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."

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.)

Corrections, Feb. 9, 2011: The piece originally misspelled Katharine Hepburn. (Return to the corrected sentence). It also referred to Mayo "Sluggy" Methot as Bogart's second wife, rather than his third. (Return to the corrected sentence)

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