Guilty Pleasures: Jeff Cohen


This 1980 far-from-a-classic is also known in some circles as Sam Marlow, Private Eye, which is the title of the novel upon which it is based. Exactly as the (original) title suggests, the story surrounds a man (Robert Sacchi) who has plastic surgery to make himself look like Humphrey Bogart, then sets himself up as a private detective in Los Angeles. It’s clear from the film’s voice-over narration, provided by Sacchi in his best Bogie, which is pretty good, that the character is meant to have a true obsession with 30s and 40s films and has idealized Bogart into the characters he played on screen after his gangster beginnings.

In particular, our friend who calls himself “Sam Marlow” after Bogart roles in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, is determined to fight crime Bogart-style. Luckily for him, the world of the movie provides exactly what he’s looking for, which is a thin retelling of The Maltese Falcon in which eccentric–to say the least–characters include a fat man (Victor Buono), an effeminate underling (Herbert Lom) and a femme fatale (Michelle Phillips?) along with cameos from some Bogart-era types like George Raft, Mike Mazurki and of all people, Yvonne de Carlo, who appears to be in the film simply because she was nearby, since she is given exactly nothing to do.

This is, I’ll admit, the guiltiest of pleasures. I’m not arguing that it’s a good film–nobody with working eyes and ears would–but it has its heart in the right place and it has some fun with its outrageous premise. At one point a characters asks Sam if he’s the guy from the old movies on TV and is told no, that was somebody else. “He looks like you,” the character tells Sam. “No. I look like him,” he’s told. Some elements of the movie are downright embarrassing (the theme song especially, which exhorts the viewer to “See the Man With Bogart’s Face/Take your problems to his place,” can make a self-respecting viewer check the listings to see what Turner Classic Movies is showing right now), but it is not a completely offhand parody–it has ideas and it is sincere in its intentions.

Among the many problems here is that the script can’t decide if it’s telling a detective story or parodying a detective story. It’s a noble attempt, whichever it is. Sacchi, although he’ll never win any acting awards, does a very serviceable Bogart, and the resemblance is quite remarkable, especially once the character is in the trench coat and fedora he thinks is a detective uniform. There are suggestions that something dark in his past has pushed him to adopt the Bogie persona, which is a nice touch, but never pressed too hard and never revealed. Maybe they were waiting for–har, har–the sequel, which never came.

The Man With Bogart’s Face is not exactly a classic of the genre. Its writing, acting and direction are not exactly top-shelf. But it has an indescribable, un-pin-downable charm that has to be seen to be understood. Our hero prevails–that’s not at all a spoiler–through living by his own code and taking life on his own terms. There’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s a hell of a lot better than The Black Bird, a Falcon spoof that starts George Segal as Sam Spade’s son. Believe me.

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is the author of the Double Feature Mystery series and, under the name E.J. Copperman, the Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series, most recently with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED, and in April 2011, AN UNINVITED GHOST. He is also a screenwriter and freelance reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Writer’s Digest, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and USA Weekend, among many others. If you don’t laugh while reading his books, there’s either something wrong with you, or with the books.  You can learn more about his books and life at his website.