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Blu-Ray Review - Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart

Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart review
Six noirs starring Humphrey Bogart.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: John Cromwell, Nicholas Ray, Stuart Heisler, Curtis Bernhardt, Henry Levin, Mark Robson

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott, Morris Carnovsky, John Derek, George Macready, Alexander Knox, Florence Marly, Lee J. Cobb, Marta Toren, Jody Lawrance, Rod Steiger, Jan Sterling

Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart blu-ray

Noir has always been that most chimeric of genres and this box set is no exception, offering a range of films that run the gamut from duplicitous dames, juvenile delinquency, bootlegging and match fixing. The one immovable object this time is Bogie, proving himself every inch a film star in so much as the films change but his persona is so deeply ingrained that he might as well have kept the same name throughout. Anyone confused by The Family Secret being included in this boxset should be aware it was made by Bogart's production company although his name is nowhere in the credits.


Dead Reckoning

The opener in this boxset is the closest you get to a standard noir. Bogart plays Rip Murdock, just back from Paris after World War 2 with his pal Johhny Drake (William Cross), who finds out he is to receive the medal of honour and promptly does a bunk at the nearest station. Understandably confused, Rip seeks to find out why, which leads to death, corruption and a frame-up. Rip runs a cab stand in civilian life but to all intents and purposes might as well be playing a shamus. Told mainly in flashback, this starts faintly middling but once it gets its claws in reveals a jet black heart. And if the "man takes the rap for a crime he didn’t commit" story is familiar, this takes some interesting detours from the formula.

Case in point, Drake waxes lyrical to Rip about his partner Coral (Lizabeth Scott), which leads Bogart to seek her out ostensibly for some facts and background but soon puts the moves on her with no equivocation. That she is a chanteuse in a Club with some seedy backers and a barman willing to spill the beans gives it a Casablanca mixed with Double Indemnity vibe. Couple this with a flashback narrative as Rip confesses to a priest what has happened, and it feels like it has been machine tooled in a Noir App. Ostensibly Drake has taken the fall for the murder of Coral's husband, however Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky), the club owner, seems to have an unusually possessive interest in Coral. To reveal more would spoil the pleasures of a particularly sinuous plot. Bogart and Scott have good chemistry together. Coral's personality changes depending on her environment so you're never quite sure of her motives. The badinage between the two is less flirty and more spiked LSD trip as Rip talks about shrinking her and putting Coral in his pocket (for reasons both convoluted and extremely sexist).

A slick and proficiently directed piece of work that if familiar, throws up enough surprises to be worthy of your attention and also elevated higher in the canon of great noir films.

Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart review

Knock On Any Door

Bogart may have the flip persona down pat at this stage in his career but still has space for a little more nuance in this juvey court case noir. As Andrew Morton, he plays a happily married lawyer and if on the seamier end of the client roster, he still has something of the idealistic crusader in him. Morton is a lawyer from the slums who has made it good but takes on the case of juvenile murderer Nick Romano (John Derek, very much a Poundland James Dean) to expiate his guilt for the botched criminal trial of Nick's father.

Told in a twisty flashback structure, this foreshadows the taut angst of director Nicholas Ray's later teenage drama while also adopting the slightly hectoring and moralistic approach of the films of Stanley Kramer. The pull of social conscience is strong, but the dice is so loaded in favour of justice that Romano never comes across as anything other than a wrong 'un, the nuance possibly fighting against the Hays code's requirements for a Manichean dynamic when it comes to criminality. Derek may be somewhat lightweight as the lead, his petulant thuggery imbued with a "why me?" solipsism rather than a railing against an unfair system. That may well be the point though. Morton may have the blinkers on with this kid, seeing in himself the potential to be in the same scenario if the breaks had gone the wrong way for him, his own complicity in the death of Romano's father tugging at the guilt strings at what may have already been an incipient psycho before tragedy struck.

Now mostly known for introducing the phrase "live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse," it would have been fascinating to see how this would have turned out with original choice Marlon Brando in the role of Romano. The method against the stagier aspects of Bogie's craft would have been one showdown. As such he overpowers the more callow Derek in the scenes they share.

Tokyo Joe

As ex Colonel Joe Barrett, Bogart is on more familiar territory. The hook here is that scenes were actually shot in post war Japan. Unfortunately, these scenes were done with an unimpressive body double which give those scenes a rinky-dink Ed Wood quality. Barrett is back in Tokyo to see what is left of his gambling joint. Not only is it intact and run be his friend Ito (Teru Shimada), but he also discovers his wife Trina (Florence Marly), who he thought was dead, is very much alive and married. Barrett's relationship with Ito is one part Sam from Casablanca and two parts Kato from The Pink Panther. After a masculine bout of Judo with all the energy you’d expect from a 40 a day man, he is off to win back Trina.

This is one of the more convoluted offerings in the set. What starts out as a wistful return to old haunts veers towards a post war spy movie. Barrett wants to get a small airline freight franchise on the go, which leads him into cahoots with Baron Kimura (Sessue Hayakawa), the former head of the Secret Police. Kimura finances his operation if he will transport frozen frogs to the American markets. Clearly believing it to be a front for more nefarious cargo, Barrett attempts to find a way out. Trina though was forced to broadcast Japanese propaganda during the war and Kimura has the goods on her. What Kimura wants transported is far worse than Kermit on Ice.

This plays very much into the weary brand of wholesome cynicism with a heart of gold that Bogart made his own through his sadly curtailed career. He may know some morally dubious chancers and blur the lines of legality, but when backed into a corner you know he’ll take a bullet for you.

This would have played as daringly contemporary on release, but now feels stage bound with intrusive interludes. This may be one of the few films from the '40s in which a character is chivalrously trying to palm his wife off on to another.

Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart review


We find ourselves in Casablanca territory (or to be precise, Syria) in this tale of bootleggers, love and rebellion. This is a more dyspeptic take however. Harry Smith is a black marketeer with a heart of lead selling guns and armaments to the rebellion fighting French colonialists. As the French are planning to execute civilians every time an officer is killed we can assume the film sides with the indigenous population. Bogart's Smith may be a WWI hero but here he cuts a more pessimistic figure up against Colonel Feroud (Lee J. Cobb, adding a confusing note by being a very American French man), who is trying to curtail his business dealings. It’s a film that attempts to put a good spin on Smith by making the more honourable Feroud (a man who insists on imprisoning rather than executing civilians) a controllingly abusive husband, thus giving Bogie the go ahead to put the moves on his wife Violetta (Marta Toren). It fails in trying to replicate the love triangle of Casablanca because Violetta's relationships seem more transactional than romantic. What it lacks in emotional charge it makes up for with its moral flexibility and complicated characterisations. 

Director Curtis Bernhardt was a German Jew émigré during the war. His career may have been somewhat pedestrian, but his staging of a nightclub bombing is surprisingly brutal and seems to have an innate understanding of the complexities of surviving in a hostile environment. Smith may in the end be forced to do the honourable thing even if in this bittersweet film it may not amount to a hill of beans. Worthy of rediscovery.

The Family Secret

The anomaly in the boxset as it features Bogart in a hands off role. So hands off he isn’t even in the credits (the film was made by his production company). This is borderline noir at best and the weakest of the set. John Derek is back this time playing an entitled little shit who kills his best friend after an argument. More a Douglas Sirk melodrama with Leave it to Beaver staging, this attempts to mine the guilt that David Clark feels after killing his friend. Lee J. Cobb returns as the paterfamilias Howard, who as a lawyer hears his son’s confession and expects him to do the right thing. As the dead man was also in hoc to a bookie named Joe (Whit Bissell) it makes sense that the police will finger him for the crime. David then keeps quiet to the chagrin of pops, who represents Joe in court with David also working the case.

It's a convoluted tale that never quite makes us understand why we should care about David. He is an entitled middle class jock, whose relationship with Secretary Lee (Jody Lawrance) would be deemed an abusive work environment now (it also hints at rape). David only finally confesses after Joe drops dead of a heart attack - doing the right thing has never taken so long. The fact that the film expects you to pat him on the back for it is annoying to the point of insulting. Derek is much better here, an abusive shallow preppy plays more to the moral blankness in his acting than the conflicted hoodlum of Knock on Any Door.

Henry Levin's direction is of the sober and sedate variety. It’s a film that would work just as well as a stage production as it moves from house to office to courtroom. It may be burdened by its middle class morality but it can be viewed as one of the first of the cycle of films that looked at the rottenness beneath the veneer of civility in Suburbia.

Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart review

The Harder They Fall

The final film in the set and also Bogie’s swan song is the pick of the bunch and a fitting finale to an illustrious career. Based on Budd Schulberg’s original novel from a screenplay by writer Philip Yordan (a man with a lively and controversial career all of his own). Set in the milieu of professional boxing, Bogart plays broke sportswriter Eddie Willis, whose contacts prove useful to mob fixer Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) when he wants to fix it that big hulking lug Toro Moreno (Mike Lane) gets a shot at the title despite the not minor inconvenience that he is woefully inept at the pugilistic arts. Unable to resist the lure of a big payday, Eddie goes along with the match fixing until a fatal bout with a former contender leads to a crisis of conscience.

Willis has all the usual charm of Bogart's previous raffish rogue’s gallery but the benign world weariness is now imbued with a more fatalistic demeanour, his star persona a contrast to the more method leanings of Steiger’s nefarious boxing promoter (not the final time he’ll put the fix in during his career). This is a world made of chumps, guys on the make and losers on the take. Less a sporting arena and more of a freak show carnival with the audience baying for blood and punishment. If it may seem a little familiar now it is only because it helped establish the tropes of the boxing movie. The climactic bout has a brutality that hits even now and must have been an influence on how Scorsese lensed the fights in Raging Bull. The closest it comes to an innocent is Moreno and his manager Luis (Carlos Montalban) but even then you wonder if he has his best interests at heart and this gets to the heart of the one problem with the film. Toro is so comically inept at the fight game, barely able to land a punch that it is farcical that he would even get a sniff at the big league. Knowing the rudiments of the pugilistic arts would have made for a more convincing but more vicious movie. Schulberg likes his innocent heroes to suffer before redemption and Moreno’s battering to a form of redemption is no exception.

Mark Robson has previous with the boxing arena having previously directed Champion for Kirk Douglas. This is less concerned with the ring and more the people ring side, and if he doesn’t quite have the sharp eyed view of the lower end of town, he also doesn’t have the sense of weaselly special pleading that Elia Kazan brought to On the Waterfront. This is an environment where even the top dog is clearly in the thrall of something bigger and any success is short lived. Migrants are exploited, a man on his uppers is easily corrupted and Joe Public is a schmuck just waiting to have their dollars extricated from their pocket. Robson's light touch ensures that this is not just a wallow in the mire even if any hope of victory in the final round is liable to be short lived.

Bogart's redemptive arc is fatalistic to the core. Turning the tables on the mob and giving his cut to a boxer who is going to be traded like so much meat so he can return to Argentina is a dicey proposition but newly inspired, he is about to bring the whole corrupt edifice down with a journalistic final flourish. Bogie hammers the typewriter keys and we fade to black knowing this story will be more epitaph than expose. A final flourish and a final farewell from one of the most iconic stars of old Hollywood. 


As per previous noir boxsets, some of the extras are more period adjacent than directly relevant to the films but all are worthy of attention. Audio commentaries on all films as well as appraisals from the like of Tony Rayns, Geoff Andrew, Bertrand Tavernier, Tom Vincent and Christina Newland. As per the previous box sets there is a nicely curated selection of war propaganda pieces (some featuring the same director or actor in the adjoining film), the pick of which is The Negro Soldier. Add to that a South Bank Show episode featuring Bogart's son looking back at his career and footage of Max Schmeling's fight against Primo Carnera and you have a pretty compelling excuse to work your way through these additional items. All films come with subtitles and Image Galleries featuring promotional and publicity materials. If that isn’t enough for you there is also a 120 page book featuring essays from Imogen Sara Smith plus archival and contemporary essays and interviews. In short, it’s quite the package.

Columbia Noir #5: Humphrey Bogart is on blu-ray now from Powerhouse Indicator.