Stefan Kanfer’s excellent new book, Tough Without A Gun: The Life And Extraordinary Afterlife Of Humphrey Bogart, isn’t exactly a biography. Though Kanfer limns the crucial milestones of Bogie’s 57 years, what emerges from his book is more enlightening than an exhaustive timeline: He presents a sense of the interplay between the actor, his iconic roles, and the ever-shifting ideal of American masculinity.
Casual Bogart fans may be surprised to learn that the tough-talking actor was born into a wealthy Manhattan family. After a few years of youthful drifting, Bogart eventually settled on an acting career. He got his big break with the 1934 play The Petrified Forest, in which he played an unkempt gangster; until then, he’d been typecast in stereotypically WASPy parts. A role in the film adaptation—and a contract with Warner Bros.—soon followed.
Over the next five years, Bogart played the heavy in more than two dozen movies. Kanfer argues that these B-pictures were Bogart’s “Harvard and Yale,” the training ground where he evolved into ‘‘the most perversely attractive actor in the history of cinema.” In 1941 and 1942, Bogart starred in three back-to-back hits: High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca. At the ripe age of 42, he had become a leading man. According to Kanfer, it’s no coincidence that Bogart’s success arrived just as America was entering World War II. The actor embodied the ideal wartime male: “wounded, cynical, romantic, and as incorrodible as a zinc bar.”
Bogart may have been a stoic, but he certainly wasn’t above human frailty. Kanfer accurately points out his “director-dependence”: Without the guiding hand of a Nicholas Ray or a John Huston, Bogart lapsed easily into self-parody. He resented the young Method actors—whom he called the “scratch your ass and mumble” school—whose more emotive masculinity was in vogue by the mid-’50s. Bogart compared himself to Norman Maine, the washed-up Hollywood actor in A Star Is Born. Kanfer draws his own parallel between Bogart and the hard-drinking, brutish screenwriter he played in 1950’s In A Lonely Place, claiming the two “might have been blood brothers.”
Tough Without A Gun doesn’t neglect Bogart’s messy personal life. Kanfer briefly delves into his three failed marriages, and his storied May-December romance with Lauren Bacall. He also offers a sympathetic explanation of Bogart’s liberal but anti-communist politics. But Kanfer is clearly more interested in analyzing Bogart’s stardom than in dredging up decades-old Hollywood gossip. Occasionally, this approach seems overly deferential—the book barely mentions Bogart’s long affair with hairdresser Verita Thompson—but mostly, it feels right. Kanfer has crafted a moving, psychologically intimate portrait of an icon that leaves some of the mystique intact.