17 February 2011


Thanks to author Stefan Kanfer for his new 255-page meditation “Tough Without A Gun, The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart.” This is non-fiction at its most interesting. I stayed up to 4 am today finishing the darn thing.

Kanfer, film critic and researcher, has written books on Groucho Marx and Lucille Ball, Marlon Brando and Yiddish theater. In his new work Kanfer has a triple subject: Humphrey Bogart the consummate actor, Humphrey Bogart the flawed and fascinating person, and Bogie the film legend who takes over when he’s on screen, still stands for a no-nonsense kind of American manhood, and refuses to fade away, long after others have been forgotten.

There already have been any number of good and useful books on Bogart, as Kanfer is the first to point out (and to borrow from). Bogart has “popped up in retro mysteries and pulp crime novels” and books by scholars, historians, fans and total strangers, all of whom were “unable to let go of (him).”

Why another book, and why now, more than 50 years since Bogie last appeared on screen? In the years since his death in 1957 “both the definition and the image of the male role had drastically changed... by the rules of history, Humphrey Bogart should have become obsolete, a faded image totally obscured by new faces and fresh interpretations of the male role.

“Instead, he became more prominent, looming larger as we moved away from his epoch,” Kanfer writes. “What he offered was more than a recreation of movies past, where men were men and women were unemployed. His masculinity was not swagger, but its opposite – a quiet, bitter recognition of reality...”

The final chapters deal with Bogart’s afterlife – his lasting effect on our culture. Kanfer could not have offered a compelling summation without the extensive biography that precedes it.

Kanfer pinpoints April 19, 1957, as the real beginning of the modern Bogart myth. The Brattle Theater in Cambridge MA ran a revival of the fifteen-year-old film Casablanca. Harvard students dropped in during exams week, and returned night after night, “wearing trench coats and dangling cigarettes from their lower lips, singing ‘La Marseillaise,’ shouting lines of dialog on cue.”

Soon other art houses were running Bogart retrospectives. Sam Spade, Philip Marlow, Dix Steele, Fred C. Dobbs and Billy Dannreuther lived again in films such as The Maltese Falcon, The Petrified Forest, High Sierra, The Big Sleep, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen and many more.

At Bogart’s funeral, actor, friend and director John Huston said “Himself, he never took too seriously – his work most seriously. He regarded the somewhat gaudy figure of Bogart, the star, with amused cynicism. Bogart, the actor, he held in deep respect.”

Truman Capote, screen writer on Beat the Devil, wrote a famous tribute to Bogart after the star’s death, and many others joined in. French existential writer Albert Camus sported a Bogart-style trench coat and created characters that could be considered Humphrey Bogart clones (and clones of Hemingway characters, too). Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless starred Jean-Paul Belmondo playing a car thief “whose gestures mimic the Bogart style” from cigarette to facial tics.

Restaurants and bars took on names and furnishings lifted from Humphrey Bogart movies. Woody Allen used the Bogart myth in his “wistful comedy” Play It Again, Sam. There were Broadway plays and off-Broadway plays, London revues, pop songs, even a Bogart Collection from Thomasville Furniture featuring the Trench Coast Chair and the (Barefoot) Contessa Banquette.

Bogart was cool before “cool” was invented, someone once said. Kanfer agrees: “Chances are he would have been pleased to be the essence of cool.”

“In an unguarded moment,” Kanfer says, “(Bogart) gave a terse and accurate self-appraisal: ‘I’m a professional. I’ve done pretty well, don’t you think? I’ve survived in a pretty rough business.’”

He was true to himself. He knew his lines, paid his debts, showed up on time and did good work. All of that, enduring fame, and long-lasting influence. It’s not a small thing, what Humphrey Bogart accomplished.


“Tough Without A Gun” by Stefan Kanfer. Knopf hard cover $26.95 with many illustrations. ISBN 9780307271006.

Knopf’s pages on Stefan Kanfer

Chicago Sun Times book review of “Tough Without A Gun”

LA Times review

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