Humphrey Bogart’s film career, during which he made more than 70 movies, often involved variations on his most famous character type, a tough-guy loner. Among his many notable films were The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1943), The Big Sleep (1946), and The African Queen (1952), for which he won the Academy Award as best actor of the year.
Bogart’s screen persona is among the most clearly defined and enduring in all of cinema. Though he played individual roles that varied from this formula, the overall character that he portrayed is tough, cynical, private, sometimes ruthless, but, ultimately, often amiable and even principled. Bogart is most often identified as portraying a gangster or private eye, working either side of the law (or sometimes both, simultaneously) in a series of gritty 1930s and 1940s genre movies.
Indeed, Bogart was a key player in several of the most noted films from two important genres of the era, gangster films and film noir. As such, his characters often inhabit urban landscapes, and, inevitably, these films depict city life as bleak and menacing, set in neon-lit, rain-swept streets and dark, shadowy alleys. While theories abound regarding why these cynical, trust-no-one films achieved popularity in the years surrounding World War II, the consensus is that Bogart embodied the attitude and atmosphere of this genre to a degree that few others could approach.
Of course, Casablanca is a special, transcendent case—one of the most famous films of all time—and while the wistful, missed opportunities of its love story evoke sighs at every showing, the film also works on a social and political level in terms of isolation versus intervention, girding its romantic timelessness with an undercurrent that is, in some ways, very specific to the timing of its release. As such, it comments on American society and the pains of urban culture during the 1940s in direct and illustrative ways.
Apart from Casablanca, Bogart’s key films can be grouped more readily. As both Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, he portrayed a detective who maneuvered city streets on either end of a chase, running from or seeking out nefarious conspirators in some grand scheme, often at the behest of a mysterious and beautiful woman. On the other side of the law, his personality and behavior weren’t really that different, and neither were the cold, impersonal versions of the city he traversed. These stylized treatments of city life were not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but they were never completely removed from reality either, recognizable even then as portraying the dark side of America’s urban culture.