‘Tough Without a Gun’

Warner Bros/The Korbal Collection

Four marriages, drinking and trashed hotel rooms: Bogart was plenty colorful, even if this bio doesn’t exactly go deep.

Humphrey Bogart grew up a rich kid in Manhattan and spent his youth on Broadway, playing twits dressed in striped jackets and white ducks, “vigorously entering with a racket or a cocktail in hand.” Whether he actually said, “Tennis, anyone?” is a matter of debate. And so, as Stefan Kanfer recounts in his critical biography Tough Without a Gun, when Bogart was cast as gangster Duke Mantee in Robert Sherwood’s pensive 1936 drama The Petrified Forest, it was against type. It was also a triumph and his ticket to Hollywood — where he had to spend five years doing time as hoods, gunned down in movie after movie, before John Huston offered him the role of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (after George Raft turned it down) and he became, indelibly, the Bogart we know. By then he was 42.

None of this is news. Kanfer is fine at lifting material from other sources, but he’s not a deep digger. I was surprised to learn that at the star’s funeral, in 1957, he was remembered as a brain who “could recite from memory whole swaths of Plato, Pope, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Shakespeare.” Really? Kanfer gives no indication earlier that he was a thinker or, in fact, had any extracurricular interests other than sailing, cigarettes and booze. His marriage to Lauren Bacall was a happy one (after failures with Helen Menken and Mary Philips, then a real humdinger with Mayo Methot, an alcoholic harpy who threw tantrums, threw bottles and at one point literally stabbed him in the back), but Kanfer doesn’t try to fathom how Bacall, barely beyond girlhood, put up with her depressive, hard-drinking, middle-aged and, apparently, philandering mate.

Late in the book, Kanfer maintains, rather prissily, that Bogart “would be dismayed by the present-day Hollywood products, by the headline-grabbing stars who trash hotel rooms”; he appears to have forgotten his own account of the actor and his third wife, dead drunk, firing pistols into the ceiling of their room in Naples. (“The crashes of plaster were almost as loud as the shots.”) He heralds (twice) the American Film Institute’s citation of Bogart as “the greatest male legend in cinema history” and a similar recognition from Entertainment Weekly. He’s so wanton in pursuit of random praise that he even quotes a post office functionary at the unveiling of a Bogart stamp.

Why this desperation to pump up his subject? Nobody’s challenging Bogie’s status as an icon. But, as Kanfer acknowledges, he was never a strong performer without a strong director: He appeared in a handful of treasures and a whole bunch of duds. Nor was he brave offscreen, as his dealings with the House Un-American Activities Committee sadly demonstrate. Once established, he wasn’t daring in his choice of material. When Helen Hayes suggested, late in his life, that Bogart return to the stage, he cringed: “Those bastards would all go out in the lobby and say, ‘So that’s what’s come to us as a big, big star — a big important actor.’ … No, I couldn’t do that.”

The book’s subtitle promises an examination of “The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart.” The extraordinary afterlife consists of one 20-page chapter in which Kanfer declares that Bogart strongly influenced the characters played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless and Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player; quotes some lines from Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam; and takes note of Bogart festivals and “Bogart-themed bistros, taverns and bars,” including a pizzeria in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. Insanely, he also discusses the many, many books that have been written about his subject, raising the unavoidable question: Why another one?

I haven’t a clue.           

By Stefan Kanfer
Knopf, 288 pages, $26.95