Stefan Kanfer's Tough Without a Gun: What made Humphrey Bogart so great?

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 8 2011 11:15 AM

Humphrey Bogart's Secret

Stefan Kanfer's biography gets what made him so great.

Tough Without a Gun.

The career of a Hollywood actor, like the lifespan of butterflies and replicants, is a tragically foreshortened thing these days. Nicholson, Duvall, and Hackman all hit their peak in their 40s; but George Clooney's is about the only head of gray hair we are allowed to lay eyes on, and even he was pre-matured in television, currently the only known source of Authentic Stonewashed Masculinity. The days of actresses dreading 40 are long gone. These days, post-Gwyneth, 30 is the new watershed, the time by which you are supposed to have won your Oscar or must make way for the fresh batch of Mickey Mouse club graduates. Have you noticed how there are no "child" actors anymore? Or, rather, everyone is a child actor. Hathaway. Williams. Dunst. The Gyllenhaals. The Fannings. In the accelerated metabolism of today's Hollywood, starting work at 11 is no longer anything unusual. It's simply a good start.

All of which is another way of saying that the single most resonant fact in Stefan Kanfer's Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart is that Bogart was 37 when he got his break in movies and 41 before he went over big with an audience. Already on his second marriage, the death of both parents under his belt, he was no wunderkind, with his lean smoker's physique and receding gums that turned every smile into a grimace, "a map of distress" in Kanfer's words. In Hollywood, faces are destiny; the first real sign that Kanfer is serious as a Bogart scholar—the only requisite qualification, really—is the amount of time he spends scanning that mug, with its fissures and fault lines and unexpectedly beautiful mouth. "It was very full, rosy, and perfectly modeled," noted Louise Brooks, no slacker in that department herself. "To make it completely fascinating, at one corner of his upper lip a scarred quilted piece hung down in a tiny scallop."

The stories vary as to how he got the scar—a blow from his father in a drunken rage, a scuffle with a prisoner during his time in the Navy, a passing U-boat shell—but it lent his voice its trademark lisp, which Bogart kept to a minimum by keeping his volume low. He never seemed to be speaking to more than one person, even when rattling off exposition. He'd spent most of his 20s playing upper-class twits in Broadway farces: the chap in the striped jacket and ducks who cleared the stage with a cry of "tennis anyone?"

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To hardened Bogart fans the idea of Bogie in tennis whites seems like pre-drip Jackson Pollock, or Archimedes before his bath, but such casting was not necessarily stupid. As every biographer gets to point out, this toughest of tough guys was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a Holden Caulfieldish wastrel raised on an Edwardian 55-acre estate with its own lake, and educated at Phillips in Andover, Mass., the oldest boarding school in the United States, where he topped off his school uniform with a black derby, thus giving him the appearance of a racetrack tout.

"The harder the screws are put on the better it will be for my son," wrote his father, Belmont, to one headmaster exasperated by Humphrey's plummeting grades, thus suggesting that if Belmont's practice as a doctor ever fell through he could always have found work as a film critic; his son would spend his entire career having the screws put on him by everyone from Jack Warner to Sydney Greenstreet, all of them eventually finding that he came out of the experience better than they did, like tungsten steel. "He was devilish if he though you were a phoney," Katharine Hepburn said. "Like a cat with a mouse, he'd never let you off."*

The needling he picked up from his mother, a cold, critical woman who worked as a children's book illustrator and who suffered from migraines and bawled out her children for the slightest misdemeanor. "Cruel as it may sound, Maud was not a woman one loved," said Bogart upon her death. "For such was her drive, her singleness of purpose, that none of us could really get at her." He could easily have been talking about his own bullet-like progress, both through scenes—nobody could hit their marks like Bogart—and also his marriages, a nonstop barrage of "bottles, dishes pots and pans," until he met Lauren Bacall and enjoyed his first relationship that didn't involve ducking the furniture.

He was on his third, to Mayo "Sluggy" Methot, when he got his break into movies, with The Petrified Forest(1936), by which time, Bogart's years had begun to catch up with him. * At 37, he was beginning to doubt he had a career in movies. Perfect, in other words, for the hard-bitten fatalism of a condemned criminal on the run—"well built but stoop shouldered, with a vaguely thoughtful saturnine face," as the script had it. Bogart had to grow into his face before the movies would have him. "Bogart was a medium-sized man," said John Huston. "Not particularly impressive off screen." Put him on camera, however, and "those lights and shadows organized themselves into another nobler personality, heroic."

Bogart's entire film career was to rest on a single, judiciously prolonged piece of miscasting: His stiff patrician bearing was slightly redundant when deployed in the service of patricians, but transplanted into the bodies of toughs, condemned men, and private eyes—the closest the modern world has to the knights of the round table—the result was a brand of hard-bitten, rueful integrity that fit the times like a glove. Caught between the hardships of the Great Depression and the heroism of the Second World War, audiences found both in Bogart, the hardship written on his face, the heroism carefully hidden so they got to find out something for themselves.

When Bogart is pinned down on a lonely mountain top at the climax of High Sierra(1941), only to be brought down by the crack of a rifle, something clicked with viewers, almost chiropractically. Nobody died like Bogart. Certainly, nobody died as often as Bogart. In his first 34 pictures he was shot in 12, electrocuted or hanged in eight, blasted out of the sky, killed by hand grenade, mauled by lion, and beheaded by Mexican bandits.

"We're wrong in looking forward to death," said Seneca. "Death is a master of all the years that are behind us." Nobody came as close to embodying this as Bogart, who could literally look back on all the times he had died on-screen and whose essence, as first André Bazin and later Ken Tynan realized, was stoic: He endured. On-screen, he withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not in a spirit of masochism, but rather as his due, the price of a man's course through the world. These days, we measure toughness by the damage dished out to others—by body counts and kill ratios. Bogart's toughness was an inside job. "When a man is sick, you get to know him," said the doctor who treated him for the cancer that finally brought him down. "You find out whether he's made of soft wood or hard wood. I began to get fonder of Bogie with each visit. He was made of very hard wood indeed."