Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart
by Stefan Kanfer, Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pages
Stefan Kanfer doesn’t buy Norma Desmond’s notion that the stars stayed big over time. In reference to the “It’s the pictures that got small” line from Billy Wilder’s 1950
classic Sunset Boulevard, Kanfer counters that the pictures are in fact getting bigger and the stars smaller. “Modern leading men are well trained, skilled in their craft, buff, manipulated by the powerhouse publicists. What they don’t have is singularity,” he writes in his introduction to his excellent Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary
Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart. “Impersonators don’t ‘do’ Tobey Maguire or Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale et al. because these actors don’t have imitable voices or faces.”
I agree with Kanfer, and I’ll make you a bet: in 20 or 30 years, few people will remember Maguire, Pitt, DiCaprio, or Bale — but they won’t have forgotten Bogie. After all, he played that guy who claimed he wasn’t any good at being noble when it came to love and fighting the Nazis in Casablanca — and, of course, he did nothing but act noble in both love and war. Kanfer accurately notes that Casablanca remains a Bogart movie because “he was the one who furnished the work with a moral center.” The picture made Bogart a star, and it’s probably his most famous work. No wonder. What other actor could take such a trite line of dialogue — “Here’s looking at you, kid” — and make it sound like a love poem?
But before he became a star in the early 1940s, Bogie had to survive a lot of rough years, personally and professionally. Insubordinate from birth, he began rebelling while attending private school (he didn’t last there long), he failed at directing and screenwriting (and he was writing silent films!), and according to one potential girlfriend, he ate onions and didn’t write poetry — two serious drawbacks, in her view. He lost his beloved father and sister and grew increasingly distant from his cold mother. He married often, and badly, before he happily settled in for the long run with his To Have
and Have Not co-star, Lauren Bacall (she was 19; he was 44). And to survive in the theater, he worked mainly as a stage manager before stumbling into small roles as an actor. He hit Hollywood in 1930, and slipped, slugged, and shot his way through nearly 40 films before his double-headed breakthrough in 1941 — High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon.
Kanfer’s book is part biography, part film criticism, part social history, and a fantastic read for any Bogart fan. Well aware that he has little new to add to Bogart’s biography at this point, Kanfer draws in the reader with economical analysis and zippy writing. Bogart, playing private detective Sam Spade, is described as being “as incorrodible as a zinc bar,” and Across the Pacific, a middling Bogart war drama from 1942, is given appropriately irreverent treatment. “The actors seemed on the edge of mal de mer all through the filming,” Kanfer writes.
Kanfer focuses on placing Bogart’s career against the backdrop of American history, from the actor’s birth in 1899 to his death in early 1957. During the Roaring ’ 20s, Bogart adhered to his own commandments (one of which must have read, “Thou shall not avoid liquor, tobacco, or dames.”) while working in theater. In the Depression-era ’30s, he survived in Hollywood by playing well-dressed heels who ended up dead at the hands of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft. Come the war-torn ’40s, he was the surprisingly romantic rebel, still questioning authority while tackling seriously risky roles (the murderous, paranoid Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra
Madre comes to mind.) And in the Cold War ’50s, he skated dangerously close to thin ice by supporting liberal causes and became one of the founders of the famed Rat Pack. Yes, he was the type to ring-a-dig-ding with the likes of Frank Sinatra. Bogie always found a way to ride the wave of popular culture.
Kanfer likes and admires his subject — you might go so far as to say he’s in love with him — and he wants the reader to feel the same way. He leaves us with the theory that Bogart’s death wasn’t the final curtain for the actor. “It was the end of the beginning,” he writes, going on for another 25 pages to explain why Bogie is one screen icon who is still experiencing an afterlife.