Tough With­out a Gun: The Life and Ex­tra­or­di­nary Af­ter­life of Humphrey Bog­art

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Robert Nott

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.

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