SINCE THE PUBLISHER USES the word "definitive" to describe Tough Without a Gun in its catalog copy, perhaps it might be useful to provide a working definition of "definitive." At the minimum it would have to include some survey of primary sources — papers, interviews, etc. — as well as an attempt to provide fresh critical insight into the life and work of a particular subject, in this case Humphrey Bogart.
Nothing remotely resembling that sort of effort occurs in Stefan Kanfer's deeply useless biography, which draws exclusively on secondary sources for its basic information and on a banal sensibility for its critical ideas. Even by the vulgar standards of the "star bio" this is a tired and inept performance. And that says nothing about its errors of fact — I noted about fifty of them before I stopped counting — which render the book as untrustworthy as it is tiresome to read. Most of these mistakes, it might be mentioned, could easily have been avoided by keeping a couple of standard reference volumes on the desk when the author — or someone — read its proofs. There is, indeed, a kind of unearned arrogance, a sort of willed ignorance, in this performance that is particularly alarming in that the author frequently bemoans the decline of standards, literary and cultural, elsewhere in contemporary culture.
Mostly, the book offers a view of Bogart's life that has become standard over the years: the well-to-do kid whose family lost its money after he wandered into acting, became a Broadway juvenile, achieved something like stardom in the really bad stage and movie versions of The Petrified Forest, wandered rather aimlessly through four wilderness years at Warner Brothers, before getting the roles that suited him, the while drinking heavily and enduring a truly awful marriage, before finding professional satisfaction and, a little later, domestic bliss with Lauren Bacall. Kanfer, who was my colleague at Time magazine for a number of years, adds nothing you have not previously read to this record, the basic facts of which have been spread through countless biographies over the past half century. Nor does he offer anything but standard readings of Bogart's films.
What he gives us in the way of added value is what his subtitle refers to as the "extraordinary afterlife" of the Bogart image. He's talking about Jean-Paul Belmondo's wistful sighs when he encounters a poster — "Ah, Bogie" — in Jean-Luc Godard's 1959 Breathless, and the college-kid nostalgia that began a little later at Cambridge's Brattle Theater and spread, briefly, beyond Harvard to other campuses around the country in the 1960s. This is really old news, and it is pure desperation (or cynicism) for Kanfer to pretend that it has any current relevance.
This is not to say that Bogart is without historical resonance. We're not talking John Payne or William Lundigan here. He used to say that the only valid definition of stardom was the ability to pull your weight at the box office, which after a somewhat belated start, he began to do with High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and, of course, Casablanca. That ...