He played low-lifes, petty crooks, dodgy detectives, vigilantes, and other denizens of society’s fringe. In 27 films his characters met violent deaths. He might seem an unlikely contender for most honored, most imitated actor of the 20th century. But 50 years after his death, Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957) topped the American Film Institute’s ranking of male film legends.
Picture the indelible Bogart visage: lined, craggy, with heavy-lidded eyes, furrowed brow, overlarge teeth that rarely showed in a smile, and a pronounced scar above the lip that produced a slight lisp, which Bogart masked by delivering lines with a muted, almost musical inflection. His frame was wiry, his voice gruff, shoulders often stooped. Compared to present-day A-listers like golden boy Brad Pitt or charming womanizer George Clooney, Bogart might seem downright unappealing.
But he had guts. He didn’t merely act toughness; he embodied it, without a shred of vanity. The play of shadow across that unattractive face conveyed a grim nobility, a compelling depth that led one female co-star to wonder, “How can a man so ugly be so handsome?”
Bogart was unforgettable in part because his personal and professional selves were layered with contradictions: Thanks to a patrician upbringing, he instinctively embraced elevated manners, but he was a rebel at heart. He played both villains and reluctant heroes and in each mode remained sympathetic if somewhat dangerous. He could be quiet, scrupulous, and gentle, but also fearless and vindictive. Even as Hollywood royalty he remained a fallen noble—as the heavy-drinking head of the “Rat Pack” he courted notoriety while remaining the consummate professional. And though he railed against the constraints of the studio system, he carefully managed his public image.
Kanfer plays up this internal tension, noting that “Bogie,” both the person and the performance, was defined by qualities he was lacking—“past his fortieth birthday, underweight and balding, he was not handsome, like … any of the other leading men of the early 1940s”—he was not Cary Grant, William Powell, Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Cooper.
Bogart has been graced with so many biographies—from the academic treatments of film scholars to the personal remembrances of his wife, son, and close friends—that Kanfer’s addition might seem superfluous. But he takes pains to justify his project: Kanfer endeavors not only to introduce the legendary Bogart to a new generation but to account for his uncanny singularity and enduring appeal.
The emblem of film noir grit and gore started out as Humphrey Deforest Bogart, scion of a wealthy Manhattan family headed by a doctor father and a proto-feminist mother who was also an acclaimed illustrator. Both parents were austere and aloof, heavy drinkers given to corporal punishments. Bogart found escape in vaudeville shows and silent movies. In school he was indifferent to achievement and flouted authority. Thanks to his father’s connections, he nonetheless made it to Phillips Andover Academy, where, ensconced in privilege, he felt confined and apathetic. A precursor of the style of “cool” later to come, the teenage Bogart was self-contained, a wise guy with no future.
Bogart enlisted in the Navy. Accomplishment eluded him there too, as he spent World War I tallying up disciplinary infractions and gambling, and finally met with demotion and discharge. He emerged at the dawn of the Jazz Age, and after wandering through a series of odd jobs landed as an errand boy and office assistant in a New York theater.
Kanfer paints a picture of stubborn mediocrity: Bogart tried his hand at writing, directing, stage management, and as an understudy—and floundered at all. Upon his theater debut in 1922 he was swiftly deemed talentless; one critic called his performance “a rather trenchant example of bad acting.” But one review stiffened Bogart’s resolve; he filed it away and would return to it for motivation: “The young man who embodies the aforementioned sprig is what is usually and mercifully described as adequate.”
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Bogart was surrounded by well-wishers who devoted considerable effort to grooming him for success. Bit parts led to larger roles; performances of which one could kindly say he hadn’t embarrassed himself led to modest praise and finally real acclaim. A pair of brief, rancorous marriages to actresses more famous than he helped him step into the limelight.
Along the way, he began to foster what would become the Bogart persona, soaking up the raucous scene of Prohibition-era New York. Kanfer is a talented stylist and describes in vivid detail Bogart’s rounds at speakeasies and jazz clubs, capturing the intoxication of Broadway at its heyday.
The stock market crashed just as sound came to the movies, and Bogart joined the tide of newly unemployed. The delicate stars of the silent film era were out; studios were looking for “real men, with bass voices and animal magnetism.” There were times when Bogart was flat broke and resorted to playing chess in Central Park for money, but he eventually found a foothold, typecast as a generic tough guy in gangster films. Yet he began to resonate with audiences living through the privation and dread of the Depression.
In his breakthrough role, he plays a character who as written is just “a dime-store sociopath. … As Humphrey played him, though, he became much more than a desperado on the lam. Something about [his] unshaven, lived-in face suggested a renegade, but also a man of his time, a time that has bent and disfigured him.”
Progressing from gangsters to embattled military men to the pitch-perfect turns as private eyes Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe that heralded film noir, and in the peerless “Casablanca,” he came to be known for toughness, decency, and a battered but resilient spirit. He was an unconventional hero, but the kind the somber years of the Depression and World War II called for.
Even now, Bogart continues to capture something uniquely American. As Kanfer points out, he embodies two cities that loom large in the American imagination: “old New York, with its gritty avenues and rude wit, its hard-nosed gin joints and occasional grace notes; and old Hollywood, with its big-studio glamour, shadowy film-noirs, and tight-lipped, uncompromisingly male superstars.”
And he was manly—Bogart’s manliness stems not from brawn or the “save the day” heroics of a James Bond or Batman but from character. Slight of frame, wary, he stubbornly shrugs off calls to action; Rick’s obdurate “I stick my neck out for nobody” is the posture of many Bogart characters. He takes on a mission reluctantly, even sacrificing himself without fanfare or farewells. “His masculinity was not swagger, but its opposite—a quiet, bitter recognition of reality.”
One of the more intriguing elements interwoven through the book is the gradual melding of Bogart’s on- and off-screen persona. His characters were leery and unwavering before feminine wiles, and Bogart’s portrayals no doubt benefited from his tumultuous love life. His third wife, Mayo “Sluggy” Methot, was a colossal drunk who once stabbed him in a fit of jealousy. (Ever the stoic, Bogart paid the doctor $500 to stitch him up and keep mum.) In a charged scene from “To Have and Have Not” with wife-to-be Lauren Bacall, the 19-year-old ingénue slyly asks him, “Who was it, Steve? The one who left you with such a high impression of women?” In the affair that followed their on-set romance, Bogart found himself in a real-life redemption story, the hardened cynic renewed by a good woman.
When the House Un-American Activities Committee sought to purge Hollywood of communists, Bogart channeled one of the grudging idealists he so often played, taking up the protest as a leader of the Committee for the First Amendment. (Finding that his compatriots were in fact die-hard communists, he broke off friendships with the righteous fury he often displayed on screen.)
Kanfer suggests that Bogart wore his persona so comfortably that the costume eventually became a uniform. He was increasingly mindful of his place in the public eye and knew that audiences loved reading accounts of his marital drama, disobedience before his Hollywood minders, and many drunken escapades. Alcoholism was integral to the persona he crafted. Sure, he had bad memories, insecurities, and stress that steady drinking chased off—as Bogart bragged while filming “The African Queen” in the Congolese jungle amid a swarm of mosquitoes, “Nothing bites me. A solid wall of whiskey keeps the insects at bay.” But like many of his contemporaries, he simply enjoyed drinking, unapologetically and with great relish. It kept him adventurous.
“Bogie” was a performance honed over time and came to be widely imitated; with the rise of the nouvelle vague the French imported his trademark trench coat, the fedora, the hunched shoulders and slight scowl of the loner. Even during his lifetime, a younger generation of actors channeled the Bogart anomie, blending his style with the principles of Method acting. Bogart was skeptical, even disdainful, of the new Method paradigm, thinking it the province of “bums” rather than hard-working professionals. He saw in the shambling James Dean and slovenly Marlon Brando a devolution in Hollywood’s standards for leading men.
But as he matured he more deftly inhabited his roles, and he shared his Method counterparts’ understanding that acting demanded more than delivering speeches. His performance in “The African Queen” involved improvisation and a hard-won authenticity. It earned him an Oscar, which he accepted with characteristic self-deprecation: “The best way to survive an Oscar is never to try to win another one. … Hell, I hope I’m never even nominated again.”
Kanfer’s book slogs through every performance, no matter how insignificant: for every “Casablanca” there were many pedestrian films he churned out as a servant to his studio contract. Kanfer takes his time, trudging alongside Bogart through the valleys of his long career, to show why Bogart never relaxed into stardom but carried his celebrity with discomort and anxiety. Shortly before his death Bogart summed up his career with quiet pride: “I’m a professional. I’ve done pretty well, don’t you think? I’ve survived a pretty rough business.”
In an odd reversal, Kanfer notes, as our movies have gotten bigger—laden with CGI, 3-D, and multimillion-dollar budgets—our stars have gotten smaller, interchangeable, forgettable. He suggests, too, that with publicity machinery relentlessly marketing to the prized youth demographic, each new source of cool is quickly swallowed by the next; the oldsters thus seem evergreen, solid, “cool” because they don’t chase after audience approval.
But the Bogart appeal involves more then a sentimental backward glance. Bogart’s reserve, rough-hewn grace of bearing, sharp wit, and self-possession are all in short supply today. Amid signs that men and women have fallen into mutual incomprehension, there’s renewed appeal in the repartee and playful innuendo of a Bogart and Bacall or a Tracy and Hepburn. Perhaps, too, after decades of suspended adolescence, audiences want to see a grown-up in the spotlight.
Kanfer indulges in too much finger-pointing and cultural declinism. It seems unnecessarily dramatic to proclaim with rhetorical flourish that the apogee of actorly greatness has been reached and will never be seen again. Bogart himself was much more humble, and the fact of his ongoing influence could be better treated with fewer superlatives. His immortality speaks for itself.
Noelle Daly is associate editor of The American Interest.