I’ve been wracking my brain to see who among the movie stars of the last 50 years has anywhere near the cinematic gravitas of Humphrey Bogart. And I’m coming up empty. As Stefan Kanfer details in his new biography, TOUGH WITHOUT A GUN, no one has had the presence of the actor who played such memorable roles as Rick Blaine, Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, Charlie Allnut, and Lt. Cmdr. Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, among many others, any one of which could be said to be career-defining.
TOUGH WITHOUT A GUN contains the standard information (dare I compare it to the “usual suspects”?). Bogart was born into a privileged childhood, growing up in Manhattan, attending the “correct” schools for a person of his station, becoming bored and falling short of academic expectations. He became somewhat lost and rudderless until he found the theater, beginning as a stagehand.
His first experiences behind the scenes and on stage were less than noteworthy. One could easily imagine early performances of stiffly delivered lines and awkward body language. But over the years, Bogart overcame some perceived handicaps, including less-than-movie-star looks and that famous lisp. The roles became increasingly important, and he delivered, perpetuating the demand for his services.
Like many in his Hollywood circle, Bogart suffered for his fame --- early on in his failed marriages before he fell in love with teenaged co-star Lauren Bacall, later in his political difficulties during the Communist scares of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Yet the author doesn’t dish too much dirt, thankfully, although his insights into the competitiveness between the leading men of the era as they vied for prized roles is fascinating. Could one really imagine Ronald Reagan as Rick or another actor as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon? Bogart is depicted as a recreational drunk whose judgment was sometimes clouded by the alcohol, which gave him that “bad boy” persona among the studios’ heads. At those times he might seek refuge on one of his beloved boats.
Bogart’s long illness --- the result of a lifetime of smoking --- is painfully reported as the actor withers from esophageal cancer. But his death at the age of 57 actually served to open a new chapter, which one might say is the real heart of the book: his lasting legacy. Where previous biographies might end with his “final curtain,” Kanfer discusses the cinephiles who still point to Bogart as the prototypical movie tough guy who women desire and men aspire to be like. Forget the withered looks, his lack of height, his age; there was an undeniable magnetism about Bogie that remains the subject of serious research and reference through books, plays, movies, and even song. His characters’ lines are often quoted, with a “Here’s looking at you, kid” here and an “I stick out my neck for no one” there. Bogart still demands the attention of movie lovers, even without the gun.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on March 28, 2011