A bout de Bogart

Jenny Diski

  • Tough without a Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer
    Faber, 288 pp, £14.99, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 571 26072 0

It’s most likely that I first came across the idea of Humphrey Bogart not in a Bogart movie, but in A bout de souffle. Not in 1960, when it came out – I was more likely to have seen Spartacus then – but three or four years later, when the Godard movie was shown again (and again) at the Academy cinema on Oxford Street, the Hampstead Everyman or the NFT, while I was hoovering up the backlist of the Nouvelle Vague. In the crucial scene Belmondo, cigarette lolling at the corner of his mouth, hat carefully tipped down over his eyes, gazes at a poster outside a cinema showing Plus dure sera la chute, a.k.a. The Harder They Fall – Bogart’s final film – and after a moment growls ‘Bogie’ in American-accented French. Before I viewed that breathless moment, I was too young to have seen or wanted to see an actual Bogart movie, and not enough time had yet passed for Bogart to become an emblem of another period. After A bout de souffle, I went to all the NFT’s regular retrospectives of Hollywood film noir, so I came to Bogart (as to Cagney, Raft, Edward G., Stanwyck, Hayworth, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Gloria Grahame) retrospectively and as a ready-made – I think I need to use the word – icon. They were vast beings moving across the screen, on prints patinated with the time that had passed. The women were beautiful in a glamorously dated way, but the men were not so beautiful. They were a strangely squat, ragged-faced crew for a 16-year-old girl to be ogling; from plain to downright ugly, if you don’t count Glen Ford or Dana Andrews (who weren’t exactly Paul Newman or Montgomery Clift themselves).

My generation have Cahiers du cinéma, Godard and Truffaut to thank for the earlier generation of movie stars we might have overlooked. More fundamentally, we have to thank Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who provided the mean-street-walking existential characters we willingly confused with the actors who played them. The new retro cool I wallowed in had Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade as its source: the hard men with soft, democratic centres, American Romantics tinged with the Founding Fathers and Melville’s melancholic sense of humanity, the people’s Lancelots, who were dragged, flinching with distaste, into the dirty underworld by good and bad men and women, and by their doomed vocation to set the world to rights. Private eyes, but really public defenders. Always disappointed but always trying, never letting love get in the way of justice or their own essential solitude, but expressing enough righteous anger and controlled violence to keep them more interesting than, say, Jesus at his gentlest and most mild. They were dream soldiers of fortune who never came into their fortune because they couldn’t help but look after the weak. Well, not much wrong with such a notion in the black and white, troubled world of the 1940s and 1950s (or even the present one, just for a bit of a rest).

After the war, in books but most of all in old movies, these reluctant action heroes became perfect modern exemplars for the likes of Camus, who saw in them a stoic refusal to be held back by the status quo. Men who behaved as if there was a point in trying to right wrongs, even if they knew the world better than that. Mostly, in the early 1960s, we sat passively in the dark, in oversized black sweaters and tight jeans, watching the furious activity and dialogue, and then went home to read Being and Nothingness (or perhaps just its popularisation in Colin Wilson’s The Outsider). And maybe, later on, it was Marlowe and Spade who gave us the courage and foolheadedness to take to the streets. We were young and had energy to expend, so movies and books weren’t quite enough. We couldn’t all be private eyes. And the lurking socialism in Chandler and Hammett fitted well with a postwar generation’s fidgety need to blow holes in the self-sustaining establishment. I think they were part of the equation for the brief explosion of political and social activity.

In Tough without a Gun, a biography of Bogart, Stefan Kanfer is concerned that they don’t make screen idols like that any more. He doesn’t attribute this to the fact that their characters’ romantic socialism has suffered a death blow but wonders rather whether ‘the feminisation of America’ is one reason we now have Tom Cruise in place of Bogart. A variety of voices are cited. Sharon Waxman in the New York Times attributes the loss of ‘man’s men’ to what she believes (against a good deal of evidence) to be the entirely peaceful and cosseted existence everyone in the US has been living since the end of World War Two. She bemoans the loss of ‘the generation of actors who came out of the Depression or wartime, when hardship could be read in the faces of stars like Humphrey Bogart’. A columnist for Variety describes present-day actors as ‘fey’, ‘goofy’ and ‘boy-men’, and Frank Miller (director of The Spirit: ‘Rookie cop returns from the beyond as The Spirit’) believes that ‘Hollywood is great at producing male actors but sucks at producing men.’ Kanfer backs his columnists up with the opinion of Harvey C. Mansfield, ‘a conservative professor of government at Harvard’, whose book Manliness claims that American society has adopted ‘a practice of equality between the sexes that has never been known before in all human history’, so putting ‘the entire social structure … up for grabs’, as Kanfer summarises. According to Mansfield, manliness ‘restores order at moments when routine is not enough, when the plan fails, when the whole idea of rational control by modern science develops leaks’. And that’s why we’ve got Johnny Depp prancing around wearing earrings. Mind you, even in the butch 1940s Mickey Rooney, Vincent Price, Clifton Webb and William Powell played nearer to the other end of the man’s men spectrum, to appreciative audiences. To say nothing of pretty-boys Cary Grant and Leslie Howard.

Kanfer doesn’t by any means dismiss the argument, but he isn’t sure that loss of American virility due to an increase in women’s rights is a sufficient answer to the question of why there is no more Bogart. The full answer, he believes, requires a look at Hollywood’s post-television obsession with demographics. The economic power-shift to the young meant that movies began to be aimed at getting them into the cinemas. Older people stayed at home watching the telly, and a recent survey suggests that while 54 per cent of 14-17-year-olds have been to the movies in the past month, only 24 per cent of over-fifties have. A list of the top grossing movies of all time begins with Avatar (2009) and ends at number 20 with Finding Nemo (2003), by way of Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek 2. And so our screens are filled with girlymen stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Elijah Wood, and not a rugged, crusty old geezer in sight, if you don’t count Keith Richards in his Pirates of the Caribbean cameo or the cartoon ogre Shrek. It is, Kanfer admits, a chicken and egg situation. Adults don’t go to the movies because they can’t find ‘emotional and aesthetic satisfaction’. He regrets the ‘current vulgarity of American dialogue and conduct’ and says that in spite of his ‘rough-hewn persona and bar-room misbehaviour’ Bogart was ‘courteous to women and straightforward to men, and when he made a promise he kept it.’ In fact, Johnny Depp in his role as Captain Jack Sparrow and Shrek share these qualities, and I’ve no reason to suppose they don’t behave decently in their off-screen life. For vulgarity, you need to go to the much more crumpled and ‘adult’ Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis, both of whom still make movies.

So aside from representing the all-male reluctant hero in the good movies he made, what was so special about Bogart? Even Kanfer doesn’t think he had much range as an actor. With the right director and co-star he was spectacular, but the great films are not so very many out of the 75 he made: The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, In a Lonely Place are the best. You can add Casablanca, The African Queen and one or two others if you want to include camp and nostalgia. There were a lot of duds and too many tries at repeating the old successes under different titles (Sahara, Dead Reckoning, The Desperate Hours, The Barefoot Contessa, The Harder They Fall). But is it Bogart’s acting that makes him of interest to us still, 50 years after he died? His life, which takes up much of the book, is not startling. The unhappy son of an unhappy but wealthy family gone to the dogs, he failed at school, went into the navy, and then, not so rebelliously, took various jobs in the theatre provided for him by the father of a friend. He married two difficult women who drank and enjoyed their public fights until he didn’t any more, and then the most interesting thing happened to him: at 44 he met the 19-year-old Lauren Bacall on the set of To Have and Have Not. On and off-screen love, like Taylor and Burton’s, is a PR winner. The film is all the better when one knows that they actually lived somewhat happily ever after. It was both Bogie and Bacall’s biggest and best part.

It had taken a while for Bogart to come to terms with acting on camera. He began his career in the theatre, playing juveniles and finally, in his mid-thirties, made a success on Broadway in The Petrified Forest. It was made into a film in 1936 with Leslie Howard and Bogart reprising their roles as the drippy intellectual in search of meaning and the vicious gangster who values life just as little but with fewer words. It’s awful. Perhaps on stage Bogart’s rigid gait and staring eyes might have knocked them dead, but when ‘theatrical’ is applied to a movie it’s in big trouble. The problem is epitomised by Bogart’s arms, which he holds at all times stiffly bent at an improbable angle in front of him as if he were so used to going for his gun (or protecting his genitals) that they got stuck that way in permanent readiness, or more likely because someone forgot to oil his elbows. He is a marionette, a made-of-wood bad guy who curls his upper lip in close-ups as if sound still hadn’t been invented. It’s not his fault that the play requires him to die off camera after shooting Leslie Howard in order to complete a stupid sacrificial gesture towards a future in which neither of them has a part. Even then his career was uncertain. A lot of poor B-movies (The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse, anyone?) until 1941 when he played Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle in High Sierra. Bogart was a victim of the studio system, so he was used and sometimes punished with dross in between the gems. The result was that he suffered constantly from freelancer’s anxiety. Even when he was the highest paid actor in the world, he feared each film would be his last. So he churned them out in order to keep body and soul and yachts together, and because he needed to be doing something other than sitting at home and waiting for the good stuff to come along.

In his personal life, in bars or on manly roustabouts with the likes of John Huston and the Rat Pack, Bogart was inclined to believe in ‘Bogart’ just as his fans did. ‘Bogart’s a hell of a nice guy until around 11.30 p.m. After that, he thinks he’s Bogart,’ a Beverly Hills restaurant owner once said. But there is something of the whiner in his Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, as there is in Rick Blaine’s self-pitying drunk scene in Casablanca. ‘Proof,’ says David Thomson of the latter in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, ‘of how far Bogart needed a great artist to help him rise above the level of maudlin resentment.’ Thomson suggests that self-regard prevented him from acting beyond the obvious. He is at his best when detached, or displaying what Kanfer terms ‘neutrality’ – to one side of the main action and drawn in against his better judgment. Having being seduced by his cinematic self, he was incapable of bringing himself to ‘portray loathsomeness with any imaginative honesty’, Thomson says of his performance in The Roaring Twenties. Narcissism is hardly a rare quality in movie stars, but Bogart was exceptionally wrapped up in his own cinematic image – the studio, the audience and he himself all contributed to it. It could have been Bogie not Belmondo who stared adoringly at the poster in A bout de souffle and whispered ‘Bogie’.

This mixture of jobbing actor’s insecurity and confusion between himself and his characters’ idealism played out in the politics of the time and Bogart’s part in it. He joined a planeload of stars to tour the US and ended up in Washington in support of Hollywood’s Unfriendly Nineteen (‘unfriendly’, that is, to the House Un-American Activities Committee). These were dangerous times for unwitting (witless?) actors. Ginger Rogers’s mother assured the committee that her daughter had refused to say ‘Share and share alike – that’s democracy’ in Tender Comrade because of the line’s red tint. But Bogart stood shoulder to shoulder with Bacall, Danny Kaye, Paul Henreid and others, in defence of their fellow actors and scriptwriters. However, when the blacklists began, Sam Spade started to shade into the paranoid, whingeing Fred C. Dobbs of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the deluded Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. Kanfer quotes Alistair Cooke: ‘Bogart was aghast to discover [that many of the protestors] were down-the-line Communists coolly exploiting the protection of the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. He had thought they were just freewheeling anarchists, like himself.’ Not so freewheeling, not so anarchistic; and surely Harry Morgan of To Have and Have Not wouldn’t have had an aghast moment in his life. Bogart signed an article entitled ‘I’m No Communist’ in Photoplay in which he (or a Warner Brothers publicist) explained that the trip to Washington was ‘ill-advised’ and that he was a dupe, a ‘foolish and impetuous American’.

What is very strange is that Kanfer shrugs off one of the darkest and most disturbing episodes in American history. He cites Richard Brooks’s suggestion that ‘Bogie was never the same again’ after his renunciation of the First Amendment Committee, and says: ‘This smacks of the kind of romantic wish-dream that stayed with the Old Left for decades, crystallised in a film called The Front.’ (The Front, made in 1976, starred Woody Allen as a writer who makes a living lending his name for a fee to blacklisters’ TV scripts, and Zero Mostel, actually blacklisted by Hollywood for years, as a blacklisted comedian who kills himself – as several people did.) If the McCarthy era no longer carries the warning of what can happen to democracy when it is highjacked by ideological thugs, then the wish-dream is certainly over, and that may be a reason we no longer need the heroes Bogart represented. The quietism is dismaying:

To be sure, if Humphrey and the other First Amendment Committee members, and the studio heads, and the principal Wall Street investors in those studios had stood together in opposition to the so-called Inquisition in Eden, there might have been a chance to save the industry from the predators. That coalition never developed, however, and it is folly to assume that Humphrey Bogart should have sacrificed his reputation, standing mutely and obediently by as the Nineteen manipulated him for their own purposes.

A bizarre paragraph in a book that mourns the loss of those battlers for justice Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and aligns Bogart with their qualities. So what we have left is style. That lived on, however ironically. Bogart, the legendary smoker who died aged 58 of oesophagal cancer, had his last cultural gasp in 1969 on the soundtrack of Easy Rider. The Fraternity of Man sang the mournful doo-wop ‘Don’t Bogart that Joint’: a complaint about those who held onto their spliffs too long, it is said, or maybe a reference to the way Bogart curled his fingers possessively around his cigarette, before flicking it with thumb and forefinger into the gutter.

I suppose new biographies of old movie stars have to keep appearing, so that each generation can get to hear about what the previous ones already know. Not every generation can be introduced to what they’ve missed by A bout de souffle. But I would hope for the new biographies to contain something original in the way of information or ideas. Otherwise the many well-researched biographies (on which much of Kanfer’s book is based) could simply be reprinted from time to time, and contemporary biographers be freed to think of new subjects. I can’t quite get past the question of whether a biography of a film star, or come to that a writer, ever has very much more to tell us than a close look at the films or the books. Imagine what it might be like not to have any interest in the private life, and only to take account of the work. Although possessed of the same voracious voyeurism as everyone else, and deeply curious about the way other people live their lives in private, I also, inconsistently, have an increasing hankering to know absolutely nothing about people who act in the films I see.

A biography might be scholarly, fun or scurrilous, which is something, but if, like Kanfer’s pedestrian production, it is none of those, what can it be for? Even new light on Bogart’s private life seems much less interesting to me than the moment you catch Belmondo whispering ‘Bogie’, Woody Allen being trailed by Bogart’s Sam Spade, or Albert Finney’s Bogart idolatry in Gumshoe, and stop to wonder what that meant and why it meant what it did then. To say that he was the last of his kind because the world has grown effeminate and/or more youth-oriented, and that’s that, is more numbing than illuminating. Announcing the end of the great movie star is as pointless as announcing the end of history. The only thing I learned about the life of Bogart is that his wig-maker and hairdresser – the reliably named Verita Thompson – had a 13-year affair with him, which began during his second marriage to Mayo Methot, and didn’t finish when he divorced her and married Lauren Bacall. Mind you, Thompson’s own Bogie and Me – A Love Story was written in 1982, so it’s not the hottest gossip. If you hadn’t caught up, you might be startled to learn that the idyllic January-May marriage of Bogart and Bacall was not unlike many other Hollywood marriages – imperfect. Or perhaps you wouldn’t. Then again, it might shake your world more to learn that Bogie wore a wig.