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Review: ‘Tough Without a Gun’ by Stefan Kanfer



By Stefan Kanfer

Knopf, 304 pages, $26.95

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

‘Bogart can be tough without a gun,” Raymond Chandler said in expressing his delight that Humphrey Bogart would portray detective Philip Marlowe in the screen version of his novel The Big Sleep. In the insightful Tough Without a Gun, author Stefan Kanfer shows how Bogie, armed or unarmed, embodied a highly personal brand of toughness.

Kanfer, biographer of other stars (Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball, Groucho Marx), bases this book on other books — previous biographies, autobiographies, cultural studies, etc. — and there is nothing wrong with that. Twenty-five years ago, the late Otto Friedrich, having said “no more interviews,” produced City of Nets, a commendable history of Hollywood in the 1940s, by synthesizing hundreds of previous publications, from scholarly studies to steamy memoirs. Kanfer has written something like it.

Though not a formal biography, Tough Without a Gun does cover the entirety of Bogart’s life, from his birth in 1899 to his death from cancer in 1957. In between are Bogie’s World War I Navy service, his four marriages, his difficulties as a liberal during the Hollywood blacklisting, and the development of the Rat Pack.

And much more, particularly his cult-like status, a phenomenon that began in the early 1950s when art houses started showing his old films over and over and grew after his death as his image and reputation worked its way into all levels of our culture.

As an actor, Kanfer says, Bogart was determined rather than gifted. When he finally found his feet after fumbling starts on the New York stage in the 1920s, it was a case of a vocation having found him rather than the other way around.

Bogart’s portrayal of Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest” was a hit on both stage and screen. The 1936 film should have been his breakthrough, but, probably because Warner Brothers kept him in B films, that did not come until 1941’s “High Sierra.” It was the last time he received anything less than top billing.

That film marked the end of the gangster genre with which Bogart had long been associated. But, gaining the role of Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” he turned that character into a new persona. He wouldn’t play Sam Spade again, but he would play Spade-like characters — wounded, cynical, romantic — many times.

But it was “Casablanca” (1942) that made Bogart the American film actor of his time. It has been written about extensively, including Aljean Harmetz’s definitive “Round Up the Usual Suspects,” so it suffices to say here that Kanfer provides a satisfying summary of its making and importance in film history. He provides similar summaries for other films, most notably “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), “The African Queen” (1951) and “The Caine Mutiny” (1954).

The value of this book, then, lies in Kanfer’s insights into and analysis of the way that Bogart worked and how it made him “the most perversely attractive actor in the history of cinema.” Bogie, for instance, was “director-dependent”; he needed a boss, a gifted director, to push him, else he would fall into repeating himself in film after film.

In “Sunset Boulevard” Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond said she was still big as a star, it was the pictures that got small. The author argues that she got it in reverse. “It’s the stars,” he says, “that got small.”

He offers several reasons for his assertion. Films are no longer the centerpiece of American popular culture. We have so many other distractions. With the collapse of the studio system, young, promising actors are no longer brought along.

He believes there can never be another Bogie. From time to time someone will claim to have discovered, say, the new Clark Gable or the new Marlon Brando. No one ever claims to have found the new Humphrey Bogart.

He offers several reasons, the chief one being demographics: When Bogart broke through, he was 42, an advanced age by today’s standards. Today, young people constitute 70 percent of movie audiences, and they want to see young people up on the screen. — and they favor youth-oriented films. Kanfer lists the 20 highest-grossing films in American history, from “Avatar” to “Finding Nemo.” While adults have enjoyed them, none can be seen as the kind of purely “adult” film that could create a Bogart.

Some 40 years after Bogart’s death, the American Film Institute ranked him the greatest male star in cinema history. No challenger seems in sight.

Roger K. Miller is a novelist and free-lance writer based in Wisconsin.

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