The Late Show: The Last Films Blogathon
David Cairns over at his outstanding site Shadowplay is inviting posters on the topic of final (or nearly so) efforts by film luminaries. By all means, go there for links to fine reading and be sure to visit Shadowplay often.
There were few rounds left for Humphrey Bogart when he did The Left Hand Of God. It's regarded less fondly by admirers, what with HB in priest garb pretty much throughout, a calling not heretofore associated with a mostly man of action. LHOG looked particularly bad on television too, its Cinemascope panned/scanned with drabbing color. I was intrigued at fourteen by opener shots of apparent Father Bogie pistol-armed, this a beguiling departure from HB norm. The Left Hand Of God was not written for its star. Kirk Douglas had been announced several years earlier, then Gregory Peck mere months before Bogart suited up for what trades said was ten percent of gross. Originating as a novel serialized in Redbook, The Left Hand Of God seemed a property any square-jawed lead men would prosper in ... so why not Peck or Douglas? ... or even Jeff Chandler? ... but not an actor of Bogart's stature, from whom everyone expected finer things. Fox bought the dog-eared package, in development since 1951, with maybe an idea hit-maker Peck could deliver again. Bogart surely recognized cigarette burns on the script to give notice he was down a list of choices. This had been the case a year previous with Sabrina done in wake of Cary Grant's turn-down, a slap but barely assuaged by first billing and attendant payday. How could anyone have honestly told Bogart he was ideal for these parts when so obviously he'd been a last resort? The Left Hand Of God was miscarried by Howard Hawks, with William Faulkner writing, a dream team Bogart once played on. Now there might have been a Left Hand Of God we'd remember, had HB been invited, but he and Hawks were on more-or-less outs since The Big Sleep, and neither looked to reuniting (sad how picayune conflicts robbed us of so many collabs that might have been ... or continued being). Would Hawks have made irreverent sport of The Left Hand Of God? Maybe knowing a Production Code and watch-dogging Catholics wouldn't permit such levity caused him to back off altogether. Posterity (and all of us) are poorer for it.
1955 was late for Bogie to wander too far off-character, so there are spasms of fisticuffing, for trailers and ad art if not dramatic purpose. The Left Hand Of God has not so far been released by Fox DVD (will it ever?), but Spain offers a rendition worthy of this must-have for HB completists. All they'll need know is this: He's in Cinemascope for a first/only time, and onscreen for near all of 87 minutes, though I like The Left Hand Of God for reasons beyond these, prominent being Victor Young's lovely score, plus directional stereo, justification aplenty to buy. A limited edition soundtrack was issued through Screen Archives and has liner notes with unseen (by me) color stills from transparencies apparently not carted off by Fox employees over the years. I mention the CD by way of strongly recommending same (it's on as background now, in fact).
Bogart health issues play into all of what he did from '54 on, tinting our impression of The Left Hand Of God and ones before and aft. I was relieved watching that he didn't have to go far to locations (all within H'wood driving distance). LHOG is class Hollywood meditation upon moral issues lightly aired before a wrap-up pre-determined by years of repeated application. It's a one (and only?) Bogart I know to tackle religious themes, a genial switch as he's good here at conscience stricken and puts over what Douglas or Peck might have left limp. Ever see Bogie at a piano leading a kid's group sing? He does in The Left Hand Of God, and in fairly pleasing voice (suppose HB ever sang around the house?). See enough of his minor work and you appreciate less expected things Bogart does in such shows off beaten path. He approaches wizened for love scenes with Gene Tierney, awkwardness of a clinch averted courtesy the priest wrinkle. Tierney was just this side of breakdown, Bogart alone seeing signs early (a sister similarly afflicted), so was solicitous beyond patience accorded actresses not pulling weight on his 50's pics (Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner among these). Gene Tierney remembered and wrote glowingly of HB in a memoir years later, impressive evidence that needling Bogart wouldn't pick on the truly helpless. For his part, this star habitually nervous when jobs weren't backed up and waiting was now barely getting through ones that came through. Left Hand director Edward Dmytryk told of awkward waits for Bogart to finish coughing lungs out before light-up of a Chesterfield to usher in the next jag.
There were also back problems, these dating at least to days on 1943's Sahara that sidelined Bogart. Was it the money that kept him humping? Two children and a wife required support, enough to propel HB onto back of a mule for LHOG (a physical ordeal, said Dmytryk), but this actor was competitive and preferred staying in harness so long as a public paid. Lauren Bacall remembered fees as not extraordinary, Bogart bitching over what the Coopers and Grants earned as opposed to himself, indication that maybe they were in it more for cash than he (producers likely knew same, thus advantage theirs). HB loved his craft, increasingly so with mastery of it --- you wonder if he'd have acted for free. Bogart living longer is a thing to ponder. Instead of becoming a 60's cult figure, imagine him working through that decade. There are LHOG flashbacks where HB's bearded out in soldier-of-fortune leather and, holy smokes, looks Gabby Hayes-old. A judo chop rendered on a kid half his age gets by only because it's Bogie and we've seen him toss heavies countlessly before, right down to the upper lip snarl for a blow-off. Now with action's quotient reduced, it's fun watching Bogart relax and verbal- engage fellow players, however workmanlike dialogue is. Like so many great stars near a finish, he's summing up decades of professionalism and craft. To deny oneself such vintage wine is to miss much of what was best in this player. Servings of The Left Hand Of God and others of curtain descending were what I experienced first of HB, and so remain sentimental favorites despite admittedly stronger WB's seen later at less impressionable age.