Former Time contributor Kanfer (Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, 2008, etc.) tackles the screen legend, last deeply examined in competing 1997 biographies by Jeffrey Meyers, and A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax.
The contours of the Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957) story are already familiar. Son of a wealthy New York surgeon, he was a prep-school failure and Navy vet who drifted into acting through the good graces of a friend’s father, Broadway producer William Brady. After years as a male ingénue, he broke through as gunman Duke Mantee in the 1935 theatrical production of Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest. He flopped in Hollywood as a Fox contract player, but was signed by Warner Bros. after a sensational re-creation of his stage role. Following years playing ill-fated heavies on the Warner lot, Bogart finally made his mark in middle age as a tender-hearted hood in High Sierra (1941). Star-making, image-setting turns as detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and nightclub owner Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942) followed. The boozing, brawling, chain-smoking Bogie, veteran of three bad marriages, settled down with his teenaged co-star Lauren Bacall, survived a 1947 face-off with congressional Red hunters that threatened his career and collected an Oscar for The African Queen (1951). Already an icon, he died of cancer at 57 and secured a posthumous cult in the ’60s. Though Kanfer draws on past interviews with intimates to tell his story, he admits that he was hamstrung by the fact that few eyewitnesses survive. His slim volume, which leans heavily on plot synopses in the late going, is filled with make-weight quotes from memoirs and biographies. The author provides enough padding to stuff a comfortable sofa (enough with the Raymond Chandler quotations), brings little fresh perspective about Bogie’s creation of the sensitive screen tough guy and offers facile observations about the disappearance of adult archetypes in today’s youth-oriented movies.
It’s time for another top-drawer Bogart book. Maybe next time.