TOUGH WITHOUT A GUN: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart, by Stefan Kanfer. Knopf, 288 pp., $26.95
Humphrey Bogart's career was, as his screen alter ego Sam Spade would say of a certain black bird, the stuff that dreams are made of.
Seven decades after carving out his image as the definitive movie tough guy in "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon" and unlikely romantic hero in "Casablanca," the Bogart mystique lives on. Offering an analysis of Bogart's enduring appeal is Stefan Kanfer in his colorful new bio, "Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart."
"His outstanding characteristics - integrity, stoicism, a sexual charisma accompanied by a cool indifference to women - are never out of style when he's on-screen, and he is still on-screen all the time," Kanfer writes.
Never out of style, either, is the rebel spirit that can be traced back to Bogart's youth, when he locked horns with his father, a prominent Manhattan surgeon, and was treated with indifference by his artist mother. Flunking out of prep school and enlisting in the Navy didn't bring them any closer, nor did opting for an acting career over medicine. Bogart's fighting spirit would come in handy at Warner Bros., which signed him in 1936 to repeat his stage role as gangster Duke Mantee in the film version of "The Petrified Forest." Despite the movie's success, Bogart toiled in second-rate flicks (usually rubbed out by James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson) until his breakout role as aging gangster "Mad Dog" Roy Earle in "High Sierra" (1941).
Kanfer, who has written bios of Marlon Brando and Groucho Marx, does a thorough job of taking us on a journey through the making of Bogart's other films, from "Casablanca" to "Key Largo," aboard the African Queen and the Caine.
The troubled waters those cinematic vessels encountered weren't half as tempestuous as some of Bogart's marriages, especially to third wife Mayo Methot, whose jealous nature turned volatile when mixed with alcohol (she once stabbed Bogie in the back). Even after finding domesticity with Lauren Bacall (wife No. 4), Bogie continued to drink heavily, smoke continually and dally with former starlet Verita Thompson.
While all of this is exciting and well detailed, Kanfer doesn't dish out anything truly revelatory. That's probably because he mainly relies on previously published works for his material. Kanfer is at his best when framing Bogie's career against the social and cultural mood of each era, and exploring Bogie's flourishing cult status since his death in 1957.
Sam Spade, however, would probably give Kanfer a good sock in the kisser for the many criminal errors throughout the book. There are botched movie titles (he calls the Bette Davis weeper "The Big Lie" instead of "The Great Lie"), incorrect release dates ("Double Indemnity" came out in 1944, not 1949), studio mix-ups ("Scarface" was released by United Artists, not Warner Bros.) and Oscar gaffes (good as she was in 1940's "They Drive by Night," Ida Lupino did not get an Oscar nomination).
Perhaps the saddest point Kanfer makes in "Tough Without a Gun" is that there aren't any actors at present or on the horizon who have the same blend of masculinity and integrity that defined this movie tough guy.
Here's looking at you, Bogie.