Kanfer has sounded him out beautifully with this swift, smart, scrupulous book. It brims with insights no less piercing for the modesty with which they are framed. I loved the way he finds in Bacall's relationship with Bogart—which began on the set of To Have and Have Notand continued, steadfastly, until his death in 1957 *—an echo of the oedipal comfort sought by an entire nation whose sons had just been sent to war and whose authority figures were, for the most part, father- or grandfather figures like General McArthur (64), George Marshall (64), Patton (59), and President Roosevelt (62). By this measure, Bogart shapes up as the "Ike" of movie actors. He was the grizzled paterfamilias, the old dog surrounded by young pups like Brando, Clift, and Dean, who emerged from the actor's studio to bare their chests on behalf of a traumatized nation—the "scratch your ass and mumble" school of acting, Bogart called it. The old dog could still bark.
You could say he never stopped. Bogart is one of the few Hollywood actors recognizable entirely in silhouette—the true mark of an icon. Kanfer devotes two chapters to his extraordinary afterlife, eulogized by Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless, parodied by Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam, watched and rewatched by generations of Harvard students bracing for their exams and finding no better model of resilience than Sam Spade or Rick Blaine. In 2008, in an article entitled "Hollywood He Men Are Bumped by Sensitive Guys," columnist Sharon Waxman used Bogart to beat up on an entire generation of current movie stars. Her attack sparked a rash of articles in which journalists tried to figure out why the muscled tree trunks of yesteryear had given way to the sprightly young metrosexuals like Tobey Maguire, Keanu Reeves, and Leonardo DiCaprio. "Impersonators don't do Tobey Maguire or Brad Pitt or Leonardo Di Caprio or Christian Bale," writes Kanfer, tellingly.
In large part this is a matter of shifting demographics, as Hollywood's pursuit of an ever-younger audience, together with obeisance to new laws of movie physics inculcated by computer generated imagery, singles out the young and the lithe for combat. The rest of us can get on with the job of mourning the gradual erasure of lived experience from movie screens. Here's something that's almost gone from American movies: fate. A film like Inception, in so many ways the grandson of The Maltese Falcon, not least in its smoky femme fatale and noirish plotting, remains strangely unfogged by anything that would mess with those pristine snowscapes: blood, emotion, even death, which now becomes something reversible, an optional extra, something to be scrolled through in a menu and then redone, as if in some eternal video game in which the game is never over.
What lends singularity to Bogart's films is the sense of irreversible actions, with moral consequences, being borne by a man standing as if waist-high in a river, braced by events. The action held him in place. Once things happened to him, they didn't un-happen. He didn't get a do-over. When he got slugged, he rubbed his jaw like a kid coming away from the dentist. "When he sweated you could have wrung his shirt," said François Truffaut, doubtless thinking of the first scene The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe comes across Major Sternwood in his hothouse, living off heat like a newborn spider, surrounded by orchids whose flesh so reminds him of the rotten sweetness of corruption.
"Why did you have to go on?" Lauren Bacall asks him.
"Too many people told me to stop," he replies.
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Correction, Feb. 8, 2011: This article originally stated that Bacall and Bogart's relationship began on the set of The Big Sleep. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)