Bogey's Imaginative Contribution

Johannes Riis

Although a dominant model for the creation of art is the single individual with a vision, the production history of Casablanca demonstrates that considerable artistic achievement can result also from a collective enterprise.[1] Comedy and witty dialogue blends with high-strung patriotism and tragic love, a love which is complicated by feelings of guilt as well as feelings of rejection and nostalgia. If the Epstein brothers, Howard Koch and an uncredited Casey Robinson, may be credited for developing and refining these aspects of an un-produced play by Arthur Burnett and Joan Alison, then Michael Curtiz, having made his mark with The Adventures of Robin Hood, supplied the pace and the elegant look to make sure, as he put it, that we overlook certain logical flaws in the story. The producer, Hal Wallis, may be credited for bringing together the talent and casting the players, and according to the production historiographer Rudy Behlmer, Wallis also came up with the last line: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."[2]

Humphrey Bogart's contribution may easily go unrecognized due to a tradition for recognizing the director rather than the actor as auteur and a tendency for seeing a star's contribution as mere acting of personality rather than a distinct aesthetic contribution. Nevertheless, his performance brings depth and resonance to the film, elevating it from the hundreds of films with patriotic, romantic, and comic elements. I wish to explain his contribution by looking at techniques of imaginative activity which aim to bring psychological realism to the performance. By distinguishing between two methods for achieving psychological realism, I wish to explore a comparison of Humphrey Bogart to Marlon Brando and James Dean which was initially made by the foremost critic of the 1940s and 1950s, André Bazin.

Secondly, I wish to see his character, Rick Blaine, as the result of an idealization in which certain aspects of his character are underlined. By itself, a repetition of certain character traits is easily experienced as detracting from the character's realism, suggesting a mere vehicle for setting up certain plot developments. When combined with Bogart's acting style, however, the result is somewhat different. The character becomes a perfect expression of a specific kind of embittered melancholy, the one caused by feelings of rejection, and leading, in turn, to solitude and self-reliance.

Bogart's Modern Interiority
It has almost become a truism that stars make use of their own personality in their acting and that this accounts in part for their ability to convince and to appeal to the masses. In Bogart's case, it is particularly tempting to infer that he merely projected his unhappiness about a marriage, which was deteriorating, onto the character of Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman. In the early forties, Bogart's third wife, Mayo Methot, was turning mentally ill and putting him under severe pressure according to his biographer, Jeffrey Meyers.[3]

In describing his method of acting, Bogart points to observation, noting that in real life, e.g. in newsreels, people almost do not do anything in response to extreme emotional distress, and more to the point in this context, he suggests a process of personalizing the role:

You just have to believe that you are the person you're playing and what is happening is happening to you. …If I had to do a scene in which my wife was run over, I'd just try to imagine how I'd feel if I saw my wife run over.[4]

Obviously, we cannot extract a specific method from these brief observations but we can assume to some extent his blending of elements from the script with elements from his personal life, particularly in terms of its actuality. Bogart's method reveals that he employs an element of psychological realism in which he attempts to let emotions give credibility to his performance, achieved by facilitating emotional activity independently of the will. This, however, is characteristic of many a performance since naturalistic acting had its breakthrough in the 1880s. Clearly, the acting style of Humphrey Bogart differs from the kind of early naturalism, which we may find traces of in early sound film.[5] As far as we know, early naturalistic acting placed large emphasis on motivating psychologically each individual line, which in turn lead to a large number of pauses during the performance. A pause allows the actor the time to psychologically motivate the next line, thus leading to a great number of affective shifts as well. In contrast, the psychological realism which we associate with James Dean, Marlon Brando, the director Elia Kazan, and the teaching and writings of Lee Strasberg, tend to be affected by a dilemma or problem transcending individual lines.

In this perspective, André Bazin's characterization of Humphrey Bogart as an interior actor is illuminating.[6] In a 1957 Cahiers du Cinéma essay, he noted that James Dean and Marlon Brando, what he termed the Kazan school, were interior actors, externalizing "immediate impulses whose link with the inner life cannot be read directly."[7] Bogart also was an interior actor but his interiority is not anti-intellectual since it reveals "distrust and weariness, wisdom and scepticism."[8] That is, we sense a general weariness underneath the surface, and Bazin saw this as contrasting the emotional spontaneity of the Kazan school of actors.

Bazin also noted that the emergence of modern cinema, beginning with Citizen Kane, coincided with Bogart's emergence as a star. What he saw as a common ground between Citizen Kane and Bogart's acting was ambiguity, a sign that viewer freedom was proffered with respect to the represented world. In the case of Orson Welles' film, as he had demonstrated elsewhere,[9] the ambiguity arises from the use of long takes, whereas Bogart's ambiguity is derived from interiority. However, rather than pursuing the analogy to the long takes of Citizen Kane, it is far more fruitful, I believe, to explore in greater detail the similarities to method acting. This, I believe, might shed light on the techniques which are employed by Bogart and other modern actors in order to achieve psychological realism.

In moving towards a characterization of style and method, I believe that we are better off than by applying notions of personality acting. As we have seen, Bogart saw his method as one of imagining to be personally affected, by believing that he is the character and by substituting persons from private life for those of the story. One way to interpret these statements, what they mean for his performances, is to look for the functions served by imaginative activity. We may posit Bogart's use of imagination to be closer to the techniques preferred by Lee Strasberg than those preferred by Konstantin Stanislavsky and other early naturalists.

Is Bogart a Pre-Method Actor?
Naturally, imagination is an important tool for any style of acting since the very concept of acting requires an act of intentional make-believe on the actor's part. Nevertheless, the actor may try to downplay the number of elements, which he or she has to create in order to be moved by, as Bogart suggested, imagining that it is one's wife who is being run over. Rather than analyzing the character's relationship to an imagined character, the actor may add realism to the thought by imagining that it is his wife, an actual object with emotional significance, who is the victim.

When imagination is aided by elements from private life, we are very close to the techniques employed by method actors and advocated by Lee Strasberg. Method acting encourages a kind of spontaneous emotionality, which Konstantin Stanislavsky was strongly opposed to, criticizing it as being personality acting. It is evident in the way he scolds a students who gets carried away in the role as Iago by letting his emotions control the performance.[10] Stanislavsky's opposition to this kind of emotionality is based on the belief that this kind of feeling not only will ruin the composition of the play, but more importantly that it cannot be depended upon to occur over five acts and is therefore not a part of the actor's art. Lee Strasberg, on the other hand, did not share this concern. Instead he aimed at the realism which is likely to follow when involving one's own life.

The theatre historian, Sharon Marie Carnicke makes an illuminating distinction between the kinds of imagination favored by Stanislavsky and Strasberg. The difference, she argues, is between employing two distinct questions in order to initiate imagination:

Strasberg believes this question ['What would I do, if I were to find myself in the circumstances of the play?] 'limits the actor to the play (precisely what [Stanislavsky's] System means to do). He prefers a slightly altered query: 'The circumstances of the scene indicate that the character must behave in a particular way; what would motivate you, the actor, to behave in that particular way?'[11]

Moreover, the technique advocated by Lee Strasberg encourages the actor to take elements from the text and project them into his or her personal life, whereas Stanislavsky encourages the actor to put himself in the role and the circumstances as suggested by the text. [12]

One of Strasberg's reasons for personalizing the actor's imaginative activity was to ensure greater realism. In his words:

[I]t does not matter so much what the actor thinks, but the fact that he is really thinking something that is real to him at that particular moment. The make-believe thinking that may coincide with the play is not real enough.[13]

According to Strasberg, the actor needs to include concrete objects of his or her personal life, reacting to them rather than the make-believe objects of the play. In discussing the use of sense memory, he emphasized that it was not enough to attend to memories in an abstract way:

Only by formulating the sensory concreteness of these objects can the emotions be stimulated. It is not sufficient to say, "It was hot." Rather, the actor must define precisely in what area he experienced the particular heat he remembers.[14]

By deliberately invoking a sensual memory, the actor may react to this internalized object, thus securing a realistic performance by "really thinking something that is real." If successful, the emotionality of the actor impresses by its realism because actual objects have invoked them.

The less desirable side-effect of method acting has been aptly criticized by Joseph Chaikin, an avantgarde theatre director from New York. Chaikin points out that in order to inhabit the character, the method actor tries to involve himself with the character's inner dilemma. "But the character," Chaikin continues, "if he were a live person, would be doing the opposite¾that is, trying to relieve himself of his unhappiness, and trying to respond to the circumstances around him."[15] Chaikin even goes so far as to say that the "eyes of this actor are always secretly looking into his own head."

In contrast, the psychological realism of early naturalism relies on imagery derived from analysis of the text. The "inner image" which the actor, according to Konstantin Stanislavsky and his Danish contemporary, William Bloch,[16] needs to entertain in order breathe life into the performance, is of a make-believe kind rather than an actually existing object. This kind of imagination may be less intense and more detached; yet, the reason that make-believe objects, inner images, still are part of an actor's training is that it may give character and nuance to the delivery of lines. In order to inflect the individual parts of a soliloquy or a speech with different emotional nuances, it is helpful to the actor to be able to shift among the inner images in a minutely planned order.

The method of blending role and personal experiences is a valuable technique as well, although less instrumental to the actor who uses lines and verbal meaning as his or her primary means of expression. This technique, as Strasberg well understood, adds greater realism to the performance. Method acting proper, in the technique favored by Lee Strasberg, may be overdoing this blending of personal life and role since the acting practice he advocated has been accused of being ego-centered and therapeutic. However, Strasberg also advocated other training techniques such as improvisation to "stimulate a continuous flow of response and thought within the actor,"[17] in principle balancing the tendency to be "looking into one's own head."

Importantly, method acting is only one particularly striking technique of blending role and personal life. The technique of adding realism by motivating psychologically the performance in personal terms - rather than a textually derived motivation - may find other approaches and methods in modern film acting. One is suggested by Lindsay Crouse in discussing her testimony in Sidney Lumet's The Trial. She imagined that the act of giving testimony was a confession directed at personal life and allowing her to move on.[18] This may sound therapeutic but her performance does neither serve to suggest restless and unforeseeable activity, nor the introverted attending an inner dilemma, identified by Bazin and Chaikin respectively.

Bogart's performance in Casablanca, of course, is never introverted to the extent that he is attending only his inner dilemma. Yet the impression of realism in his acting, that he is in fact thinking and feeling as a person in the kind of situation which is depicted, might stem from the same kind of source as employed by method actors. Paul Henreid noted that Bogart was unhappy during the production and felt that it was embarrassing to look at the daily rushes (viewing of the previous day´s work), blaming Michael Curtiz that he was incapable of telling Bogart that "he should not play like a crybaby."[19] Nevertheless, this unhappiness may indeed indicate kind of imaginative work which we should expect from a method actor. Rather than the kind of make-believe advocated by Stanislavsky, which allows the actor put aside the emotional problems of the role at the very moment work is over, almost as if wearing a mask, Bogart just might have been insisting on the reality of the character's emotional situation.

Idealization of Character
The psychological realism of Bogart's acting style allows an unequivocal, yet somewhat contradictory characterization of Rick Blaine. In terms of the respect and love shown to him by others, Rick Blaine is presented as god-like; in terms of his actions and emotions toward others, he is almost unequivocally presented as cynical and self-centered. Only when these two character traits are established, does the romance plot begin, some thirty minutes into the film.

This exposition would be otherwise unbearable if were not for the lightness with which minor characters are presented. This is partly the result of Michael Curtiz' dynamic and modern mise-en-scène, most strikingly so in his tracking-in on characters as they approach the camera. It is partly the result of the performances of supporting actors. The humorous and enjoyable performances by Peter Lorre, playing Ugarte, and Claude Rains, as Captain Renault, are particularly impressive. Peter Lorre, whom John Huston admired for his ability to convey "a sense of Faustian worldliness" underneath "an air of innocence," has noted that Warner Brothers in those years had on contract an ensemble of actors who were able to shift the audience from laughter to seriousness.[20] Even if seriousness is never entirely absent from the performance, the task of maintaining the impression of realism is almost entirely on the shoulders of Bogart, supported mostly by Ingrid Bergman.

We must keep in mind that it is an instrumental part of Hollywood storytelling to introduce important characters by means of dialogue before we actually see them. In Rick Blaine's case, however, this expository technique is taken to its extreme. First, we see a sign in the foreground, "Rick's Café Americain," as a plane passes in the sky, then Captain Renault informs the newly arrived major Strasser that an arrest will be made of a murderer that same night at Rick's café. Strasser responds that he has already heard of the café and its owner. It is useful here to note that in a star-based cinema such as Hollywood, in which stars serve as brand names for the quality and content of the product, it is important to introduce stars in a striking manner. When we actually see Rick Blaine, some seven minutes into the film, the camera follows a bill which is then signed by a hand, "OK Rick," and only then do we see the face of Rick Blaine, placed in a grey shadow.

The following scenes, lasting some fifteen minutes, furthers the plot about the transit papers, but due to an absence of realism in the performance style, they serve essentially to paint a picture of Rick as loved and respected by everyone. As evidence of the lack of emotional realism in the plot about the transit papers, bear in mind that we are not moved by the death of Ugarte, nor repulsed by Rick's lack of emotions when he is shot. Rick Blaine's character is conveyed in the scene when he refuses to allow a powerful German banker into his casino, and by Ugarte's gentle and submissive behavior, then his disturbance when Rick seems to dislike him. He is presented to us through his interactions with his respectful, subdued and loving employees, a woman, Yvonne, unrequited in love, and Captain Renault who comments on his fighting for ideals in Spain as well as his success with women. Here the lines which serve expository goals are present in a humorous manner: "Underneath that hard, cynical shell, you're a sentimentalist at heart!" and "If I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick!" His lack of respect for authorities is underlined when he is asked about his nationality by Major Strasser ("I'm a drunkard!"), as is his cynicism and cold-heartedness when declining to help Ugarte ("I stick my neck out for nobody!").

Particularly in the first part of the film, we may speak of idealization: Bogart maintains an expression of weariness and the actions of the other characters serve to arouse our curiosity about and sympathy for the man behind the harsh exterior. Were it not for the realism in Bogart's acting, we would have experienced this characterization of Rick Blaine as overdone. Idealized characterization is enabled by the fact that the spectator processes meaning at various levels, to a certain extent independently of each other.[21] Rather than by simple comparison to reality, checking for possible matches or discrepancies, we recognize and become affected by the meaning of individual parts of the whole. Take, as an example, the type of representation for a witch that can be seen in an illustrated book for children. The impression that we are looking at the essence of what is fear provoking and dangerous, may have been deduced immediately through certain visually emphasized traits, with very little reliance on narrative context. For example, a set of large eyes suggests a scary capacity for surveillance and when they are represented as black, we get the impression of an empty hole, a creature marked by a fundamental "otherness" rather than a human being with a natural capacity for empathy. Indeed, this processing of meaning at various levels may lie at the heart of visual metaphors, probably explained most adequately by the concept of blending.[22]

Although the analogy of the witches of children's books to Rick Blaine may seem forced, the principal difference pertains only to the time for the description. The witch may convey a powerful and distinct image of evil and otherness immediately whereas the exposition distributed over thirty minutes in Casablanca serves the same function. This allows Bogart to play him realistically at any given moment, without having to overplay or exaggerate "mysteriousness" or "cynicism." We become curious and interested instead, as a result of other characters' love and respect in response to his arrogant and self-centered manners.

Realism and Idealism as a Matter of Degrees
The reason why Rick Blaine becomes an emblem of embittered lovesickness is that he contains the essence of feelings of rejection by a loved one. This is the result of a striking level of idealization in which certain character traits are underlined in an unequivocal manner. The cynical and disappointed Rick Blaine is conveyed through his actions, the sympathetic Rick Blaine is presented to us through the reactions of others.

In order for this theory of idealized characterization to be conceptually sound, we need to abort the premise that a comparison to reality is the primary operation we perform in experiencing a film. The contrast between Rick's self-reliant and self-centered attitudes and the love and respect shown to him by others is anything but realistic. In real life, irritation is likely to be the result of his arrogant manners, but in film viewing we do not necessarily expect these reactions from other characters. Bogart's realistic performance of Rick's cynicism and unhappiness, and the caring and respectful attitudes towards Rick cue us to discover these aspects of his character. Note also that we never really suspect any betrayal on Ilsa Lund's part, and that this is the result of an open and sensitive performance by Ingrid Bergman (this is perhaps more evident if one imagines Lauren Bacall in the role). Moreover, we become cognitively and emotionally affected by the various degrees of idealization and realism in the film. The film becomes an almost perfect representation of how circumstances may block a romantic relationship; yet there is no weakening of unconditional love.

This may sound naïve and pre-modern, but it is not experienced as such. I suspect that the reason is to be found in large part in the ambiguity of Rick's response when they depart in the final scene. Due to his previous hostility - recall that he refuses to listen to Ilsa's point of view on her first visit - as well as a lack of signs that he is saddened by her departure, we are left with the impression that Rick may finally be relieved. Yet in the light of his previous self-reliance and a narcissistic flight in work and discipline, it is not entirely convincing that he will let himself become strongly attached to Captain Renault. Yet the final line, suggesting the initiation of a beautiful relationship, conveys neither irony nor sarcasm.

The exit of Rick and Renault, due in large part to the visual style of the scene and Max Steiner's score, signals to the spectator that the story ends here by removing its realism. However, this signal is not so strong as to "destroy" the illusion, thereby forcing us to interpret the status of what is presented in a different manner than hitherto. Instead, it is a question of degrees: the realism of Rick's character is downscaled in order to allow for a different spectator experience. In comedy, a downscaling of realism allows us laugh at the pain and humiliation "experienced" or, more precisely, pretended to be experienced by the performers. In Casablanca, this downscaling of psychological realism prepares us for the ending of the film. The weight of the character's problems is removed from the spectator's mind because Bogart does not convey any sadness at this point. The aesthetic result of a hurried and ambiguous ending is that we may leave the tragedy in an uplifted mood and with a sense of closure.

In Conclusion
Rather than opting for a model in which screen persona and private self are seen as well-defined and discrete, we are better off by recalling Strasberg's emphasis on being concrete when employing objects from memory. There are perhaps no good grounds for assuming that personality exists as a unit, at an holistic level; a resource which the actor may then bring into his or her performance at will. What the actor may bring into his performance are specific objects. In Casablanca, Bogart may have brought into his role his marital problems with Mayo Methot. In his film noir roles he may have been able to bring in his disillusionment with Hollywood; certainly cues were never far away.[23] Moreover, it is difficult to see how an abstract entity such as personality may be brought into the imaginative work in order to effect the performance. It is likely that concrete objects may perform a creative function. This also allows for what would otherwise look like contradictions under the premise of one coherent personality: Bogart may have been a tough guy at work but the impression, which emerges from Meyer's biographical descriptions of his marriages, is of a husband largely dominated by women at home.

Humphrey Bogart contributes to Casablanca with the psychological realism, or interiority, which he was able to convey. We may hypothesize that he achieved this aesthetic result by a very modern technique of acting in which he involved his personal life. The kind of organic creation which an actor may use in his or her performance, is not dissimilar to the creative work of other kinds of artists. A distinction between artistic creation and skillful production of an object may be highly suspect, but at least it grasps an intuition that the former is more demanding in terms of imagination-skills. The kind of imagination-work required of a writer, director, or actor is distinct from that required by, say the producer and host of a TV game show, in part because the former, we may speculate, puts to imaginative work one's understanding of human psychology as well as personal experiences.

If we take the concept of auteur to refer to those aesthetic properties, which are particularly valuable and highly critical in the work's overall design, we may also be able to acknowledge an actor's contribution to a collective enterprise. Rather than taking the notion of a controlling will or intelligence from an individual art form such as literature, we may look for what is most valuable in a work. In the case of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart makes a highly valuable contribution by his imaginative work. Psychological realism is instrumental in modern film acting and idealized characterization is pivotal in classical Hollywood storytelling. At first glance, the two may seem incompatible but when they are successfully fused, as Casablanca demonstrates, the result is a very satisfying work of art.

to the top of the page

1 I am drawing here mainly on Rudy Behlmer, Casablanca (n.p.: MGM/UA & Turner, 1992). Using archived memos and interviews, Behler has described the production practices in more detail in Rudy Behlmer, Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (New York, NY: Viking, 1985).

2 Behlmer, Casablanca.

3 Jeffrey Meyers, Bogart: A Life in Hollywood (New York: Fromm International, 1999).

4 Quoted in Ibid., 64.

5 See Johannes Riis, "Vocal Style in Early Sound Film Acting: Naturalist and Classicist Principles in Georg Scneevoigt's Kirke Og Orgel," in L'uomo Visibile/the Visible Man, ed. Francesco Pitassio, et al., Convegno Internazionale Di Studi Sul Cinema (Universitá degli studi di Udine: Forum, Udine (2002), 2001).

6 André Bazin, "The Death of Humphrey Bogart," in Cahiers Du Cinéma: The 1950s, ed. Jim Hillier (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985).

7 Ibid., 100.

8 Ibid.

9 André Bazin, "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema," in What Is Cinema (Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1967).

10 Konstantin Stanislavskij, En Skuespillers Arbejde Med Sig Selv, trans. Ellen Rovsing and Egill Rostrup (København: Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck, 1988) 32. [An Actor Prepares, ch.2]

11 Sharon M. Carnicke, "Lee Strasberg's Paradox of the Actor," in Screen Acting, ed. Alan Lovell and Peter Krämer (New York: Routledge, 1999), 81.

12 Ibid, 81, my emphasis.

13 Lee Strasberg, "A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method," in Star Texts: Image and Performance in Film and Television, ed. Jeremy Butler (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 46.

14 Ibid., 49f.

15 Quoted in Svend Christiansen, Den Scenografiske Skuespiller (København: Multivers, 1999) 102.

16 In Riis, "Vocal Style in Early Sound Film Acting: Naturalist and Classicist Principles in Georg Scneevoigt's Kirke Og Orgel," I argue that an essay by the first naturalist, the Danish William Bloch who was first to stage Henrik Ibsen's plays in a naturalist style, provides a much better source to the beliefs underlying early naturalism than the more broad-minded Stanislavsky.

17 Strasberg, "A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method," 45.

18 In an interview, Carole Zucker, Figures of Light: Actors and Directors Illuminate the Art of Film Acting (New York: Plenum Press, 1995).

19 Meyers, Bogart: A Life in Hollywood, 140.

20 Quoted in Ibid., 125.

21 I use a point here made by Torben Grodal (personal communication, 2002) who also has suggested the witch example, referred to in text.

22 See Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (New York: Basic Books, 2002), Mark Turner, The Literary Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

23 Meyers notes that Bogart's essay, Humphrey Bogart, "Why Hollywood Hates Me," Screen Book, no. 22 (1940), is concerned with why he hates Hollywood; a discontent which were growing during the late 1930s due, in part, to bad casting decisions, which lead him to refuse the roles he was offered. Jack Warner responded by suspending him from the pay roll.

to the top of the page