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Here’s looking at you

New portrait of Humphrey Bogart sheds little new light on the iconic king of noir

Humphrey Bogart, as Charlie Allnut, with Katharine Hepburn, as Rose Sayer, in a scene from “The African Queen’’ in 1951. Humphrey Bogart, as Charlie Allnut, with Katharine Hepburn, as Rose Sayer, in a scene from “The African Queen’’ in 1951.
By Saul Austerlitz
Globe Correspondent / January 30, 2011

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In April 1957, shortly before finals began at Harvard, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge screened the Best Picture winner of 1943, “Casablanca.’’ Crowds of students came back again and again, clad in trench coats, cigarettes dangling from their lips, gleefully shouting out the memorable lines from the screenplay by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch. Too young to see it on its first turn through theaters, these young men and women had found a film that spoke to their romanticism, their bruised idealism, and their sense of Hollywood’s already-vanishing glamour. In short, they had discovered Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart was already dead by then, struck down at 57 in January of that year by cancer of the esophagus. But the Bogart cult had only just begun, soon to spread to college campuses around the nation. It would spawn such disparate tributes to his enduring appeal as Jean-Paul Belmondo’s smearing his lip with his thumb, Bogart-style, in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,’’ and Woody Allen’s comic salute to Bogie, “Play It Again, Sam.’’ Bogart has been the subject of posthumous, passionate movie love in a way in which, say, Gregory Peck has not — making the prospect of a new biography a welcome affair.

Bogart was the unlikeliest of movie stars. Short and scrawny, his upper lip marked with a scar, betraying a slight lisp when he spoke, Bogart was hardly a romantic idol like Cary Grant. A doctor’s son who grew up on Manhattan’s elegant Riverside Drive and attended the elite Trinity and Phillips Academy prep schools, Bogart was bound for Yale — his father’s medical school alma mater — before being sidetracked by a recurring taste for juvenile antics and the stage. Stefan Kanfer tells us in his new Bogart biography, “Tough Without a Gun,’’ that Bogart was initially typecast as “the eternal upper-class twit,’’ coasting along in a series of undistinguished roles until being cast as a gangster in Robert Sherwood’s play “The Petrified Forest.’’ “As Duke Mantee, everything about him was different. His diction, his gait, his attitude, his prison pallor all spoke of a life outside the law.’’ A new career as a gun-toting villain was born.

At first, Hollywood went along with the conventional wisdom, and made him the baddie he was supposed to be, machine-gunning him to death in dozens of films, electrocuting him in another handful, and even allowing him to be mauled by a lion in “The Wagons Roll at Night.’’ Bogart was a familiar face in the pantheon of unshaven working stiffs in which Warner Bros. specialized in the 1930s, but little more, until George Raft passed on “The Maltese Falcon’’ and the middle-aged Bogart became an overnight sensation. Broadway columnist Louis Sobol dubbed him “the white-haired boy of Hollywood.’’ At age 42, with his hairline beginning to recede, Bogart was suddenly a star. There would be no more lions mauling him. As Kanfer notes, Bogart was the right star for the right moment: an all-American tough guy without the ethnic overtones of earlier stars like Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson, a graybeard hero at a time when middle-aged men like Franklin D. Roosevelt and George S. Patton were American icons.

Bogart came to serve as the ideal hero for the era of noir: hard-bitten, wise to the world’s evils, but with a sneaky sense of justice and moral order. The Bogart cult endures in part because the films themselves are so good — not many other stars can point to a half-dozen classics as enduring as “Casablanca,’’ “The Maltese Falcon,’’ “The Big Sleep,’’ “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,’’ “To Have and Have Not,’’ and “The African Queen’’— and in part because Bogart himself, undercutting his own fundamental decency at every step, never seems to age. He is every bit as diffident and as gruff as any 2010 antihero, and yet his prickly dignity marks him as a timeless American icon.

It is a shame, then, that Kanfer’s biography is so inadequate to the task of shedding new light on Bogart’s life, or even explaining the attraction he continues to hold for audiences. Kanfer leans heavily on his sources, devoting the most space to films, like “Casablanca’’ and “The African Queen,’’ about which much has already been written, and comparatively little to such Bogart gems as “Dark Passage.’’ (And what of Kanfer’s repeated assertion, against the evidence of such delightful larks as “The Big Sleep’’ and “Beat the Devil,’’ that Bogart was an incompetent comedian?) In addition, Kanfer has the odd habit of paraphrasing dialogue, choosing to substitute his own reworked versions of the classic dialogue from “Casablanca’’ and “The Big Sleep.’’ The effect, to say the least, is odd. And why must everyone — including Truman Capote — be referred to by their first name, as if this book were some kind of dinner party?

Kanfer brings in the work of other critics at the tail end of “Tough,’’ offering Peter Bogdanovich’s meditation on Bogart’s 1940s characters: “It was always ‘maybe’ because he wasn’t going to be that much of a sap, wasn’t making any speeches, wasn’t going to be a good guy. Probably he rationalized it: ‘I’m just doing my job.’ But we felt good inside. We knew better.’’ Bogdanovich has nailed the tension between romance and cynicism that is the enduring allure of such iconic Bogart heroes as Rick Blaine, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlowe, and it is precisely this critical eye to the nuance of Bogart’s work that is sorely lacking from Kanfer’s biography. Note to future Bogart biographers: Play it again, Sam.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.’’ He can be reached at swa204@gmail.com.

TOUGH WITHOUT A GUN: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart
By Stefan Kanfer
Knopf, 288 pages, illustrated, $26.95