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

Bogart didn't put up with phoniness, and that quality is key to the enduring respect for him.

Humphrey Bogart
No other star of Hollywood's golden age continues to hold audiences in quite the way that Humphrey Bogart does.

The American Film Institute voted him the greatest male star of all time, and his influence as cultural icon and representative of a certain distinctively American masculinity and noir cool is greater now than ever, half a century after his death. He has not lacked for able biographers — there appear to be about 40, including the definitive 1997 volume by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax — or mentions in other cinematic artists' memoirs. Many of his signature films are themselves the subject of individual histories.

Critic and cultural historian Stefan Kanfer's contribution to this weighty shelf is "Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart." As the subtitle suggests, the author's focus is — at least in part — on the reasons for Bogart's enduring appeal.

The book's title comes from a letter Raymond Chandler wrote to his English publisher, expressing delight over the casting of Bogart to play Philip Marlowe in an adaptation of "The Big Sleep": "Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also he has a sense of humor that contains the grating undertone of contempt. [Alan] Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy's idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article."

Kanfer, whose previous work includes well-received biographies of Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball and Marlon Brando, does a nice, brisk job of tracing the roots of that authentic tough-guy persona, along with the unsentimental decency that characterized the star's personal life and won him so many fast friends in a town and a business where they're few on the ground.

Though he was born in 1899 the child of privilege — his father was a socially prominent physician and Yale grad, his mother the leading illustrator of her generation — his childhood was a study in dysfunctionality: Father was a morphine addict who ultimately blew through the family fortune; mother was distant, cold and withholding of approval. Humphrey was tossed out of Phillips Academy, Andover, his father's prep school, failed as a navy seaman in World War I and ultimately drifted onto the New York stage, where he gradually mastered his craft, finally making a success with "The Petrified Forest" and making the jump to Hollywood.

There, he served a similarly long apprenticeship, and Kanfer is particularly good in sketching its lasting influence. He also does a terrific job of refreshing the by-now-familiar stories of the films that made Bogart into a star — "The Maltese Falcon" and "Casablanca." The former, of course, also was John Huston's directorial debut, and Kanfer's description of the collaboration on that picture raises the interesting question of whether the enduring character we've come to identify as Bogie wasn't as much Huston's creation as the actor's.

"Bogart was not particularly impressive off screen," Huston later recalled, but "those lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality: heroic."

One of the interesting things about that heroic persona is how essentially contemporary it was then and seems still. It's simply impossible, for example, to imagine Bogart in a costume drama or period piece. That's a matter of a quality that can't be faked: authenticity. "He was devilish if he thought you were a phony," his friend and costar Katharine Hepburn wrote. "Like a cat with a mouse, he'd never let you off."

Still, his characters had about them an essential decency and a kind of reluctant kindness that may have seemed so authentic because it reflected the man, as well as the actor. One of his last films was an undistinguished adaptation of a bestselling novel, "The Left Hand of God," in which an American soldier of fortune hiding from his warlord employer in China assumes the identity of a dead Catholic priest assigned to a remote mountain village. (As Bogart played him, Father Jim Carmody was about as cynical and hard-bitten a cleric as ever had his neck chaffed by a Roman collar.) His costar was Gene Tierney, who was then fully in the grip of the clinical depression that plagued her for many years. Bogart, whose sister had suffered the same affliction, recognized the symptoms and told the studio bosses that Tierney was ill and required help.

As Tierney subsequently wrote in her memoirs, "They assumed I was a trouper and was aware of how much they had invested in the film and would not let them down. They suggested that Bogart be kind and gentle. He was nothing less. His patience and understanding carried me through the film."

Though the New Yorker didn't care for the film, the magazine praised him as an actor who "maintained over the years a singularly decent standard in his work for Hollywood." That seems to have been true on several levels that ultimately count more than career, which may partly explain the durability of his appeal.

Friends and the doctors who treated him during the agonizing esophageal cancer that was the cause of his early death in 1957 remarked on his courage and wry humor. He made only two personal concessions to the illness — refraining from alcohol in the hospital and switching from unfiltered to filtered Chesterfields.

As Kanfer muses, "After years of playing character leads, Humphrey had reverted to the part he knew best — the Raymond Chandler male 'who is neither tarnished nor afraid.' Chandler elaborated on this in his essay 'The Simple Art of Murder.' Such a figure 'must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. Humphrey filled that description as if it had been written with him in mind."

Drape that description in a trench coat and express it on a face like a bucket of old sins, and you have a man for all cinematic seasons.

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