As part of my research for my next book, I watched the great classic The Maltese Falcon for the first time in my life. The classic film noire starring Humphrey Bogart, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, is about hardboiled detective Sam Spade (Bogart) who get tangled up in a web of lies and secrets as he searches for the person who killed his partner and what the murder has to do with a legendary jewelled artifact.
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As I watched, I started thinking about the proliferation of movie remakes and how Bogart is one of those rare actors who cannot be replaced or emulated. I spent an unworthy amount of brain space recasting The Maltese Falcon with contemporaries, but Bogart had no equal. Writes Tom Shone in Slate: “Bogart is one of the few Hollywood actors recognizable entirely in silhouette—the true mark of an icon.” It’s true: few actors have achieved his status—being on the A-list doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Bogart embodies. Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, and Leonardo DiCaprio are all accomplished A-list actors who’ve played a wide range of roles over several decades, but I think you’d agree they don’t quite measure up.
Think of it this way: If I tried to suggest a remake of Casablanca with someone like George Clooney in the roll of Rick, I’d probably be run out of town. No offense to Mr. Clooney.
So what makes a character or an actor irreplaceable? The answer to the question is as elusive as that “star quality” directors, producers and agents look for in talent—that particular je ne sais quoi that even scientists have tried to measure and qualify. One might argue Bogart has the advantage of time and timing on his side—after all, he was making movies like Sabrina and The Big Sleep back in the golden age of the silver screen, during one of the world’s most transformative eras in world history. He and his contemporaries have had a lifetime or more to marinate in popular culture history, waxing from classic to cliché and mellowing to nostalgic.
This all got me thinking about the heroes we read about in romance. With so many powerful CEOs, tycoons, sheikhs, princes, athletes, working heroes and single dads inhabiting the world of romance novels, how do writers make their characters memorable? How is Rhett Butler more memorable than any other rogue in romance fiction? Did Clark Gable’s performance in the film solidify his character? Or is it simply that Gone with the Wind is a seminal a piece of work in the romance genre and Rhett Butler is the ultimate bad boy?
Another example of a memorable hero is Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy. He’s been portrayed by numerous actors on stage and screen over the years, yet Colin Firth’s portrayal in the BBC version is one of the most enduring. He was so iconic in this role that Firth even played a version of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 film adaptation of Bridget Jones’ Diary, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, made six years after the BBC version of the Jane Austen tale. Talk about typecasting!
Is it something about a particular actor in a particular role that crystalizes a literary figure or fictional character in the collective consciousness? Do movie adaptations ruin or strengthen the inimitability of particular actors or characters?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. Bona fide Bogart scholars have written tomes about the enduring figure that is Humphrey Bogart. I like to think part of the appeal of such characters and actors is their mystique—that we can’t qualify or quantify their appeal. Sometimes thinking about it too hard takes some of the shine off them.
The one thing I do know for certain: they should never, ever remake Casablanca.
Here’s looking at you, Bogie.