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tough without a gun

23 february 2011

"Tough without a gun" was Raymond Chandler's verdict on Humphrey Bogart's screen personality. Memorable, but not as memorable as what Chandler went on to say about Alan Ladd's screen personality: "A small boy's idea of a tough guy" (110). In golden-age Hollywood, the classier the writer, the snappier the patter.

Quotable patter abounds in Stefan Kanfer's new life of Bogart. "What are you doing playing a gentleman's game at a gentleman's club?" (30) "Bogart's a hell of a nice guy until around 11:30 p.m. After that, he think's he's Bogart" (144). "I have been on the way to practically every cemetery you can name from here to the Mississippi—including several where I am certain they only accept dogs" (221). The last is Bogart himself, from his deathbed. As the middle quotation (from restaurateur Dave Chasen) suggests, Humphrey Bogart was never entirely out of character – and therefore never entirely in character, either. He made a life out of living up to his dialogue.

Tough without a Gun told me barely anything new about Bogart. It is mostly a gleaning of quotations and anecdotes from other published sources. That, and Kanfer's summaries of the plots of Bogart movies. It is all very entertaining to relive in print, but seeing as I, like many fans, already have The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca memorized, there wasn't much Kanfer's long descriptions of those films could add.

More interesting, because lesser-known, is the material on Bogart's early Broadway career. Bogart didn't land in Hollywood to stay until the mid-1930s, when he was in his own mid-30s, and didn't become a star till he was over 40. For most of the third and fourth decades of his life, he was a scrabbling actor, playing etiolated "sprigs" (though he probably never said "Tennis, anyone?") and then, as his voice and face hardened, graduating to villains.

Bogart was still a contract villain at the time of High Sierra (1941), but at last he'd found a picture where the villain was the star. Ida Lupino had top billing in this misunderstood-killer picture, but it was the last time in his life that Bogart wouldn't.

Kanfer makes the indisputable point that Bogart is iconic. But he also goes on to argue that Bogart was incomparable, and that they don't make 'em like that anymore. In fact, much of Kanfer's final chapter is devoted to showing that today's male stars are lightweights and today's Hollywood essentially a kiddy industry. He longs for the days when tough, mature, masculine types ruled the screen: James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Spencer Tracy, and their first among equals, Humphrey Bogart.

There's a certain logic to Kanfer's claims, but they're still tendentious. After all, among the biggest box-office draws in Bogart's apprentice years were Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and Rin Tin Tin. There's never really been a time in Hollywood history where bleak tough guys totally ruled the screen.

Tom Cruise and Tobey Maguire might have been stuck playing callow sidekicks in the old studio days. But it's not like the current cinema lacks for steely men. In fact Bogart may be most notable for the way new generations of male stars have continued to channel his appeal. De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Eastwood – even Harrison Ford – would hardly exist without the example of Bogart. Jeff Bridges? Denzel Washington? George Clooney? Tommy Lee Jones? Samuel L. Jackson? Are these not the heirs of Bogart? It's true that there are no young Bogarts out there; but when Bogart was young, he wasn't Bogart, either. Time will give some of today's infant actors the appropriate weathering.

I also think that Kanfer tends to overrate Bogart as an actor. Hardly a great flaw in the book: I think Bogart was great too, I just think that there've been quite a few greater actors in Hollywood. "Talent," when an actor has passed from the scene, reduces to how many good films and performances are fixed in the record. Bogart made a lot of films, and a lot of them are mediocre or worse. He could be wooden and uncomfortable on screen, and in fact some of his best effects come with characters who have the notes "wooden" and "uncomfortable." He was an OK villain in his contract days with Warner Bros. in the 1930s, but you rarely watch a 1930s film because "wow, Bogart is in this one." Even his celebrated supporting performance in The Petrified Forest (1936) seems stilted now.

Bogart was a "character lead," not a true leading man, and his best films – among the best of all American films – are written (often by John Huston) for his very narrow character range. This is not to disparage Bogart. Several of the most important American actors were character leads, including Cagney, Robinson, and John Wayne. Wayne, in the end, made more good films than Bogart, in part because he lived longer and worked even more feverishly. But Wayne was also a greater star because he was easier to cast. You could never put Humphrey Bogart on a horse; many John Wayne movies succeed without any other starting concept than "John Wayne on a horse."

Bogart was hard to cast because he had to play Bogart, and scripts didn't always find the right situation and story for the Bogart character. In a more minor key, a similar American star was Walter Matthau. As baseball writer Bill James once observed, Matthau was magnetic in the right part, but hard to cast: the right parts didn't come along in droves. Matthau compensated by being unafraid of supporting roles. Bogart, after 1941, had to be the center of attention in every film he made. Too often, that led to trademarked, but uneven, "Bogart films" like Dead Reckoning and Dark Passage.

Still, even if Bogart's contribution to American cinema went no further than The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, they couldn't exist without him, and they are near-perfect pictures. And the center of his resumé is wider and stronger than those two classics. He carries The Big Sleep, holds his own against Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, is riveting in his few scenes in The Caine Mutiny, and fascinating in In a Lonely Place and The Harder They Fall. The pictures from his years of stardom are often worth watching even when they fail: Kanfer likes Beat the Devil better than Sabrina (I'd go the other way), for instance, but finds something to write about even in these less-well-advised projects.

As a person, Bogart seems to have been what one of his characters once said of another: "like any other man, only more so." He seems to have tried hard at four marriages, but never chose the right woman till the fourth (Lauren Bacall, still alive and part of the audience for any book on Bogart, and treated respectfully here for the most part – Kanfer throws some jabs at Bacall's image, but appreciates her talent, and quotes her frequently at face value). Bogart was once a liberal voice in Hollywood, but after some brief anti-HUAC gestures he dropped activism like a scalding potato and stuck his neck out for nobody. Kanfer doesn't blame him, and one can't blame Kanfer for that. Most people (notably Bacall and Hepburn) saw Bogart as a straight shooter who couldn't solve all the problems of this crazy world. But his work amounts to considerably more than a hill of beans.

Kanfer, Stefan. Tough without a Gun: The life and extraordinary afterlife of Humphrey Bogart. New York: Random House, 2011.