Bogie. The Hump. Mr. Sam Spade himself. He’s been one of my favorite film stars ever since my dad and I began watching some of Bogart's black-and-white classics with him as a kid. I was always drawn to his casual bravado and smooth confidence, and he mastered the archetype of the law-bending detective with a shady past but a heart of gold. Far too many of his amazing roles will not make this list, but here are the three that mean the most to me.
#3: Key Largo
Key Largo, what a killer premise! Home from the war, Bogie travels to Key Largo to meet his dead buddy’s family, and his beautiful widow, of course. But once there, a hurricane blows in, trapping him in the remote family-run hotel with a gang of murderous expat mobsters who sailed up from Cuba. The gang includes the great Edward G. Robinson, who is a powerhouse in the film. Eddie G is in town to swap counterfeit bills with fellow mobsters from Miami, but the hurricane traps them all together, and that's when things turn deadly. The movie is filled with superb character actors, especially Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor (who won an Oscar for her role as the alcoholic former club singer), and yes, I admit it gets a little corny in parts, but the ever-rising tension, Bogart’s restrained and calculating demeanor, and the hero’s clever final triumph are all reasons to watch. It also asks some interesting questions of what a real hero is and whether or not some villains are worth getting killed over.
#2: To Have and Have Not
This is the best adventure movie of Bogart’s career, barely edging out African Queen and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in my opinion. The reason? It contains all the elements that made Casablanca so enjoyable: great character actors, a loner standing up to fascist powers (in this case Vichy France), and it is full of romance, adventure, action, music, humor, and tension. It has everything. It’s also the first film instance of Bogart and his future wife Lauren Becall sharing the screen, and she’s got all kinds of alluring looks and clever one-liners throughout the movie. It's a great performance. It’s even one of the rare cases of the movie being better than the book. Hemingway’s fractured novel was okay, but William Faulkner and Jules Furthman gave the story some much needed kick and focus. The film version of a local boat captain getting mixed up in the resistance movement against the Axis powers is worlds better than Papa's book. At one point it was even my favorite over Casablanca. But come on, let’s not be silly.
#1: The Big Sleep
Wait, what the hell? No Casablanca? Stay with me here. The Big Sleep is Bogart’s best detective role, beating The Maltese Falcon by a hair, but first-time viewers should note that the film weaves a pretty tangled web. Bogart plays a detective trying to figure out why the father of two beautiful femme fatales becomes the victim of blackmail (hmm, I wonder) and things spiral deeper and deeper out of control. It’s a long film and one that might leave a casual watcher in the dark if one doesn’t pay attention, but this Raymond Chandler adaptation is full of wonderful little moments with all kinds of unique characters, especially some smart, sassy women, including my favorite scene, the cute bookshop girl, Dorothy Malone (oh, how I love her), who spends a few hours with Bogart sipping rye while she fills him in on the local criminals. Fun stuff. The film is everything I’d want a moody, atmospheric detective mystery to be. And this Tom Waits / Big Sleep mash-up makes me like the film even more.
So what happened to Casablanca? The simple answer is: I CHEATED! I don't believe Casablanca is the best Bogart film. I believe it is THE best film ever made, transcending a list like this. It’s not like arguing over a list of the best sci-fi movies, or the best musicals, or the best westerns. Casablanca is in a league above lists. It’s a beautiful film about a disillusioned bar owner in Casablanca, Morocco, who must face the influx of Nazi officials right when his old flame, someone who broke his heart and disappeared years ago, shows up…with her husband. And they need his help. The problem is Rick doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone, or does he? It’s brilliant, and every single role is perfectly cast, even down to characters that have only one or two lines. Again, the music is great, the humor, the action, the desperation, the pain, the legendary ending. It all rises above categorization. It’s the best movie ever made, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I implore you to watch it tonight.