Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bazin on Bogart: The Immanence of Death

Each time he began a sentence he revealed a wayward set of teeth. The set of his jaw irresistibly evoked the rictus of a spirited cadaver, the final expression of a melancholy man who would fade away with a smile. That is indeed the smile of death.

Segments from André Bazin's enlightening piece on Humphrey Bogart, written at the time of actor's passing for Cahiers du Cinema. This is translated by Phillip Drummond for an anthology of Cahiers articles, published in 4 volumes by Harvard University Press, 1985.

Who does not mourn this month for Humphrey Bogart, who died at fifty six of stomach cancer and half a million whiskeys? The passing of James Dean principally affected members of the female sex below the age of twenty; Bogey's affects their parents or at least their elder brothers, and above all it is men who mourn. Beguiling rather than attractive, Bogey delighted the women in his films; no fear of him leaving millions of widows, like Valentino or James Dean; for the spectator he seems to me to have been more the hero with whom one identifies than the hero one loves. The popularity of Bogart is virile. Women may miss him, but I know of men who would weep for him were not the unseemliness of emotion written all over this tough guy's tomb. No flowers, no wreaths.

Much has already been written about Bogart, his persona and his myth. But none put it better, perhaps, than Robert Lachenay more than a year ago, from whom I cannot help but quote the following prophetic lines: “Each time he began a sentence he revealed a wayward set of teeth. The set of his jaw irresistibly evoked the rictus of a spirited cadaver, the final expression of a melancholy man who would fade away with a smile. That is indeed the smile of death.”

It now seems clear indeed that none more so than Bogart, if I may speak thus, epitomized the immanence of death, its imminence as well. Not so much, moreover, of that which one gives or receives as of the corpse on reprieve which is within each of us. And if his death touches us so closely, so intimately, it is because the raison d'etre of his existence was in some sense to survive. Thus in his case death's victory is twofold, since it is victorious less over life than over resistance to dying.

I will perhaps make myself better understood by contrasting his character with that of Gabin (to whom one could compare him in so many ways). Both men are heroes of modern cinematographic tragedy, but with Gabin (I am of course speaking of the Gabin of Le Jour se lève and Pépé le Moko) death is, after all, at the end of the adventure, implacably awaiting its appointment. The fate of Gabin is precisely to be duped by life. But Bogart is man defined by fate. When he enters the film it is already the pale dawn of the following day; absurdly victorious from the macabre combat with the angel, his face marked by what he has seen and his bearing heavy with all he knows, having ten times triumphed over his own death he will doubtless survive for us a further time.

Not the least admirable feature of the character of Bogart is that he improved, became sharper, as he progressively wasted away. This tough guy never dazzled on the screen by dint of physical force or acrobatic agility. He was neither a Gary Cooper nor a Douglas Fairbanks! His successes as a gangster or as a detective are due first to his ability to take a punch, then to his perspicacity. The effectiveness of his punch testifies less to his strength than to his sense of repartee. He places it welt true, but above all at the right moment. He strikes little, but always when his opponent is wrong-footed. And then there is the revolver which becomes in his hands an almost intellectual weapon, the argument that dumbfounds.

Bogart is, without doubt, typically the actor/myth of the war and post-war period. There is some secret harmony in the coincidence of these events: the end of the pre-war period, the arrival of a certain novelistic style in cinematographic écriture, and, through Bogart, the triumph of interiorization and of ambiguity. One can in any case easily see in what respect Bogart differs from those pre-war heroes for whom Gary Cooper might be the prototype: handsome, strong, noble, expressing much more the optimism and efficiency of a civilization than its anxiety. Even the gangsters are the conquering and active type, Western heroes who have gone astray, the negative version of industrious audacity. In this period only perhaps George Raft shows signs of that introversion, a source of ambiguity which the hero of The Big Sleep will exploit to a sublime degree. In Key Largo Bogart overcomes Edward G. Robinson, the last of the pre-war gangsters; with this victory something of American literature probably makes its way into Hollywood. Not through the deceptive intermediary of the scenarios but through the human style of the character. Bogart is perhaps, in the cinema, the first illustration of “the age of the American novel.”

The special ambiguity of the roles which first brought Bogart success in the noir crime film is thus to be found again in his filmography. Moral contradictions meet as much within the roles as in the paradoxical permanence of the character caught between two apparently incompatible occupations.

But is not this precisely the proof that our sympathy went out, beyond even the imaginary biographies and moral virtues or their absence, to some profounder wisdom, to a certain way of accepting the human condition which may be shared by the rogue and by the honorable man, by the failure as well as by the hero. The Bogart man is not defined by his accidental respect, or his contempt, for bourgeois virtues, by his courage or his cowardice, but above all by this existential maturity which gradually transforms life into a stubborn irony at the expense of death.

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