Review: Tough Without a Gun, by Stefan Kanfer

For some reason I enjoy bios of Bogie. He’s not my favorite movie star, nor my favorite male star, but I find the man fascinating. I read my first Bogart bio when I was about 15 (I think it might’ve been the Joe Hyams bio.) and even made the significant mistake of buying one of the Darwin Porter books (Referred to as both “scabrous” and “scurrilous” by Kanfer.) and have been gun shy ever since, but a sample of the first chapter was enough to convince me that this book was the real deal and worth buying.

Kanfer’s agenda seems to be to tell the story of Bogart’s life as directly and informatively as possible without a lot of value judgments and pseudo-psychological analysis. He begins with Bogart’s parents and continues on at a fair clip straight through the man’s birth, childhood, youth, military service and his seeming inability to find a job he could do well enough to make it a career. According to Kanfer, Bogart pretty much stumbled into acting and kept stumbling until people started to notice that he had some presence. Though he was an upper-middle-class man, well-educated in spite of having been ejected from several schools, he made his bones playing gangsters and hoods. And yet, in spite of his growing notoriety as a heavy, he didn’t catch on with the public until his roles began to shift away from the criminal. Bogart’s real fame, his real strength was in defining the persona of the American male in the 40s. He became memorable for being the wounded hero, the man with a past — usually a tragic one — the guy who might cheat a bit but could be relied upon to do the right thing when the need arose. He gave voice and a face to that new kind of hero, and that made him irresistible to audiences. It made him a star.

Kanfer covers each of Bogart’s films with varying degrees of detail depending on how important the films were either as films or to his career. A bit less time is spent on his personal life which was, quite frankly, a mess, with three marriages in fairly quick succession, and the third a train wreck which dragged on for far too long until Bogart at 45 met the 19-year-old Lauren Bacall and found the love of his life. There’s a lot of fascinating detail here about the productions, about the people with whom he worked and played. Men like John Huston and Peter Lorre stand out in the narrative for being as vivid as Bogart, and good friends to him as well. The portrait of Kate Hepburn during the shoot of “The African Queen” is compelling and a surprising portrait as well.

But the biggest and best surprise is Bogart himself. He was no poseur, he literally was tough without a gun, holding high standards in spite of some rowdy and ultimately self-destructive behavior. He was smart, a great reader, principled, decent to women, and though apolitical he had strong opinions on things like the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, which he famously opposed. Kanfer gives us a man who, in spite of having been born with a lot of advantages, made his own way through life, holding to his beliefs, and having one hell of a good time while he was at it. You might not find this Bogart to your taste, but I’d be surprised if he left you unimpressed.

 

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