Miss Bacall, despite her cosmetic coating of sibylline trance extending from stem to stern, is actually in voice and personality a torch singer with a trace of the low-down blues in her temperament… I saw her as a kind of monster, with a special, fire-extinguisher kind of charm.”
This is American critic Parker Tyler in one of the essays in his 1947 collection Magic and Myth of the Movies, on the peculiar quality of Lauren Bacall, who died earlier this month. Tyler is writing perhaps a couple of years after this particular monster first appeared on screen as a fully formed star, playing Slim in the 1944 Howard Hawks film, To Have and Have Not.
At first, Bacall was understood, as Tyler had initially approached her, as a student of Marlene Dietrich, and through Dietrich, an inheritor of the Greta Garbo mantle. (In fact, in her ushering days, she had worshipped at the altar of Bette Davis.) Unlike these imperial forebears, who had a tendency to render their ostensible leading men into the merest afterthoughts, Bacall worked with a partner who was her equal in charisma, if not quite in supernal beauty, and her reputation today largely rests on the quartet of films that she made with Bogart at Warner Brothers: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948).
With the exception of To Have, all of these films can be fitted under the rubric of film noir, a loosely defined postwar genre so-named by French critics, which comprised of films that, as far as anyone can tell, are distinguished by their being American movies about American crimes made in a style inflected with German expressionism.
Garbo was property of MGM, Dietrich belonged to Paramount, but Bacall was a creation of Warner — the studio that had gained a reputation for realism in the 1930s, with its gangster films and social-problem pictures like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, both progenitors of noir, which took its seamier subject matters straight from the crime blotter.
In The Big Sleep, directed again by Hawks, Bacall plays the elder daughter of one General Sternwood, who has hired Bogart’s private detective Philip Marlowe for mysterious reasons. Director Delmer Daves begins Dark Passage with a bravura piece of sustained, audience-implicating subjective camerawork that places us in the shoes of an escaped con running from the law.
The voice behind the camera belongs to Bogart, so it’s no surprise that his salvation is a run-in with Bacall, playing a Sunday painter and court report groupie who’s convinced he’s innocent. Finally, there’s Key Largo by John Huston — whose first collaboration with Bogart, 1941’s PI tale The Maltese Falcon, is generally considered to be one of the movies that initiated the noir cycle — a nasty, rain-lashed movie, with Bogart and Bacall at the mercy of Edward G. Robinson doing his gargoyle gangster act.
The female figure associated with noir is the femme fatale, the leggy bait that leads our hero to his preordained doom. Bacall never played this cliché, precisely, though her dark aloofness lent itself to being read as ambivalence — potentially dangerous, if not dangerous in actual fact.
If the noir moment seemed perfectly to accommodate Bacall, it was perhaps for her air of forbidden knowledge, of having been around and seen a thing or two. (Again, the legacy of Garbo and Dietrich is key.) This quality was ill-suited to the bright Technicolor of the Eisenhower years, when virginal innocence or girlish naivete were increasingly the order of the day — both qualities that Bacall would have had difficulty summoning with a straight face. Bogart’s death in 1957 was a crushing blow, but her career was already hobbled, and the good parts had slowed to a dribble.
Bacall’s moment of uncontested supremacy was brief, but here I think of a story Peter Bogdanovich tells of talking to Orson Welles about Garbo. Bogdanovich asserted that Garbo “had acted in only two really great pictures”. Welles responded, “You only need one.” Bacall got hers from the get-go, for it was her knack to make things seem to come easily.
Pinkerton is a New York-based writer