Acting without acting sounds like something out of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and yet, if we look back upon some Hollywood’s greatest hits from the 40s and early 50s, a period that is often labelled as the industry’s golden era, we will see that the prevalent norm of the time was to blur the lines between acting and not acting. Before the likes of Brando, Clift and Dean revolutionized the art form by guiding it into a whole new dimension, Hollywood’s greatest actors were those who knew how to successfully blend their true personality with the personality of the character they played. Think of Gregory Peck’s calm and sensitive protagonist in court room dramas and war movies, Katharine Hepburn’s erratic and quirky characters in her numerous outings in slapstick comedy, or James Stewart’s wise and tender family man, most notably in It’s a Wonderful Life. These actors made a living out of blurring those lines and eventually got awarded with Oscars galore. We love them because of it and their influence on the generations that followed is undeniable. Along the way, however, I feel like the contribution of one particular star of that time has gone under the radar, a man who could effortlessly skip from movie to movie and never miss a beat in the way he went about being himself on set.
Humphrey Bogart, also known as Bogie, is nowadays most famous for his timeless appearance in what many consider the greatest cinematic love story of all time in 1942’s Casablanca, where, as Rick, the nightclub owner, he got to pronounce the essential ending words to a movie, ”Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” after waving goodbye to the love of his life. Casablanca proved to be Bogart’s biggest hit, and he went on to star in more iconic noir films such as The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and The Big Sleep, where he would share the screen with his wife, Lauren Bacall, for the second time in a row. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart would for the first time sink his teeth into a more demanding role, that of a greedy gold prospector whose greed would ultimately result in his downfall. But it would take Bogart another two long years before he would find the role of Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. This was one of Bogart’s arguably best and most daring performances before his health began to deteriorate due to his chain smoking and heavy drinking, and one that, in my opinion, cemented his legacy as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
In this psychological thriller from 1950, Bogart plays a boozy screenwriter whose reputation around Hollywood is that of a cynical loner and one that doesn’t take shit from anybody, not even the hottest producer or actor on the block. He’s weary of the world he’s living in, but ironically, he can’t get away from it. He’s become a part of this cruel reality called show business. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Dix finds himself in the middle of a murder accusation. A girl he was last seen with was found murdered and he’s the primary suspect. What follows is a hardboiled, grim love affair between Dix and Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the woman who happens to be the sole witness to prove his innocence. I say grim, because soon enough Dix begins to show signs of unease, and his initial charisma turns into strange, borderline sociopathic behavior. All of a sudden, the thing that drew Dix to Laurel, and Bogart to his fans, namely his charisma and, as described by critic Peter Bradshaw, his ”what-the-hell” attitude, is seen through a completely different lens. Suddenly, we begin to question the true reason behind this attitude, what is Dix, or rather, Bogart, hiding? Is he not who we thought he is?
Jazz Age icon and close friend of Bogart’s, Louise Brooks, argued that Dixon Steele was the role that came closest to who Bogie really was in his private life. In the film, Bogart channels his dark side as if it was a matter of life and death. In almost every scene he manages to go from charming and romantic to weary and frustrated. Was all of this an act? Often described as destructive and with a particular disdain for pretension and phoniness, Bogart embraced the part of Dixon Steele as if it was his only meaningful opportunity to openly articulate his feelings toward the world that he had spent most of his life in. Steele in fact insults his life-long manager/agent, gets into a fistfight with a cocky actor and pushes off the advances of countless Hollywood starlets. He does all of this for the sake of his art, that of writing. It is only while writing that Steele is truly able to find clarity and distance himself from his demons. Initially, his affair with Laurel gets him back to the typing machine, but eventually, it is this very same affair that exposes Steele’s deepest hidden secrets and obsessions, as he violently beats a stranger within an inch of his life right in front of Laurel and then pretends to have feelings of remorse and guilt just like the characters in his screenplays. He’s his own worst enemy, and we, just like Laurel, are terrified by this revelation.
In a paper-thin world like the movie industry, Dixon Steele is a reminder of what bubbles beneath the surface. Was this Bogart’s grim farewell to a world he once loved and helped build? Was the character of Steele his long-awaited chance to critique his fiercest enemies and phony allies? We will never know the answer to these questions, but it is worth noting that after In a Lonely Place came out, Bogart spent his remaining years playing more conventional roles in Sabrina and The Cain Mutiny, and winning an Oscar for The African Queen before his premature death in 1957. By blending into the crowd of similar characters he used to play in the early 40s, he was able to hide Dixon Steele so that for many years few people were actually aware of this brilliant, unorthodox performance. Thanks to a number of restorations the film underwent quite recently, we are now finally able to get a glimpse of who Bogart really was, and how well he masked his true self by, ironically enough, acting like himself. Because, at the end of the day, Bogie will always be Bogie, but it is important to remember that, whether we like it or not, there was more to him than charm and cigarettes.