You're Not a Star Until They Can Spell Your Name in Karachi

Do these performances tacitly acknowledge the darkest side of the American character? Or are they merely manifestations of Bogart's own dark side?

April 29, 2011

    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 he followed that great run of pictures with the likes of To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and that agreeable populist fancy The African Queen speaks well of his instincts and his limited, but authentic, skills as an actor. He even had, to his great credit, a cult classic that has made its way to the mainstream in recent decades, In a Lonely Place — in which he offers us Dixon Steele, a psychopathic screenwriter one never tires of chewing on.

    It seems to me that this list of films is longer and more memorable than those compiled by the great contemporaries to whom he must logically be compared — James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, and though it grieves me to say it, Cary Grant. They all made two or three terrific films, and they were always agreeable to encounter even in routine movies. But none of them had quite the consistent good luck Bogart enjoyed from 1941's High Sierra through his last interesting, if flawed, film, The Barefoot Contessa in 1954. That's a relatively short time at the top-all of his peers had longer periods at the center of our attention-and some, like Stewart, with Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder, did some of their best work quite late in their acting lives.

    But, since Kanfer insists on bringing the matter up, if we are talking "extraordinary afterlives" — star careers that extend beyond the cultists to the general public — there is really only one that matters. That belongs, of course, to John Wayne, whose career was in some way similar to Bogart's in that he passed a long period in unworthy films (something like a hundred B Westerns) before emerging in 1939's Stagecoach. Like his fellow chess player, he, too, needed maturity to assert his full power. But unlike Bogart, or the others I've mentioned, Wayne remains something like a living presence in our popular culture, someone who requires no explanation when his name comes up. That's largely because his image was so clearly outlined, because he seemed to harbor no secrets, even when it came to his nutsy politics. Never prone to the odd, ambitious project (as Bogart and the rest sometimes were), Wayne clung closely to the genres and saved his subtlety for performance (particularly in the way he moved) where his average fans never noticed what a fine, instinctive screen actor he was.

    This is not meant to detract from Bogart's instincts, which admitted of more range and nuance in his choice of vehicles and were marked by a very different range of life experiences. We can stipulate that dark romanticism was his manifest destiny in the majority of his best roles. But not in all of them. Yes, he was often the guy who claimed, as he did in Casablanca, never to stick his neck out for anyone and then eventually went ahead and did just that. These roles suited him admirably, in that he was essentially a loner. It has always seemed to me that Bogart enjoyed playing the role of a declassed gentleman in Hollywood, a broody chess player and a happy yachtsman, who had little to do with the more frenzied social life of the town. As an actor he was a solid professional, a man who showed up on time, knowing his lines while sardonically battling the studio for better roles.

    I am not at all certain that he fully understood what his basic screen character offered America during the wartime and the postwar years. But I do think it was something more than romantic rue. Symbolically, he was, like much of the country in those days, an instinctive isolationist, only very reluctantly drawn into causes and crusades. When he was not playing, as he often did, quite a straightforward hero (see Action in the North Atlantic or Sahara) or a man who narrowly defined himself by whatever rituals his movie professions imposed on him, the fictional movement of his characters tended to be toward reluctant engagements with something larger than themselves. In this, he mirrored the nation's hesitant movement toward a similar commitment. In the quieter postwar years this tendency, somewhat subliminally, reminded people of their better — or anyway more activist — selves, while, on the whole, they pursued prosperity and ignored more strenuous political activities.

    In that context, Bogart more than once — and always effectively — experimented with a much darker version of his usual screen identity. Alone of the great stars of his era, he was willing to explore the psychotic side of his fictional nature. We can begin where he began, with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, wherein his Fred C. Dobbs goes blitheringly nuts as he grows increasingly certain that his fellow prospectors are intent on stealing his share of the gold they are digging out of a Mexican mountain. It is a great, brave, and often hilarious performance by an actor determined not to succumb to stardom's besetting impulse, which is to hint at some undisclosed likability lying beneath his antisocial behavior. To that masterpiece, we are obliged to add such scarcely less scary work as the terminally outraged screenwriter of In a Lonely Place and the pathetically sniveling Captain Queeg of The Cain Mutiny.

    These performances raise a question: do they tacitly acknowledge the darkest side of the American character? Or are they merely manifestations of Bogart's own dark side? I don't believe that any actor can consciously represent large social or psychological themes. But there are moments when a player can accidentally achieve congruence with a something more or less inchoate in — all right, I'll use the dreaded word — the zeitgeist. Something like that occurred when Bogart belatedly achieved true stardom — he was in his early forties when he made his first string of hits. He was always quite a controlled actor, but almost amateurish when called upon to play cowardice (see him begging for his life in The Roaring Twenties) or trying to laugh off Peter Lorre's goofy menace in The Maltese Falcon.

    Having said that, however, I think that, for whatever reasons, Bogart was able to tap into the largely hidden but dangerous and hysterical side of the Era of Good Feelings. This skill was hinted at as early as the one very good movie he made at Warner's when they didn't yet know what to do with him, 1937's Black Legion. In it, he plays a sullen factory worker, who, passed over for promotion, joins a Ku Klux Klan-like organization and commits murder on its behalf. There's a lot of power in this understated performance. But more to the point, the film is one of the few of its era that hints at the raw, if hidden, irrationality underlying America's ostensible good nature. Movies in that era — in any era, to tell the truth-like to present evil as a finite, containable problem. Eradicate the villain and all will be well. They do not like to imagine evil as a permanent existential condition. But when you play crazy, as Bogart did in these late pictures, you suggest that there is, in certain individuals, perhaps in society at large, an element of incurable madness. Usually in movies this aspect of life is represented by second leads, character actors, people who impinge on the leading players but can be dispensed with, without regret, when it is time for normalcy to reassert itself in the narrative. It is rare indeed for the star to embody the fully irrational in a movie. It takes an uncommon courage for him to bet that the sympathy he has engendered in other roles will be carried over into very different contexts. For Bogart to move from the reserved and the sardonic to full out psychopathy was brave, a huge test of his relationship with the audience and an equally large test of his skills as an actor. At the end of the day, it seems to me that Treasure, Place and Caine are the best measures of the man and his gifts that his career offers.

    At the very least, the rather perfunctory treatment Kanfer offers of these roles provides yet another measure of this biography's ineptitude. As someone who has devoted much of my life to film history, I sometimes wonder, when I confront a book of this sort, at once smug and clueless, if the publishing world does not apply different standards to works in this field than it does to, say, literary history. When I started writing about movies it was clear that most publishing houses did not have editors knowledgeable and passionate about a subject that they regarded as second class. Over the years, that condition has changed for the better. There has been an acknowledgment that film, and popular culture in general, has an aesthetic and a history that is complex and worthy of inspired analysis and nuanced writing. And yet there are still too many books like Tough Without a Gun — cheap, careless and mouth-breathing, titles that would not be published if their subjects were literary or political figures whose stature in their fields were comparable to Humphrey Bogart's in his.



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