Book Review: Star power of Humphrey Bogart remains bright

“Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart” (Knopf, $26.95), by Stefan Kanfer

The so-called “Greatest Generation,” whose lives were shaped by the Depression and World War II, made up the core audience for Humphrey Bogart’s movies.

But Bogart’s star power would span generations. His death in 1957 set the stage for his embrace by baby boomers, foreign audiences and other moviegoers who were captivated by his portrayals of authentic, hard-bitten characters in performances that continue to withstand the test of time.

The aura surrounding his work has yet to fade. A dozen years ago, the American Film Institute ranked Bogart as Hollywood’s greatest male star of all time, one of many posthumous honors bestowed upon him.

In “Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart,” former Time magazine movie critic Stefan Kanfer says Bogart’s enduring success is unlikely to be eclipsed.

Kanfer says teens and 20-somethings have become the dominant market, whereas people of all ages went to the movies in Bogart’s pre-television heyday. Also, Bogart achieved leading man status at 42 as Sam Spade in 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon,” followed by other adult roles such as Rick Blaine in “Casablanca,” Fred C. Dobbs in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and his Oscar-winning performance as Charlie Allnut in “The African Queen.”

Kanfer contrasts Bogart’s masculine appeal to that of Hollywood’s crop of youthful and more callow stars like Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise and Tobey Maguire.

“From time to time columnists dub some young actor the new Clark Gable, the new Jimmy Stewart, the new Marlon Brando,” Kanfer writes. “No one claims to have discovered the new Humphrey Bogart. With good reason. There was nothing like him before his entrance; there has been nothing like him since his exit.”

The only son of a well-to-do doctor and a renowned illustrator in New York, Bogart stumbled into acting after he had failed at other jobs and other prospects seemed dim. His formal education ended with expulsion from Phillips Andover; he enlisted in the Navy during World War I.

In one of his first roles on the New York stage in 1922, he was cast as a worthless “young sprig of the aristocracy” in a play that was widely panned. “It was here,” writes Kanfer, “that the distinctive Bogart delivery was born — the sudden rictus, the lips pulled back after a statement, the unique sibilance that sometimes made him sound tentative and boyish, and at other times gave him a vaguely malevolent air.”

His big break came in 1934 when he was given the role of escaped convict Duke Mantee in Robert Sherwood’s Broadway hit “The Petrified Forest,” a role he would reprise two years later on the screen.

Kanfer, who has written biographies of Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Groucho Marx, brings his knowledge of Hollywood and its ways to this entertaining book. His portrait of Bogart is replete with anecdotes drawn from scores of biographies and memoirs published after the actor’s death.

The reader follows the ascent of Bogart’s career as he progresses from playing the heavy in grade-B gangster movies to his memorable performances of the 1940s and ’50s. Among them was “Casablanca,” which made him a superstar and remains the lodestar for many film buffs.

Kanfer traces Bogart’s personal life, including three brief and tempestuous marriages that set the stage for his whirlwind courtship of Lauren Bacall that began during the filming of “To Have and Have Not.” Another thread in the story is how his liberal politics made him an occasional target of congressional investigators intent on exposing members of the Communist Party in Hollywood.

But perhaps most unique about Bogart is the career trajectory after he died of cancer. The Brattle Theater near Harvard began running “Casablanca,” sparking a Bogart cult that extended to other college campuses. After Jean-Paul Belmondo mimicked Bogart’s mannerisms in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” other New Wave directors began to channel the Bogart style. Years later, the Bogart mystique surfaced anew in Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam.”

Kanfer’s book should appeal to older Bogart enthusiasts and younger movie fans discovering him for the first time. It’s a readable and entertaining biography that reflects the author’s delight in his subject and the world in which Bogart thrived.

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