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review: biography

T ough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart is an awfully wordy title for a book about an actor known for his ability to get to the point. Written by Stefan Kanfer, who was a Time movie critic many, many years ago, Tough Without a Gun is a biography that manages to be informative without ever being compelling. Much of it is old news; much of it is rote. Kanfer is a competent though not an especially riveting writer, and his annoying use of extraneous Gallicisms like mal de mer, en passant and mise en scène adds a curiously sophomoric touch to a biography of a man known as a tough customer.

In fact, those familiar with the Bogie legend - the rich dad, the distant mother, the prep-school background, the booze, the four wives, the turn-on-a-dime career change from thug to leading man, the breakthrough in The Petrified Forest, the immortality bestowed by Casablanca, the liaison with John Huston, the love affair with Lauren Bacall, the early death - should simply skip directly to the last two chapters. These are the ones that attempt to explain how a short, not especially good-looking, balding middle-aged man with an immobilized lip and a weird name became the most enduring movie star of all time.

A rich kid from Manhattan, a screw-up at Phillips Academy, Andover, a washout from the U.S. Navy, Bogart endured a long apprenticeship before he finally hit the big time. He started out playing bit parts on Broadway, gradually developed a reputation as a reliable heavy and "was slain in some twenty-seven films before he was offered a major romantic role."

Strings were pulled to get his career off the ground, but once the door was open, it was Bogart's persistence that kept it that way. Bogart was always a heavy drinker, sometimes to the point that he could not function, and always in trouble with the ladies; his career made a lot more sense than his life. Only at the end did he seem to find any peace, and by then it was too late. It was certainly too late for his third wife, who had been found dead in an Oregon motel, the victim of alcohol, depression and cancer.

Tough Without a Gun, rigorously chronological, is most interesting when Kanfer is talking about great films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, High Sierra, The African Queen and Casablanca, least interesting when he is providing blow-by-blow descriptions of the making of China Clipper, All Through the Night, Two Against the World and other long-forgotten assembly-line features that Bogart dutifully churned out for Warner Brothers.

It is the little tidbits and asides that keep the reader's interest: Leslie Howard, the star of The Petrified Forest, was killed when the Nazis shot down a plane they believed to be ferrying Winston Churchill from Spain to England; Claude Rains spent his time between takes on the set of Casablanca reading agricultural brochures; Sydney Greenstreet did not make his first film - The Maltese Falcon - until he was 61.

Bogart, according to Jimmy Cagney, was not especially tough off the screen, which is pretty much what one would expect an alumnus of the tough streets of New York to say about a prep-school kid. Raymond Chandler did not want Bogart to play his beloved gumshoe Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. Time said Bogie in Casablanca "looked like Buster Keaton playing Paul Gauguin."

By the time Casablanca was released, the Allies had retaken the city from the Third Reich, and Warner Brothers briefly considered tacking on a new ending with American troops turning up. Casablanca, the most beloved film of them all, is in every way a miracle: Nobody really wanted to make it, nobody liked the director (Michael Curtiz), Ingrid Bergman could not figure out which leading man she was supposed to be in love with, the screenplay was written on the fly and the studio tried to butcher the ending. In the end, Nike was right. Just do it.

In the next-to-last chapter, Kanfer pays tribute to Jean-Luc Godard for immortalizing Bogart in Breathless, in which Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a character who models himself on Bogie. He then attempts to explain why Bogart has endured as long as he has. He trots out many well-travelled theories: Bogie was tough, Bogie was honest, Bogie was a bad man who wanted to be good, Bogie was quintessentially American, Bogie was the right man at the right time. The reader can decide which theory is most persuasive.

I personally believe that Casablanca, which honours the triumph of good over evil, shows what motion pictures at their best can achieve. As long as people value freedom, as long as people are willing to sacrifice their own happiness for the happiness of others, people will value this remarkable film. Humphrey Bogart made a lot of great movies. But Casablanca is the only one that really matters. And that is why Humphrey Bogart is one of the immortals.

Joe Queenan's most recent book is a memoir, Closing Time.