It's most likely that I first came across the idea of Humphrey Bogart not in a Bogart movie, but in A bout de souffle. Not in 1960, when it came out - I was more likely to have seen Spartacus then - but three or four years later, when the Godard movie was shown again (and again) at the Academy cinema on Oxford Street, the Hampstead Everyman or the NFT, while I was hoovering up the backlist of the Nouvelle Vague. In the crucial scene Belmondo, cigarette lolling at the corner of his mouth, hat carefully tipped down over his eyes, gazes at a poster outside a cinema showing Plus dure sera la chute, a.k.a. The Harder They Fall - Bogart's final film - and after a moment growls 'Bogie' in American-accented French. Before I viewed that breathless moment, I was too young to have seen or wanted to see an actual Bogart movie, and not enough time had yet passed for Bogart to become an emblem of another period. After A bout de souffle, I went to all the NFT's regular retrospectives of Hollywood film noir, so I came to Bogart (as to Cagney, Raft, Edward G., Stanwyck, Hayworth, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Gloria Grahame) retrospectively and as a ready-made - I think I need to use the word - icon. They were vast beings moving across the screen, on prints patinated with the time that had passed. The women were beautiful in a glamorously dated way, but the men were not so beautiful. They were a strangely squat, ragged-faced crew for a 16-year-old girl to be ogling; from plain to downright ugly, if you don't count Glen Ford or Dana Andrews (who weren't exactly Paul Newman or Montgomery Clift themselves).
LRB 19 May 2011 | PDF Download