Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bogie and Albert: Faces of Existentialism

"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

Thus laments Rick Blaine when Ilsa, his erstwhile lover, shows up at Rick’s Cafe, Blaine’s Casablanca night club.  It was hardly the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it was a typical line from Humphrey Bogart.

Humphrey Bogart
Who can forget Casablanca or the inimitable Bogie – his painful wince, that leer, the fiendish grin? In 1997, Entertainment Weekly magazine named him the number one movie legend of all time. Two years later, the American Film Institute ranked him the greatest male star of all time.

To be sure, greatest of all time really means best so far, but even today, nearly sixty years after his death, Bogart remains a cinema icon.

Why should this be?

Perhaps its because Bogart was one of the most authentic (more about this idea in a bit) actors of his day and managed to convey this quality seamlessly to his various film personages. With Bogie, on screen or off, what you saw was what you got – the solitary, stoic outsider who keeps his chin up no matter what.

In the aftermath of World War II, existentialist thought, especially the ideas of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre in France, which had suffered Nazi occupation, became not only fashionable but a media craze. On the other side of the Atlantic, unblighted by blitzkrieg, where philosophy mostly came out of movie theaters, the prototypical existentialist was not a beret-topped philosophe but an American film star – Humphrey Bogart. 

Besides the usual ravages of war, the struggle against Fascism had claimed emotional and  spiritual casualties, too. Judeo-Christian faith had done nothing to forestall the conflict, and the erosion of traditional moral and religious values left many at sea. During such a crisis of confidence, it was reassuring to find Bogie up there on the silver screen showing the way, if not to spiritual revival, at least to a kind of heroic endurance.

By most accounts an atheist from the age of eight (a tour de force for an eight-year-old, perhaps), Bogart was nearly a born existentialist. Over the course of his life, he came to hate pretensions, phonies, and snobs, and not infrequently defied authority and conventional behavior. Yet he was also polite, articulate, punctual, and modest. He rarely saw his own films and avoided premieres. If he thought an actor, director, or  movie studio had done something shoddy, he was more than apt to be openly critical, often in print.

As a professional, Bogart was by and large an autodidact. He had no formal education beyond high school (he was expelled from Phillips Academy, Andover) and never took acting lessons. In a sense he never really acted at all, for his on-screen presence was a genuine reflection of the man himself – the worldly wise (or weary), individualistic adventurer with traces of idealism and humor concealed beneath a tough exterior. His film personae, like the real-life Bogie, were wounded, laconic, charming, vulnerable, self-mocking loners who yet had a residual of honor. Even his most ruthless characters showed a hint of decency, and his heroes often had a dark side. He was a kaleidoscope of contradictions. 

Especially interesting about Bogie was his capacity to turn cynicism into a kind of virtue as though, having peered into the abyss, he’d persevered by taking it all with a grain of salt – had had an epiphany that even cynics need to laugh. If angst led to heavy smoking and drinking on Bogie’s part (the habits eventually killed him), it was also the source of his humanity – and his great movie performances.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Albert Camus (photo by Henri Cartier Bresson)
Bogart would have been about fourteen years old when novelist-philosopher Albert Camus was born in 1913. Like Bogart, Camus was himself a man of action and a media sensation. In 1957, at the age of forty-four, he was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature, making him the second-youngest (after Rudyard Kipling) recipient ever. During World War II, he’d joined a cell of the French Resistance, Combat, which published an eponymous underground newspaper with Camus as editor. Thus, his credentials for courage or engagement were gold-plated – and the envy of his philosophic confrere, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Jean-Paul Sartre (photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)
In contrast to the owlish and irresolute Sartre, Camus didn’t allow metaphysics (or metapolitics, as one might say) to stand in the way of principle. He believed in sticking up for your friends and valued bravery and fair-play. He espoused the ideals of justice and truth and believed that all political action must have a solid moral basis. Even if existence is absurd, life is still what you make of it, he thought. A person is defined only insofar as he or she takes action, and he or she remains responsible for those actions. 

In the end, it was all came down to authenticity which in the context of existentialism is the quality of being true to one's own personality, spirit, or character. And its this quality, I believe, that Bogart and Camus shared.

 …sooner or later a person’s true character shows in his face. 

Yet authenticity is about more than mere narrative. Its about demeanor as well, for sooner or later a person’s true character shows in his or her face. Is yours the mien of a straight shooter, a person of principle who walks the talk? Or do you have the shifty-eyed countenance of, say, the vicariously audacious, those who celebrate brutishness in others in order to conceal timidity in themselves? 

Camus died at the age of forty-seven, killed in a car wreck. But in 1941 and 1942 when the Maltese Falcon and Casablanca – films among Bogart’s best – were released,  Camus would have been in his twenties or early thirties. Bogart, moreover, was at the time quite popular in France (as he still is today). 

Was Camus a fan of Bogart? 

Probably so. Camus once described himself as a mix of Bogart, Fernandel (the French comedic actor), and a samurai. But it was the Bogie look – the precarious smoldering cigarette, the coat collar turned up like a gorget – that he sported, not grease paint or a katana.

Did Bogie for his part admire the author of The Rebel and The Stranger?  We may never know, but its not a stretch to image Rick Blaine opining as did Camus: 

''Those who pretend to know everything and settle everything finish by killing everything.''

I’m indebted to Wikipedia and various New York Times articles for background material.