressed gas bottles and they will then ram the Louisa with the torpedos sticking out of the African Queen's bow. 

Humoring her for the time being--and not realizing that he has begun something he won't be able to back out of--he later mocks Miss Sayer's request in a grumbling approximation of her prim accent: "Can you make a torpedo?  Then do so, Mr. Allnut." 


This belly-laugh moment, courtesy of Bogart's irresistibly natural, likable performance as the ragtag river rat, is just the beginning of what will be a rip-roaring adventure, a tender romance, and a gut-busting comedy.  The independent production, filmed mostly on location in Africa in lush Technicolor, is one of John Huston's warmest and most heartfelt films.  This is due in large part to the chemistry between the two stars and Huston's ability as a master director to showcase them at their best.

Miss Rose Sayer is naturally brave and resourceful, which helps make up for her naivete' and inexperience with life in general.  She adapts quickly and becomes instantly addicted to the thrill of adventure as a substitute for sexual intimacy (her first excursion down the rapids leaves her as though she'd just had her first sexual release).  Learning to handle Allnut's boat is symbolic of her growing familiarity with the man himself  while he, in turn, finds himself suddenly yearning to bring out the inner woman behind the straight-laced exterior. 

Allnut is one of Bogart's funniest and most uninhibited characters--his emotional honesty and expressiveness are at their peak here.  Often a single look on his face will convey more thought and emotion than many actors can manage with an entire speech.  Hepburn is ideally cast as the initially very proper, timid spinster who gradually lets her hair down (literally) and begins to appreciate the more sensual and even carnal aspects of life as her love for Charlie Allnut blossoms toward fruition.


Their journey down the river is a series of funny and romantic vignettes interspersed with moments of harrowing danger which are excitingly staged.  The rapids are a major obstacle, as are mosquitoes, leeches, and, in one suspenseful sequence, German bullets.  Through it all, Rose's indefatigable attitude brings out the best in Charlie, and together they give each other something to live for even when things are at their worst.

Huston's technical skills are dazzling throughout the film.  The location photography is not only stunning but often amazing as well, as when we see a number of large alligators diving off the bank into the water right after Bogart has moved out of the frame--all in a single shot.   The process shots are as well integrated into the action as possible for the time and, for me at least, proved little distraction.  Allan Gray's musical score is another of the film's many pleasures. 

The story reaches its triumphant conclusion aboard the German gunboat, where our unlikely hero and heroine reach the end of their journey in fine style.  Like SHANE, which is tied with KING KONG (1933) as my favorite movie of all time, there are scenes throughout THE AFRICAN QUEEN which bring me to the verge of tears.   Not because these scenes are particularly sad, or particularly happy, but simply because they're quite disarmingly beautiful. 

1080p High Definition, Dolby Digital: English 1.0, Francais 1.0 & Espanol 1.0.
Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

·         Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen
·         Vintage art card


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Images shown are not stills from the actual Blu-ray discs
Street Date: March 25, 2014
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