Humphrey Bogart’s 10 Best Roles Of All Time

By Maureen Lee Lenker, Classic Film Correspondent

Bogie. One of the most memorable faces in the history of cinema, with a vocal growl to match, Humphrey Bogart made an indelible imprint on the silver screen. Born into a moneyed family and a product of private school, Bogart nonetheless made his biggest impact on screen playing rough-and-tumble men of the street. A contract player at Warner Bros., known for gangster films and masterpieces of the film noir style, Bogart excelled at playing the tough guy, while still remaining relatable. He labored as a supporting player at Warner Bros. throughout the late 1930s, but broke on to the scene in 1941 and ’42 with a string of distinct leading roles in the films High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casablanca (1942).

Appearing in over seventy-five feature films, he played a variety of roles with range and nuance despite history remembering him as a trench-coated man with a gun. Here at Night Owl TV, we love Bogart both for his most memorable roles and those that have slipped under the radar, but all of them feature equally as surprising and diverse performances.

10. Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory is Bette Davis’ picture, but Bogart has a delightful turn as her horse trainer Michael O’Leary. Like nearly all the men in the film, Michael falls in love with Davis’ spirited Judith Traherne. This film was made just before Bogart calcified his onscreen persona, and it lacks the cynicism and hard edge of many of the performances that made him famous. Here, with a light Irish lilt, Bogie is all bemusement and caring. It’s a real departure for him, and it’s lovely in its unusualness. Seeing Bogie as a man in love without the upper hand in his relationships is a delight – you can imagine that perhaps this is how he was with Lauren Bacall off-screen – caring and unsure of himself. It’s a favorite because it’s so outside of his comfort zone, from the Irish accent to its more blatant tender-heartedness.

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9. Sabrina (1954)

Reluctant about the role from the beginning, Bogart had a poor experience making this film, calling director Billy Wilder “overbearing” and irritated by the continual last minute draft updates to the script. Despite that, Bogart delivers a deft and touching performance as conservative older brother Linus Larrabee to William Holden’s playboy David in the battle for Audrey Hepburn’s chauffeur’s daughter turned Cinderella. His maturity as the strait-laced Linus who fears that love has once again passed him by for his younger, more fun-loving brother is deft and heart-rending. At the time, the New York Times celebrated his turn in the role, calling Bogart, “incredibly adroit ... the skill with which this old rock-ribbed actor blends the gags and such duplicitous with a manly manner of melting is one of the incalculable joys of the show.” Bogart gets a rare opportunity here to put his talents to use in comic opera, and he handles it with all the lightness and nuance necessary.

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8. Dark Passage (1947)

The third of Bogart and Bacall’s four pictures together, Dark Passage was notable for its rather avant-garde opening third, in which the entire film is seen from the point-of-view of Bogart’s character. After undergoing face-altering plastic surgery to conceal his identity, Bogart is finally seen onscreen with the camera returning to omniscient observer for the remainder of the film. Despite the fact that you don’t see Bogart’s face until 62 minutes into the film (beyond the POV-camerawork, he’s often obscured by bandages or shadows), he manages to give a chilling and memorable performance. As the wrongfully accused Vincent Parry, Bogart paints a portrait of a man on the edge, desperate to clear his name. Its perhaps the least romantic of his and Bacall’s pairings, but he shows a glimmer of the true levels of darkness and danger he was capable of bringing to the screen. 

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7. The Big Sleep (1946)

Bogart brought not one, but two, indelible hard-boiled detectives to life – here, he brings Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe to the screen. The detective was the subject of numerous Chandler short stories and novellas, and has been portrayed by everyone from Dick Powell to Robert Mitchum to Elliott Gould, but Bogart arguably delivers the most memorable interpretation opposite Lauren Bacall here. The dialogue crackles and Bogart is at some of his wise-cracking best as he works to match wits with Bacall’s insolent Vivian Rutledge – highlights include an innuendo laced conversation about horse-racing. Novelist Chandler loved Bogart in the role, saying, “Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also, he has a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt.” The film suffers a bit under its red herrings and loose ends (including a murder Chandler himself couldn’t solve), but Bogart delights as Marlowe, whether he’s wooing a femme fatale, feigning ignorance as bespectacled book collector, or staring down the barrel of a gun.

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6. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

As the treasure-hunting Dobbs who loses his humanity in the peaks of the Sierra Madre, Bogart achieved the pinnacle of his explorations of raw masculinity with director John Huston. The film was a risky venture for the time – with no love interest or happy ending, but it stands as a masterpiece today with its insightful meditation on the all-corrupting power of greed. Bogart mesmerizes with his take on a man who loses his soul in his hunt for gold. Though Walter Huston received most of the acting accolades for the picture, its Bogart who anchors it from start to finish as a desperate man unraveling before our eyes. With no love interest to play opposite and long stretches onscreen alone, Bogart turned in a tour de force of acting working with his favorite director on location in Mexico.

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5. To Have and Have Not (1944)

The movie that first paired the immortal on and off-screen duo of Bogart and Bacall, To Have and Have Not, loosely adapted from an Ernest Hemingway story,shares many similarities with Casablanca with its world-weary hero and plot line involving providing a resistance fighter safe passage from the Nazis. Bogart plays Harry Morgan, a sailor with a boat and crew for hire, who falls for Lauren Bacall’s “Slim.” The couple loved Bogie’s character, nicknamed Steve, so much that they named their own son Steven. Though Bogart’s playing a variation on one of his most popular characters here, he is so obviously delighted and charmed by Bacall throughout that their chemistry elevates his performance to one of his greatest.

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4. The African Queen (1951)

As Charlie Allnut, the cantankerous riverboat captain who sails Katharine Hepburn’s missionary up an African river in World War II, Bogart achieved a lot of firsts. It was his first (and one of his only) appearance in a Technicolor picture. But more importantly, it was the only film for which he won an Oscar (for Best Actor) and his own personal favorite of his performances. Shooting on location in Africa, the film had a storied production history, complete with Lauren Bacall in tow as nursemaid to the dysentery-plagued cast and crew. Hepburn had pushed for Bogart in the role, and he delivered the goods as a rough-and-tumble working class sailor in contrast to her straitlaced missionary. Bogart was a notorious hard drinker, and this film is one of the few to showcase his (and director John Huston’s) predilection for spirits, but it’s really worth the watch to see him chew scenery opposite the grand dame of classic cinema, Katharine Hepburn.

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3. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

By the time Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 pulp novel came to the screen with Bogart, it had already been adapted for the big screen twice. Bogart, taking on a role that George Raft had passed on, broke out as a box office star as the mercenary private investigator Sam Spade. Spade, an invention of Dashiell Hammett, became the exemplary private detective, modeled on Hammett’s own experiences as a Pinkerton detective. Though he bore no resemblance to the literary Spade, Bogart gave him immortal life with his portrayal of Spade as a detective who knows all the tricks of the trade, but ultimately stands by his moral code. At one moment tender with Mary Astor’s Bridget O’Shaughnessy, the next a fierce defender of his personal moral compass, Bogart codified the onscreen detective with a performance that still resonates today. He also loved the film, saying, “it is practically a masterpiece. I don't have many things I'm proud of ... but that's one.”

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2. Casablanca (1942)

With Rick Blaine, Bogart took on his first romantic lead and ensured himself an enduring place in the legacy of Hollywood movie making. Ironically, the role was another George Raft had passed on before the studio replaced him with Bogart. Bogart’s iconic line, “Here’s Looking at You Kid,” number 5 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Lines, was actually an improvisation on his part – and bears evidence of being a common phrase prior to the film.  Having never been called on to play a role of this nature, Bogart was profoundly uncomfortable filming the romantic scenes, but his reticence inadvertently resulted in one of the most luscious romances ever put to film. In drawing on much of the groundwork he’d laid as Sam Spade, but with a softer, more romantic underbelly, Bogart cemented his star persona with this film – the world-weary cynic who claims he stick his neck out for nobody, but always ends up doing the right thing. In essence, a misanthrope with a secret bleeding heart – Bogart’s ability to deliver emotion and compelling narratives without ever once veering into sentimentality or maudlin soppiness made him a star. Nowhere is this on better display than in Casablanca – a little film full of Warner Bros. contract player that became an unexpected classic.

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1. In a Lonely Place (1950)

One of Bogart’s lesser known pictures, but a favorite of lovers of film noir, In a Lonely Place features one of Bogart’s most unique and chilling performances. As Dixon Steele, a screenwriter with a history of anger issues and violent outbursts who is suspected of murder, Bogart plays one of his most morally ambiguous roles. Along with his neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), we doubt and question his innocence. Bogart produced the film under the auspices of his own Santana Productions, and actress/biographer Louise Brooks said of the role: “it gave him a role that he could play with complexity, because the film character's pride in his art, his selfishness, drunkenness, lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence were shared by the real Bogart.” As a complex picture of a misunderstood man on the edge, Bogart gave his most nuanced performance, but also his most real. Though he’s known best as Rick Blaine and his string of private detective roles, In a Lonely Place is Bogart’s best (and most overlooked) work.

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Love Bogart as much as we do? Tune in LIVE to Chillin' with Larry Magen this Thursday, December 1st at 11pm EST to talk about Casablanca with me!


Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent, Chillin' with Larry Magen

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.

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