Humphrey Bogart: 10 essential films

Few actors have featured in so many legendary films as Humphrey Bogart. Here’s looking at 10 of them.

25 December 2020

By Chloe Walker

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Casablanca. The Maltese Falcon. The Big Sleep. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Few actors can lay claim to starring roles in as many legendary features as Humphrey Bogart, and yet it took him a long time to reach those heady heights. 

He spent the 1930s, his first decade in Hollywood, playing second-fiddle to stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson as an array of heavies in an array of gangster movies. While he featured in a fair number of classics – Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939) – top-billing didn’t settle squarely on his world-weary shoulders until the 1940s. 

Bogart’s coolly cynical demeanour meant he was the perfect fit for film noir, so it’s apt that the peak years of his career (1941-57) span almost the entirety of noir’s golden era. Not conventionally handsome in the way of a Cary Grant or a Gregory Peck, his peerless charisma nevertheless made him a convincing romantic lead in films such as The African Queen (1951) and Sabrina (1954). Wherever he appeared, his commanding presence and deliciously dry wit were always welcome.

Choosing 10 movies from his bounteous body of work is a daunting task, but if you want to experience the full spectrum of Bogart’s filmography, this list will set you off on the right track. (And if you want even more – who could blame you? – there’s an extra-credit watchlist at the end of the article.) 

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Director: Archie Mayo

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Although he doesn’t appear until almost halfway through The Petrified Forest, Bogart is wonderful as the infamous gangster who holds up the patrons at a quiet desert gas station. He carries himself with the usual menace of his villainous characters from the 1930s, and yet there’s a soulfulness to his performance that’s mirrored in the hero of the film, Leslie Howard’s starry-eyed drifter. 

This was the role that started Bogart towards the big time. He’d played alongside Howard in the stage production, but the studios wanted a bigger star (Edward G. Robinson was floated) for the movie. Howard – who had immense industry pull – insisted on Bogart, who would later name his second child after the British actor in gratitude.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon introduced the quintessential Bogart persona: a cynical detective who has seen it all and trusts no one, but holds out just a little bit of hope that there’s still some good to be found in a world he knows is rotten to the core. 

In a story – penned by pulp fiction legend Dashiell Hammett – packed to the rafters with twists and turns, Bogart’s Sam Spade is always a step ahead of those foolish enough to cross him. To watch him spar with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, both of whom would star alongside him in the following year’s Casablanca, is never less than thrilling. 

Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Casablanca (1942)

Of all the classic roles that Bogart would play, none would ever be quite as iconic as Casablanca’s Rick Blaine. Striding through his bar in that unforgettable white dinner jacket, presiding over the insalubrious cast of patrons with unquestioned authority, not quite succeeding in hiding his devastation at seeing the love (Ingrid Bergman) that betrayed him re-enter his life with her heroic husband (Paul Henreid): this is the beginning of Bogart as tragic romantic hero. Every element of Michael Curtiz’s most famous movie is worthy of the highest praise, but it’s Bogart’s performance that ties the whole thing together.

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Director: Howard Hawks

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Narratively, To Have and Have Not – the tale of a heroic citizenry fighting back against evil occupying forces – has a lot in common with Casablanca. But, as gripping as it is, you don’t come to this film for its narrative. The noteworthiest detail of the Howard Hawks feature is that it marks the first of 4 times Bogart acted opposite his soon-to-be wife, Lauren Bacall. From the moment she first appears (“Has anybody got a match?”), the chemistry between the two of them is positively combustible. When they share the screen, they can’t look at anything but each other, and we can’t look at anything but them. 

The Big Sleep (1946)

Director: Howard Hawks

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Big Sleep marks both Bogart’s second pairing with Bacall and the second instance where he’d play one of pulp fiction’s most beloved private detectives: this time, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. 

Despite a notoriously convoluted plot – when questioned by the screenwriters, Chandler was unable to tell them the identity of one of the murderers – the film features scene after scene of classic noir moments. Bogart’s obvious comfort in the role is a pleasure to witness, as is his inimitable chemistry with Bacall, who he’d marry 3 months after finishing shooting. 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Director: John Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

In the majority of Bogart’s famous characters, there’s violence lurking beneath a wry, watchful exterior. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, that exterior has worn off before we even meet him. The violence is all that’s left.

Playing a destitute American drifter in Mexico, who teams up with a couple of strangers in order to dig for gold, Bogart is as sweaty and unhinged and dangerous as we’ve ever seen him. Even in his villains, there’s usually a semblance of intelligence and forethought to his actions; here he is just pure, animal instinct. A fireworks display of paranoid fury. He’s frightening, but mesmerising. 

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Director: Nicholas Ray

In a Lonely Place (1950)

The darkest of Bogart’s many noir roles sees him as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter accused of murdering a coat-check girl. As he falls in love with the actress neighbour (Gloria Grahame) who provides him with an alibi, we see the 2 sides of his persona battle it out, Jekyll and Hyde style, inside one unpredictable man: the intelligent charmer and the dangerous brute. 

It’s easy to see both why the police could suspect him, and why Grahame could love him. By the moment we find out whether or not he actually did it, we’ve been well and truly put through the emotional wringer.

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Director: Edward Dmytryk

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Bogart was no stranger to disreputable sorts, but he never played a character quite as weaselly as Captain Queeg, who finds himself at the centre of the titular mutiny after a number of his officers (Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson and Robert Francis) tire of his tyrannical, paranoid leadership. Although Bogart is undoubtedly the villain of the piece, his portrayal of the disturbed Captain is textured enough to elicit a surprising pity. By the end of the film, he has become such a pathetic puddle of a man that hating him any more just seems cruel.

We’re No Angels (1955)

Director: Michael Curtiz

We’re No Angels (1955)

A rare lighter turn for Bogart, whose easy rapport with Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov is delightful. It’s charming to see him demonstrate a different side to his persona; he looks like he’s genuinely having fun exercising his comedic talents.

Helmed by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, but completely different in both theme and tone, We’re No Angels sees Bogart, Ray and Ustinov as escapees from Devil’s Island, who wind up at the business of Leo G. Carroll’s struggling shopkeeper intending to rob him. When Carroll and his family show them nothing but kindness, however, the soft-hearted trio decide to return the favour. 

The Harder They Fall (1956)

Director: Mark Robson

The Harder They Fall (1956)

Although Bogart’s 1957 death from throat cancer at the age of 57 was tragically premature, it’s gratifying that his final film proved such a high note. In The Harder They Fall, he plays an out-of-work sportswriter who is hired to run PR for a useless boxer, and is then suckered into a dangerous world of fixed fights and shady promoters. 

For most of the movie, it’s entirely up-in-the-air as to whether he’ll succumb to the dark side or let his innate decency prevail. Bogart made a career of portraying men with a loose grip on their moral compass, and his inner battle between good and evil was never more absorbing than in his final film. 

10 more must-see Bogarts

Dead End (1937)
Black Legion (1937)
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
High Sierra (1941)
Key Largo (1948)
The Enforcer (1951)
The African Queen (1951)
Deadline – U.S.A (1952)
Beat the Devil (1953)
The Desperate Hours (1955)

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