Digital Polyphony

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Epitome of Cool: A Tribute to Humphrey Bogart

Posted on March 16, 2011 at 1:29 AM

Epitome of Cool

A Tribute to Humphrey Bogart


A soft light from a lighter igniting a cigarette in a dark, smoky jazz club lights the face of a man as he slouches over his drink in a back booth. He takes a drag with one hand and downs the rest of his gin with the other. He nods towards the stage, the piano player nods back, then to the rest of the band to play that song. That one, smooth song of memories for the gin-drinking, smoke-inhaling epitome of cool in the back booth. A song that reminds him of some lonely dame on some other lonely night in some other jazz club not unlike this one. He waits, takes one more hard drag, and tosses the butt into the empty glass. He stands, grabs his coat and fedora, taking the time to put both on and, as per his style, run his fingers on the brim. The band plays him out with that one song, and he leaves.


I’ve seen quite a number of Humphrey Bogart movies, though certainly not all 75 of them, and if there’s one thing you take from each of them, it’s this: Bogey is the coolest guy in the room. He doesn’t just act like the coolest, he exudes it.  Always with a hat and fedora, even when playing the bad guy, Bogart was a guy who made you take notice of every word and every motion he gave.


By today’s standards, Humphrey Bogart would, at best, be some character actor. He’s not particularly good looking, was rather short at only about 5’ 8” and far from a muscular hunk of manliness. Hell, he even had a prominent scar on his lip and partial facial paralysis from his time in the US Navy. On top of that, the guy was a chess player...and a damn good one. How does a odd-looking, lanky, chain-smoking chess player be a cool leading man? I’ll tell you why: Bogart didn’t just act cool, he was cool. Yes, there’s a difference. Acting cool is just that: an act. To actually be cool is no different than breathing. It just is and Bogart was in life and film. More importantly, he knew he was cool. Afterall, this was the guy that created the rat-pack, later adopted by the likes of Frank Sinatra and company in the 1960s. Why’d they adopt it? was cool. Why was it cool? Because Bogey said so.


Despite his always-exuding of coolness in every film, Bogart himself was a damn good actor. There was the underlying “Bogart” to all his roles, but the roles themselves were diverse and compelling enough and actually made better by that coolness. Sure, he mainly played a lot of gangsters or detectives, especially early in his career, but even characters like Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a despicable and pathetic man yet completely confident and self-aware. It was cool without trying to be cool in films like The Maltese Falcon, They Drive By Night, High Sierra and Dark Victory.


He was always tough, even when vulnerable. Many look at Casablanca as the turning point of his career: here’s this tough leading man crying over some dame. Who’d have thought? Turns out that is probably the role most people identify Humphrey Bogart with. After that his characters were often showing two sides: the tough guy and the love interest...but that cool subversive style still radiated. This balance is how all of his films tended to portray in his characters: from the previously mentioned Dobbs in Sierra Madre to falling in love in The Big Sleep despite being a hard private investigator to conflicted Joe Barrett in Tokyo Joe who is strong with one hand yet sympathetic with the other.


The “leading man” has gone through a lot of changes over the year, recently the goofy, awkward and/or insecure man seems to be the focus (before that, the tough, rugged action star). Bogart played the leading man for nearly 30 years and the only thing that the then leading men needed to be was one thing: cool. That coolness factor is kind of gone now. Hell, even James Bond can’t smoke on screen anymore.


I always love watching those old classics and even better the ones that starred Humphrey Bogart. There’s something unique in the way he carried himself: like a man without a care in the world yet his mind is probably racing a million times a minute. You can see it in his eyes, those droopy baggy eyes, or the way he’ll stare at the floor as he chain smokes thinking of his next move. Bogart rarely showed characters become overly-emotive as well. Typically, he lounges back, takes a sip of a drink or a drag, and spills out dialogue that makes your head spin. But when he would get angry on film...look out. All that pent of frustration and anger that he puts down to exude that coolness just explodes. He wasn’t much of a fighter or a gunman, but he’ll find some way to hurt you, that’s for sure.


I couldn’t tell you what my favorite movies are. You see, you have Humphrey Bogart movies...then you have “Bogart” movies.  “Bogart” movies are the films where he’s the coolest of cool. Even if he’s sleepwalking through the thing...he’s still the definition of cool. Movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Enforcer, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo, To Have and Have Not, In a Lonely Place (even the name is cool...Dixon Steele) and, of course, Casablanca. As for my favorite Humphrey Bogart movies, those are those plus everything else, such as Sierra Madre, The African Queen (his only Oscar win), Sahara, Chain Lightening and Sabrina.


Bogart was, and probably still is, the cool persona that every guy wants to be. The man has been dead since 1957 and people still quote like him and think wearing fedoras and smoking cigarettes exemplifies the cool. People love posters of him, watching is movies, there’s more than a dozen websites devoted to him and he and his films are always at the top of the various “lists” of things that people like to do, such as AFI with favorite leading men...which he claimed the number one spot.

Think back to some actors you think are cool. Your Steve McQueens and Sean Connery circa 1965, your Sinatras and Martins, maybe a Miles Davis even. Almost all of them can trace their cool roots to the guy that made cool a way of life. If there's any example of the phrase "they don't make 'em like they used to," Humphrey Bogart certainly was it.

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Reply Loren Robinson
1:06 PM on November 10, 2013 
Great article, Humphrey Bogart definitely was a legend and great actor. And he said so many memorable quotes in his movie.
Reply Wes Santos
1:22 PM on May 26, 2015 
This article, besides the fact is written awesomely, is the perfect tribute and more realistic to date I have seen or read. I'm a huge fan of Bogart, and I just saw one of his films a month ago for the first time. Cannot deny this guy was,is, and will be a role model, just like you said :' the guey every man wants to be" ...I would love where to read narratives like your introduction paragraph, I'm dying to read just like that, does that style has a name ?? either way Thank You for this amazing bit that just made my night lighting even more that bard flame of mine.