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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  • Selo

    What DO I think? This is the hardest qsetuion I’ve ever answered but here goes:Note: a lot of these people could fall into multiple categories.Comedian-Male: Fred Astaire if there’s one that keeps you smiling it’s him.Female: Carole Lombard my screwball queen.Romantic-Male: James Stewart I am sincerely in love with Jimmy Stewart.Female: Barbara Stanwyck I honestly don’t think of ANYONE else when I think of romantic movies Diverse-Male: Robert Taylor he’s fantastic in everything.Female: Barbara Stanwyck (again) she did EVERYTHING and she did it perfectly.Public Figure-Male: Gene Autry he had a large group of fans and is definitely a respect-worthy American.Female: Bette Davis I don’t particularly like her, but she started the Hollywood Canteen which gives her so many points in my book it almost makes up for everything else. Most Influential I have really no idea. I think each and everyone of them added something to the mix. What do you think of my choices?Sincerely,NatalieVA:F [1.9.10_1130](from 1 vote)

  • Evaristo

    Here are my votes:Best Comedian:Female: Lucille Ball (who else?)Male: Danny KayeRomanticFemale: Rita Hayworth (She just smoldered.) Ingrid Bergman is a close esocnd.Male: Cary GrantDiverseFemale: Bette Davis (Joan Crawford also comes to mind but I’m on Team Bette, so.)Male: Jimmy Stewart. Not even close. Public FigureI don’t admire too many actors’ personal lives, so this is too hard to answer. I do like Irene Dunne, Jimmy Stewart, and Shirley Temple somewhat in this regard Most InfluentialFemale: It would have to be either Lucille Ball or Katherine Hepburn.Male: Tough. I’d say John Wayne or Fred Astaire in that each of them so shaped their respective genres; I want to go with Jimmy Stewart just in how much of a legend he is.Great blog!VA:F [1.9.10_1130](from 0 votes)