Bogart in Hell

I will pray to an avenging God and an unmerciful devil to tear my heart out, and roast it over the flames of sulfur. And lastly, may my soul be given into torment, that my body be submerged into molten metal, and stifled in the flames of hell. And that this punishment may be meted out to me through all eternity. In the name of God, our creator, amen.

This concludes Humphrey Bogart’s oath to join the Klan-like title society in Black Legion (1937). The film itself is typical of Warner Brothers’ working-class stories, told with the narrative rhythms of a “Crime Doesn’t Pay” short expanded to feature-length. But it’s also unusually intense: what other movie has its star promise to consign his soul to hell if he fails to uphold a white supremacist agenda? It’s suffused with a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, a Samuel Fuller-ish bluntness, that really makes it stick in my head. And wow, the intensity of that oath!

Bogart plays Frank Taylor, the schmucky, sour-faced patriarch of a Middle American family. The pressures of being a Depression-era breadwinner, it seems, have burdened Frank with free-floating resentment. But when he gets passed over for a promotion in favor a better-qualified coworker (of Polish extraction!), the resentment quickly finds a target: those fucking immigrants. Deep down, Frank’s a good guy; we know this because he has a sweet, loving wife and son. But his economic shackles, with the aid of some inflammatory rhetoric, harden his heart. He joins up to “protect his home and family”—i.e., become a race-obsessed domestic terrorist.

That’s where the oath comes in. Bogart gets dragged, like a humble frat house pledge, into a desolate field. By the light of a bonfire, surrounded by dozens of his robed comrades, he recites a rambling, pseudo-religious script: “In the name of God and the devil, one to reward and the other to punish, and by the powers of light and darkness, good and evil…” Yes, he wants to be a member, but he’s still intimidated by all this nocturnal pomp and circumstance; as the only one whose face is visible, he’s still technically an outsider. (The superfluous gun pointed at his head sure doesn’t help.)

The oath itself is pompous and grammatically messy, full of redundant flourishes like the refrain of “my heart, my brain, my body, and my limbs…” Bogart plows through its ten-dollar words with his proletarian New York accent, stumbling over “extermination” and “hierarchy” but carrying tremulously on. It takes two straight minutes to read. At the end he’s tense, exhausted, and beyond the spiritual threshold. He’s signed his soul over to racist hatred. No one can save him now.

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