Book Review: Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Arts & Film, Books, NY Press Exclusive.


At a time when celebrity biographies are frequently clocking in above the 500-page mark (Peter Biskind’s Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, ended at 627 pages—and that’s skipping Beatty’s pre-fame years), Stefan Kanfer’s 304-page Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart is a relief. As lean and succinct as a Bogart performance, Kanfer briskly examines the classics and the duds that studded Bogart’s lengthy career, from his lackluster Broadway career to his fame as Sam Spade, Rick Blaine and Charlie Allnut.Ignoring the multiple factual inaccuracies that dot the book (James Cagney slammed Mae Clarke’s face with a grapefruit in Public Enemy, not White Heat), Tough Without a Gun is a breezy biography of one of Hollywood’s few still-idolized actors. Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn have become increasingly complicated figures, their off-screen lives and on-screen tics sometimes overshadowing their better performances. Not so Bogart, whose off-screen shenanigans fed into his screen persona. Terse, tough and honorable, Bogart’s performances remain beacons of what it means to be a man, Kanfer argues.

Those looking for more than a biography (as suggested by the title) may be disappointed, Kanfer doesn’t get around to Bogart’s legacy until the final chapter, which reads more like a bibliography of Bogart-inspired novels and essays than a critical re-examination. Kanfer also makes the odd decision to quote extensively from Verita Thompson’s unconfirmed account of her alleged, 13-year affair with Bogie, while simultaneously painting Bogie as the last of the 19th-century gentlemen. This moral complexity, which served to make Bogart more than another film hero, is never fully explored by Kanfer, which is a mistake. But for casual Bogart enthusiasts, Tough Without a Gun serves as a handy intro to the actor’s career and life, one that won’t exhaust your arms in the reading.

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