Humphrey Bogart was no superhero despite latest round of applause

Book Review: "Tough Without a Gun," by Stefan Kanfer. Knopf 26.95.


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This is a great proposal for what could have been a probing book into the American image business, but Stefan Kanfer's effort pushes barely across the surface.

Subtitled "The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart," Mr. Kanfer's effort is essentially a reworking of the volumes of material about the actor, including the 1997 A.M. Sperber-Eric Lax "Bogart."

That 500-page biography, completed by Mr. Lax after Ms. Sperber died in the midst of her research, remains the definitive Bogart study. Along with a wealth of personal data, it includes detailed descriptions of the studio system of the 1930s where Bogart learned his craft and the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee and its probe of communism in Hollywood.

A bit player for Warner Bros. in the 1930s after a so-so run on the New York stage, the slim, homely guy with a lip scar and sibilant delivery emerged in the 1940s as a symbol of noble American manhood in such roles as Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon," Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" and Philip Marlowe in "The Big Sleep."

Today, the actor who died at 57 in 1957 has an "extraordinary afterlife" because there will never be another film star like him, theorizes Mr. Kanfer.

A film critic who also has written about Lucille Ball, Marlon Brando and Groucho Marx, the author promises new insights on Bogart's character and its special place in American culture.

But, first he takes up eight of 10 chapters echoing and condensing sources, with generous acknowledgment of all of them. (In addition, Mr. Kanfer has problems with dates. For example, the film, "Double Indemnity," was 1944, not 1949. New York Times writer's Sharon Waxman's lament for manly men was 2004, not 2008.)

Humphrey Bogart appeared in more than 80 studio pictures, rising to become one of the major film stars of the postwar era. His secret?

"In a corrupt world, he kept his own code of honor ..." offers Mr. Kanfer, echoing the Sperber-Lax observation:

"He was a survivor of two world wars and the Depression, but he still had a code of honor."

Many others including the French film critic Andre Bazin and filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Woody Allen understood the actor's singularity. Mr. Kanfer embraces their opinions with little original input, save a fresh take on a few Bogart films.

After skimming over commentary on masculinity and feminism ranging from newspaper and magazine columnists to a Harvard professor and Michael Chabon, Mr. Kanfer has decided that Bogey's image endures because "his unique amalgam of integrity and rue has not gone out of style. It has just gone out of American cinema."

Hollywood now panders to younger audiences," argues the author, yet, if it's true, as he writes, Bogart is "more prominent" today, why doesn't Tinseltown capitalize on this popularity?

And, Bogart's "amalgam" was created by novelists like Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler and the Hollywood screenwriters. In many other films, Bogart also played bad guys such as Duke Mantee and greedy paranoids such as Fred C. Dobbs, also the product of scripts and books.

As Mr. Kanfer and others point out, he also worked in plenty of crummy films as his contract required. In short, he was a consummate professional, so let's give him credit for effectively translating the ideas, images and words of others in a bare handful of memorable films.

Let's not weigh him down with the burden of being a flesh-and-blood superhero of American morality.


Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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