Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book: Tough Without a Gun, by Stefan Kanfer (2011)

The last few show business biographies I’ve read have tended toward the exhaustive. Not so Stefan Kanfer’s look at Humphrey Bogart. High Sierra has made Bogie a star by page 60. 25 pages later, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca have wrapped.

But that’s because Kanfer is taking an unconventional approach, focusing not so much on the well-trod ground of Bogart’s life but, as the book’s subtitle puts it, the actor’s extraordinary afterlife. The unique confluence of circumstance and individual personality that transformed Humphrey Bogart into “the American male par excellence: operating in a compromised and often evil world, a man without illusions.” Kanfer’s breezy style does allow a few errors of the kind Bill Crider calls out in his review to creep in. And I disagree with him on some key films in the Bogart canon. Kanfer overpraises To Have and Have Not, which aside from being Lauren Bacall’s debut is dull. And the Truman Capote-scripted Beat The Devil may have been years ahead of its time, but it’s still not funny. Being the first movie to pitch its failings and excesses as satire merits a footnote at best.

But Kanfer is passionate and insightful on why Bogart has lasted and will continue to loom large as the silver screen shrinks, crediting the combination of old-world manners (more than once he calls Bogart, born on Christmas Day 1899, the last nineteenth-century man) and contemporary skepticism. He also rightly singles out the chilling In a Lonely Place, which remains one of the great shadow portraits of Hollywood, as a career highpoint. There’s none of the theatrical distance of the same year’s Sunset Boulevard to soften the blows. Frequent Bogart collaborator John Huston prompts some of Kanfer’s best writing. Huston “had learned how to pare a book down to its essentials, retaining only the most vital, pivotal scenes and conflicts.” That’s a definition of a lost art. According to Kanfer:

Both considered themselves ‘men’s men,’ tough-minded personalities who bucked authority, talked intelligently on a variety of subjects, worked professionally, and held their liquor.

Not many like that anymore, and it’s that sense of not so much a lost world but a lost way of seeing the one we have that permeates the book. In Bogart’s eyes, it was simple: you were either a professional or a bum. Kanfer’s book is more an essay than a biography, and I enjoyed it.