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Blu-ray Review: 'The Best of Bogart Collection'

Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca"
Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca"
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The Films:

There have been few actors who have been able to bring as much class to the screen as Humphrey Bogart did. In his prime, he delivered some of the most memorable performances ever put to film, ranging from his most well-known (“Casablanca” and “The African Queen”) to a few that some might not be as familiar with (“In a Lonely Place” and “Beat the Devil”). Bogart always brought an amazing presence to every film he was in, commanding the screen with hardly any effort at all. There was charm, grace, and an unforgettable quality to his performances, which makes it particularly exciting to see four of his very best combined into a set like this. Granted, these four classics (“Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and “The African Queen”) have been available separately on Blu-ray for the last few years, but now they’ve been brought together to give you an optimal taste of just how talented an actor Bogart was. As I usually do with sets like this, I’m going to go through it a film at a time, so let’s get right to it.

1943’s Best Picture winner, “Casablanca,” takes place in the titular city in a tumultuous time. The Third Reich is spreading across Europe, causing many to try and flee to the United States via Lisbon. However, before they can make this trip, they have to make their way to Casablanca in hopes of acquiring visas. It’s in this city that we meet Rick (Humphrey Bogart), the owner of a popular café. We know little about his past, but we do know that he’s the kind of man that likes to stay out of trouble (i.e. he wants to remain neutral in this unoccupied French city, sticking his neck out for no one). It’s recently been announced that two German couriers have been murdered and that the letters of transit that they were carrying have been stolen. It doesn’t take long for them to show up as Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a shady businessman, gives them to Rick for safe keeping. Shortly after, Ugarte is captured, leaving Rick with priceless documents that could get anyone out of the country.

Enter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the two who were to meet with Ugarte to obtain the documents. The local French police captain, Renault (Claude Rains), a friend of Rick’s, has already warned him that Laszlo would try to get out of the country through Casablanca, but being a fugitive from the Nazis, he wants to make sure Rick doesn’t plan to assist him in any way. Complicating things is the fact that Rick and Ilsa have a past together. Before Paris was occupied, they had a special relationship that came to a sudden and mysterious end, leaving Rick to wonder whatever happened to Ilsa. As the pieces of the past fall into place, we begin to learn the difficulty Rick is having in ultimately deciding what to do with the letters of transit, leaving the fates of Laszlo and Ilsa hanging in the balance.

What else can be said of such a masterpiece that hasn’t already been said in the last 70 years? “Casablanca,” considered one of the best films ever made, doesn’t have a single element that doesn’t work. The screenplay by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch brilliantly weaves together multiple characters in one storyline that spans past and present, featuring some of the most oft-quoted lines of dialogue of all time. What’s particularly impressive about the way the film is structured is how the screenwriters allow it to unfold slowly, filling in pieces of the backstory bit by bit until we begin to have a full understanding of what happened and why. In this sense, the story resembles a mystery in some ways, blending in to what is already an intriguing drama and romance. It’s even more impressive when you discover that it was written day to day, with no clear intention in where the story was headed. Little did they know they were crafting one of the greatest scripts ever written piece by piece.

The other component that must be mentioned when discussing “Casablanca” is the marvelous ensemble, featuring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt, and Dooley Wilson. The writing is indeed brilliant, but it wouldn’t have worked half as well if this perfect cast hadn’t been in place. Bogart portrays Rick as a mysterious man whose actions you can never predict, while Rains gives an outstanding performance as the police Captain who thinks he knows him, but is still surprised on occasion. Bergman had no easy task here, playing a woman torn between her husband and the man who can give them their ticket to safety, but she was certainly up to the challenge. The rest of the supporting cast may not have much screen time, but they make their mark all the same, particularly Peter Lorre.

Any way you look at it, whether through its brilliant screenplay, the outstanding ensemble, Michael Curtiz’s keen eye for direction, or several of its other components, “Casablanca” is a masterpiece that has stood the test of time for over 70 years. It may be set during World War II, but it has an incredible timeless quality about it that will no doubt allow it to continue being called one of the greatest films of all time for another 70 years and beyond.

“The Maltese Falcon,” based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, begins with a private detective, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), getting hired by Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to follow a man she suspects of running away with her sister. While on the job, Miles is murdered, leading Sam to confront Brigid about what’s really going on. She reveals that the story about her sister wasn’t exactly true, but won’t go into any detail about her involvement with the man Miles was shadowing. However, it doesn’t take long for Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) to pay a visit to Sam’s office, offering a large reward for a statuette of a bird. We eventually find out from an associate of Cairo’s, Mr. Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), that this bird is jewel-encrusted and worth a large sum of money, leading several people to try and track down its whereabouts, with Sam squarely in the middle of the whole affair.

This is one of those mysteries where if you aren’t listening for even a second, you’re likely to miss an important piece of information. However, that’s the great fun of a movie like this, having little clues thrown to you while you try to piece together what happened and what’s going to happen. It’s a film where you’re never sure who’s telling the truth or what certain characters are going to do in their desperate attempt to gain possession of the falcon, which is exactly why the suspense-filled story works so incredibly well. In fact, I really only have one complaint about the entire film, and that’s that some of the cover-ups/explanations towards the end of the film are motor-mouthed by the actors, so aside from needing to be on your toes for most of the film anyway, you need to be particularly alert in the final act or else you’ll find yourself having to go back a few times just to get filled in on the plot. However, this is really a very minor complaint for a film that is considered one of the finest mysteries ever made.

Major credit goes to director/writer John Huston for being able to adapt the complexity of the Hammett novel into an amazing film like this, a feat that isn’t quite so easy. Just like with “Casablanca,” the cast also deserves a large portion of the credit. Bogart is perfect as the hard-boiled detective, always keeping his cool in every situation as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Lorre and Greenstreet, getting much more time here than they would in “Casablanca,” also give extraordinary performances, with the former showing much of that desperation as he jumps back and forth between politeness and a more forceful demeanor, and the latter always remaining the gentlemen, even in rough circumstances. All of these elements come together to deliver a tale that has you on the edge of your seat, which is where all the best mysteries will have you. “The Maltese Falcon” grabs you from the beginning as it draws you into its complex web of intrigue right along with Sam, building up its tension and suspense and not letting go until the very end, where you come to realize that you’ve been through an incredible, complex, and unforgettable tale.

“The African Queen” takes us back to the titular continent, but this time to a far more remote section in 1914. In a small native village, we find a pair of missionaries, Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her brother Rev. Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley). Every now and again, their mail is brought by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), who travels the local waterways in his boat the “African Queen.” On one particularly visit, he brings the vague news of war breaking out in Europe, but is unable to tell them much more beyond it being the British versus the Germans. Not long after this visit, a small force of soldiers invades the village and destroys it, which eventually leads to the death of the Reverend. Upon Charlie’s return, he helps bury Samuel and takes Rose onto his boat in an attempt to get her to safety. However, she has no intention of just trying to wait out the war. Instead, she comes up with a plan to go down the river and sink an enemy ship. It takes a little convincing, but soon this seemingly mismatched pair finds themselves up against rapids, gunfire, and a few other problems that arise as they make their way along the perilous river towards their dangerous mission.

Of the four movies included in this set, I think it’s fair to say that this is probably the simplest. There’s no deep plot or large collection of characters, just two people trying to make it down a river in an attempt to destroy a boat and the few obstacles they encounter on the way. It’s a fun adventure as they come up against these challenges, but what makes the film even more interesting is the character development. When we first meet these two characters, Rose seems very prim and proper, while Charlie, with his constant dirty look, comes across as a lower-class commoner. However, it’s not long before we find these two working side by side as they try to reach their destination, even developing a romantic relationship in the process. We come to find that Rose is a little braver than we might have thought, while Charlie constantly tries to do the manly thing by protecting her from harm, something he initially tries to do by telling her how bad an idea going down the river is. In a more general sense, their journey becomes a kind of bonding experience that shows them how great a team they are, and that, even with their little ship, they can make some difference in the war effort. It’s these two fascinating characters that drive the film, with the adventure part of it merely being a bonus.

Of course, no small part of the credit goes to the incredible performances from Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, whose chemistry lights up the screen for almost the entire length of the film. After seeing Bogart looking so suave in suits in films like “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon,” it’s a sudden turnaround to see him in such a disheveled state. That being said, his is a character who shouldn’t be judged by appearance given that he almost always exudes a gentlemanly manner (the one exception being when he’s had a little too much to drink). Bogart roles with the character changes very well, and in fact, this was the performance that won him his one and only Oscar. Likewise, Hepburn has to undergo some pretty big changes, from her prim and proper beginning to working hard on this little boat of theirs. Hepburn was the kind of actress that never failed to impress, and her amazing role here was no exception.

As I said, it may be a simple film, but that by no means stops it from being a lot of fun to watch. This is a classic adventure that features two great lead performances, wonderful direction from the incredible John Huston, and some beautiful scenery as well. If you’re looking for a film that will sweep you away for an exotic ride, then “The African Queen” is just the ticket you’re looking for.

“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” begins with two poor Americans, Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt), trying to make their way in the Mexican town of Tampico in the 1920s. After getting cheated out of wages for a job (and subsequently finding the main who cheated them and getting their money), they join forces with Howard (Walter Huston), an old man who knows quite a bit about prospecting. They pool their money to buy the necessary supplies and set out for an isolated spot in the Sierra Madre Mountains, hoping to strike it rich. Luckily, they find just what they were looking for, and so begins the hard work of collecting an amount suitable enough for the three men. Unfortunately, things aren’t as easy as all that, as the group must face another prospector who comes snooping around, bandits, and a growing greed within Dobbs that has him becoming more and more paranoid about his portion of the gold every day.

You could call “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” an adventure, but of a slightly different type than “The African Queen.” Instead of a series of thrilling obstacles standing in the way of our heroes, we have a character piece that is arguably more thrilling, one that explores how easily some men can change when money is on the line. With the characters of Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard, we’re given three fascinating attitudes towards the situation that they find themselves in. Howard, the old man, takes a rather easygoing attitude about the whole thing. He’s energetic for his age and is very quick to trust his business partners. However, he’s also very logical about what to do and how to do it as the different obstacles come up. Curtin’s the kind of guy who wants to do right by both of them, saving Dobbs when a part of their mine collapses and even going so far as to defend Howard’s share of the treasure when circumstances force the old man to leave them for a while.

However, the most compelling character of the three is Mr. Fred C. Dobbs, who may seem like an easygoing fellow when their little adventure begins, but as we quickly see, the prospect of being rich can blind some men to all sense of reason. While all Curtin and Howard want to do is get their share and call it quits, Dobbs slowly descends into a state of paranoid madness that has him questioning every move the other two men make. He sees betrayal at every turn and will stop at nothing to keep his share of the gold safe. This slow transformation is brilliantly captured by Bogart in what is probably my favorite performance of his. It’s no easy task to break down into such a paranoid state, where he can’t trust anyone and perceives every little movement as a threat, but Bogart handles it with great ease. It’s the kind of performance that some may deem a little too “over the top,” but to express the depths at which Dobbs is affected by his avarice, it’s right at the perfect level.

The other great performance to take note of here is that of Walter Huston, who took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Howard. His character is somewhat the opposite of Dobbs, sporting a carefree and straightforward attitude that makes the character a lot of fun to watch. He may not undergo any big changes like Bogart’s character, but he still manages to leave a lasting mark with this unforgettable turn. It’s worth noting that the film won two other Oscars, one for John Huston’s (Walter’s son) excellent screenplay and another for his outstanding direction. In fact, the only Oscar the film was nominated for that it didn’t win was Best Picture (beaten by Sir Laurence Olivier’s amazing adaptation of “Hamlet”). It certainly would have been a worthy recipient given that it’s a thoroughly engaging tale that has you on the edge of your seat as you anticipate what’s going to happen next. Like with the other films in this set, all of its elements (the performances, Huston’s direction & screenplay, etc.) come together perfectly to deliver a film that would go down in history as one of the greatest ever made.

Video/Audio:

All four films in this collection are presented in 1.33:1, 1080p High Definition transfers of outstanding quality. In fact, the only complaint I have about the video is that, like most older films that come to Blu-ray, they are presented in the “shrunken box” format that features black bars on all sides and a smaller picture instead of filling the frame like you would find on the DVD releases. Regardless of the size, the picture on all of the films is sharp and clear, making these films look their best since their original releases. “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” feature 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, while “Casablanca” and “The African Queen” feature 1.0 Dolby Digital Audio. All tracks are slightly on the quiet side, which seems to be an increasing problem with Blu-rays of late, but once adjusted, they are of fantastic quality, perfectly complimenting the incredible quality of the video presentation.

Special Features:

Casablanca:

  • Commentary by Roger Ebert
  • Commentary by Historian Rudy Behlmer
  • Introduction by Lauren Bacall
  • Additional Scenes & Outtakes
  • Scoring Session Outtakes
  • Bacall on Bogart
  • You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca
  • As Time Goes By: The Children Remember
  • Production Research Gallery
  • Carrotblanca
  • Who Holds Tomorrow?: Premiere Episode from 1955 Warner Bros. Presents TV Series Adaptation of Casablanca
  • Audio-Only Bonus: Radio Production with the Movie’s Three Key Stars
  • Theatrical Trailers

The Maltese Falcon:

  • Commentary by Bogart Biographer Eric Lax
  • The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird
  • Breakdowns of 1941: Studio Blooper Reel
  • Makeup Tests
  • Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart
  • Warner Night at the Movies Short Subjects Gallery
  • Audio-Only Bonus: Three Radio Show Adaptations

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre:

  • Commentary by Bogart Biographer Eric Lax
  • Discovering Treasure: The Story of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  • Documentary Profile: John Huston
  • Warner Night at the Movies Short Subjects Gallery: Leonard Maltin Introduction, Newsreel, Two Classic Cartoons, Comedy Short, Theatrical Trailers
  • Audio-Only Bonus: Radio Show with the Movie’s Original Stars

The African Queen:

  • Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen

As you can see, we are given a multitude of extras here that range from spectacular (and very informative) commentaries to excellent “Making of” featurettes that tell you everything you could want to know about each of these excellent films through interviews with a wide variety of experts. We are even given a couple of documentaries that delve deeply into the lives and careers of Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, who paired together on three out of four of these films, among a few others. One could spend several hours poring through this material and never get bored. To put it simply, you couldn’t ask for better special features than the great selection included here.

Conclusion:

With four great films and a wealth of special features to accompany them, this is one of the easiest recommendations I could possibly make. These films have stood the test of time for multiple decades, and will continue to be regarded as some of the finest ever made for several more decades to come, thanks in no small part to their thrilling storylines and, of course, Bogart’s incredible performances. There’s never been another actor quite like him and it’s doubtful that there ever will be. He was incredibly unique in the way he brought his various characters to life on screen, whether he was a gangster, a detective, or just an average Joe trying to make his way in the world. These four extraordinary films are just a few reasons why he will always be remembered as one of the best.

Score: 4.5/5

Available on Blu-ray starting tomorrow.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: American Hustle, Kill Your Darlings, The Slumber Party Massacre, Inside Llewyn Davis, In Fear, Oldboy (2013), Cold Comes the Night, Gravity, Mr. Nobody, The Americans: Season One, Hellbenders, Rocky: Heavyweight Collection, Chicago: Diamond Edition, All is Lost

Now playing in theaters: Bad Words, Nymphomaniac: Volume One, Pompeii, Labor Day, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Also be sure to check out my lists of the Best and Worst Films of 2013.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.