Book review

Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart – Stefan Kanfer

The premise of this book is that Humphrey Bogart is the greatest movie star of all time.

Humphrey_Bogart_1940I am not convinced that that is a sufficient premise for a book, particularly one that is not a breathless fanzine, although it could be a very interesting magazine article.

As a book, it is something of a disappointment, in that Kanfer—who was, according to the dust jacket, Time magazine’s first bylined film critic—brings very little else to the table. It seems mostly based on secondary research, interviews he conducted in the past, and his analyses of various of Bogart’s films. Which is not uninteresting, but it is not particularly new or earth-shattering or insightful. The book was published in 2011; you would think it would have a bit more to commend it: perhaps some sort of definitive biography or hagiography. I found myself contrasting it with the much richer, much better written, much more deeply researched, much more thoughtful treatment of Orson Welles by Simon Callow; Kanfer’s book was sadly lacking.

I don’t want to belabor the point and so I shall keep this post brief. But I will enumerate some of the book’s limitations and flaws, while first noting that, overall, it is not badly written and is rather well copyedited (something of a rare pleasure in itself); it is fairly interesting; the subject matter is compelling; and Kanfer’s underlying premise of Bogart’s iconic status is thought-provoking if only for the guilty pleasure of playing a few rounds of “who’s your favorite movie star.” That is all by way of damning with faint praise, I realize. But I found that the book annoyed me the longer I read it, and I ended by taking very little pleasure from it.

Here are the weak parts:

  • He overreaches, attempting to tie episodes in Bogart’s life or career to the zeitgeist. The results range from baffling to laughable. For example, he quotes Bacall as saying

…all the love that had been stored inside of me, all my life for an invisible father, for a man. I could finally think of allowing it to pour over this man.”

Kanfer then launches into a ludicrous broad analogy:

Those sentiments jibed with the longings of many American women. Their husbands and boyfriends were overseas, and they looked for the certainty and authority of their elders. In 1944, the most prominent men in military and political roles were father figures or even grandfather figures… Americans—particularly American women—needed to believe in these gray-haired leaders. So, in fact, did Humphrey. He endorsed FDR yet again…

Or another example, from near the end of the book, when Bogart is dying:

The irony was that outside the hospital the world was enjoying a false spring. Polls said President Dwight Eisenhower would be a shoo-in for reelection…During this good time Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine that proved effective at immunizing children against polio. In the USSR the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was about to list, in some detail, the mass murders and other crimes of Joseph Stalin.

These overblown efforts to contextualize end up sounding pompous and silly.

  • The research seems sloppy. For one thing, he  alludes to an affair with Verita Thompson, “Humphrey’s hairdresser—and self-described inamorata,” without questioning or authenticating the veracity of her claim; he uses his final mention as an opportunity to say unpleasant things about Bacall by quoting Thompson’s book (ostensibly) quoting Bogart. He also makes mention of producer Sam Spiegel in connection with The African Queen, relating fascinating stories of his eccentricities and reinventions. But I was stopped cold by this “Ultimately he convinced investors to back two pictures, one made by Orson Welles…the movie [The Stranger] made a profit and convinced major studios that Welles was a bankable talent.” The phrasing here is deceptive at worst, careless at best; this is five years after Citizen Kane. Also, there are no notes, only extended acknowledgments.
  • He calls Lauren Bacall “Lauren.” I know that shouldn’t bother me; I could hardly say “Hey Betty!” But I do know that no one ever called her Lauren, and so it was very odd, to say the least, that Kanfer would so distance himself from her by insisting on calling her by what she and her friends considered to be a made-up name. He also did not interview her for the book. He also does not treat her particularly nicely, making rather gratuitous allusions to various affairs and crushes with little substantiation. Perhaps there is a mean-spirited reason underlying all this; I would hate to think so.
  • He rattles on and on and on about certain movies for no apparent reason. It’s not like a particular joy or enthusiasm or passion comes through in all the detail lavished on, for example, In a Lonely Place; rather, it just comes across as self-indulgent. Charitably, these are obviously pictures he saw value in or just plain liked, but his prose does not convey his reasons.

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