Tough Without a Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer – review

Tough Without a Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer – review

Born in the last days of the Victorian era into a well-established New York family, Humphrey Bogart went from riches to even greater riches as he became one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors. His father was a wealthy, Yale-educated doctor addicted to alcohol and morphine, his mother a successful magazine illustrator and heavy drinker, and they were constantly at each other’s throats. Emerging from this troubled household Humphrey became a rebellious figure at his exclusive prep school and then in the navy, where he acquired the famous scar on his upper lip, possibly when struck while escorting a fellow sailor to jail but, more likely, in a brawl – certainly not, as claimed, in battle. He was later to remark that he was “Democrat in politics, Episcopalian by upbringing, dissenter by disposition”.

He sampled more conventional trades before drifting into acting, appearing in a succession of wholly forgotten Broadway plays, mostly playing society types. After an abortive couple of years in Hollywood, he eventually found success on stage in 1935, cast against type as gangster Duke Mantee in Robert Sherwood’s pretentious Depression drama, The Petrified Forest. It was the only play of significance he appeared in and is rarely revived (Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road begins with its heroine appearing in an amateur production). But the film version took him back to Hollywood for good.

  Humphrey Bogart resin statue

As a contract performer at the mercy of studio boss Jack Warner, Bogart was put into several movies a year, most of them watchable, only a few distinguished, and after his success as Duke Mantee, usually as a hoodlum. He did, however, play a tough district attorney opposite Bette Davis in Marked Woman (1937), now most famous because Graham Greene misheard Bogart describe the Chicago crime scene as “feudal”. What Bogart actually said was “futile”, but Greene based his whole review in The Spectator on the parallels between US city politics and medieval barons.

Bogart was on the third of his disastrous marriages to actresses, this time Mayo Methot, who drank as much as he did but couldn’t hold it as well, when true success came in 1941. First there was the sympathetic criminal “Mad Dog” Roy Earle in High Sierra, then private eye Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The following year Casablanca gave him his most celebrated role as Rick Blaine, the anti-fascist activist who brushes aside accusations of patriotism and idealism while putting duty before love. Casablanca captured the spirit of the second world war and defined the point where Bogart’s public persona and off-screen personality met.

  What Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall Thought of Their May-December Marriage

His next important film, Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not, teamed him with a newcomer, the 18-year-old Lauren Bacall. His junior by 25 years, she was his equal, capable of matching him drink for drink, cigarette for cigarette, wisecrack for wisecrack. Until his death in 1957 they were “Bogey and Betty”, Hollywood’s most fashionable and emulated couple, or at least until “Debbie and Eddie” (Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher) arrived to reflect the zeitgeist of the new, conformist Eisenhower era that Bogart railed against. The best film he made with Bacall was The Big Sleep, his performance as Philip Marlowe eliciting from Raymond Chandler the tribute that provides Stefan Kanfer’s biography with its title. His best work was done by the time he made The African Queen in 1951, the first of his five films in colour.

His last days, when he struggled with cancer while never lowering his consumption of cigarettes and liquor, were an example of Hemingwayesque grace under pressure. He did, however, spend quite a few of them in the company of Sinatra’s Rat Pack, a collection of narcissistic show-offs about as far as you could get from the ethos of authenticity and understatement by which he lived. Kanfer draws heavily on the definitive 700-page Bogart by AM Sperber (who spent years doing research) and Eric Lax (who pulled it together after her death). The result is readable enough, except for a certain stylistic vulgarity (eg “a dress that showed plenty of poitrine”) and a distressing number of minor errors.

  Dive into anything

Where Kanfer becomes really interesting is in his final chapters on the growth of the Bogart legend in the half-century since his death, which has seen his ghost giving advice to Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam, the verb “to Bogart” becoming a 60s counter-cultural term for hanging on to a spliff, his image appearing everywhere and his films constantly revived and quoted. Most significantly, Kanfer celebrates and attempts to define the way his sense of moral probity and cool deportment has survived and become increasingly potent. “Those in search of the Bogart style will have a hard time finding it in movie theatres,” he concludes. “Today it flourishes elsewhere: in the principled action of individuals uncomfortable with compromise and conformity, in classic fiction, in the theatre. And of course in old films.”

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