cinema review by Carl Rollyson

"Tough Without a Gun," by Stefan Kanfer is a new biography of Humphrey Bogart

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

In 1997, the American Film Institute named Humphrey Bogart the "Greatest Male Star" in cinema history. The same year, Entertainment Weekly christened him the "Number One Movie Legend" of all time. He is on a postage stamp. Woody Allen produced a hit play and film, "Play it Again, Sam" (1972), based on the Bogart mystique, and Albert Camus - no less - was flattered when told of his resemblance to Hollywood's king.

Stefan Kanfer acknowledges these accolades as well as recent biographies by David Thomson, Jeffrey Meyers, A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax and memoirs by Lauren Bacall and Stephen Bogart. If anyone has debunked this steadily accruing fame for an actor who died in 1957 after more than 30 years of performances on stage and screen, Kanfer does not let on. He aims, instead, to offer a cogent narrative and analysis of Bogart's appeal that is shorter than the tomes by Sperber and Lax or Meyers, but more expansive than Thomson's brief portrait in his "New Biographical Dictionary of Film."

Or at least that seems to be Kanfer's purpose; he does not really say. He mentions working in the archives of Sterling Library at Yale and in "private libraries" that are not otherwise identified. His book contains no notes, and his peculiar bibliography lists as "primary sources" other books about Bogart and as "secondary sources" everything else, such as books about Hollywood in the 1930s, film noir, stardom and so on. If Kanfer has done any interviews - usually a staple of serious biographies about contemporary figures - he is silent on who said what.

As a work of moderate depth about a world-famous movie star, Kanfer's awkwardly titled book is serviceable. But if you have read his predecessors, then "Tough Without a Gun" is dispensable - unless, perhaps, the nuances of Bogartiana appeal to you.

Did George Raft really pass up the part of Rick, the role of a lifetime, in "Casablanca"? Kanfer says this story is a myth. Thomson may be closer to the truth in suggesting that lots of names get thrown around when a film is coming together for production, implying that Raft never really had the opportunity to turn the part down. Sperber and Lax, wading through studio files, found that producer Hal Wallis never seriously considered Raft, although others seemed to think he was a contender. He lobbied for the role, according to Aljean Harmetz in "Round Up the Usual Suspects," a comprehensive study of the making of "Casablanca." So what Kanfer offers is nothing new, just a distillation of secondary sources.

In general, Kanfer seeks to split differences. Many critics consider "Casablanca" a mess that came together only at the last minute; in Thomson's inconoclastic view, however, "Casablanca" was a thoroughly professional job not all that differently made from other Hollywood products of the period. But that raises a question, doesn't it? How did an efficient product become a classic? Its stars, especially Ingrid Bergman, thought the movie was a muddle and were astonished when it came to be ranked as a great film.

Kanfer takes the traditional route, describing the hectic script consultations, the different writers, the rewrites even as the film neared the end of its shooting schedule - but then he shuts down discussion of all the shenanigans, saying that, in the end, "Casablanca" triumphs because of Bogart. And, according to Kanfer, Bogart succeeds not only because of his impeccable performance, but also because of the persona he perfected in earlier films such as "The Maltese Falcon." Here Kanfer shines, getting all of Bogart in an evocative, inventive phrase: "wounded, cynical, romantic, and as incorrodible as a zinc bar."

What makes Bogart great is the oxymoronic nature of his appeal. The greatest legends, the supreme myths, are founded on an amalgamation of opposites. How can one person be both cynical and romantic? But this mix is exactly what Bogart embodies in "Casablanca" as Rick Blaine, a soured anti-fascist who seems not to care, and yet cares so deeply that he will suppress his feelings of betrayal to serve a larger cause - aiding the escape of Bergman's freedom-fighter husband from the Nazi-controlled city. Bogart only has to look at Bergman, his sunken eyes revealing his anger and sorrow because she abandoned him in Paris, and deliver his sentimental lines with deft understatement. His heroism emerges unheralded and is all the more powerful because subtlety is not what Hollywood typically had to offer in Bogart's heyday.

Consider Kanfer's biography, then, as a sort of confirmation and consolidation of the Bogart mythos, an elegant, if not especially challenging, evocation of the man and his work.

bookworld@washpost.com Carl Rollyson is the author of "Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress."

TOUGH WITHOUT A GUN

The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart

By Stefan Kanfer

Knopf. 288 pp. $26.95


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