In tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, we’re looking at the four classic films she made with husband and screen partner Humphrey Bogart between 1944 and 1948: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. First up is Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not.
I have to be honest and declare right here at the beginning that I don’t think there’s a better movie than To Have and Have Not. There are greater films, and more profound films, and films of more ambition and more scope and more depth. But there’s not a better movie.
By now, we’ve all heard the famous (and maybe even partially true) story of how Howard Hawks bet Ernest Hemingway that he could make a good movie out of Hemingway’s worst novel. He settled on To Have and Have Not as the biggest stinker and made a cinematic masterpiece by throwing out everything in the book and starting from scratch. There are a couple of things wrong with this anecdote, though. For one thing, the exact when and where and how of the story seemed to change every time Hawks retold it, sharpening and clarifying until it became a suitable testimony to his own prescience and talent. The other problem is that director Michael Curtiz actually adapted Hemingway’s original novel faithfully in 1950 and created the film noir masterpiece The Breaking Point starring John Garfield and Patricia Neal. Still, the core of Hawks’ anecdote nicely sums up his approach to the material. Hemingway’s novel was a story of moral defeat, of a man reaching, well, the breaking point. And that kind of thing had no place in the cinema of Howard Hawks.
Thus, from a novel of darkness, Hawks created a film of pure light. Several hands touched the screenplay. It’s credited to Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, with assists from Cleve Adams and Whitman Chambers, but this is a Howard Hawks joint through and through. Cinephiles will debate which Hawks film best sums up the director’s philosophy of can-do determinism, of rugged self-sufficiency, of strong men and strong women doing a dance around sex just to bask in the pure erotic joy of flirtation, but surely no film captures the Hawks spirit better than To Have and Have Not.
The story is simple. An expatriate boat captain named Harry Morgan meets a beautiful young drifter named Marie in Martinique and together with Morgan’s rummy sidekick Eddie they help a French Resistance leader escape from the Nazis. Of course, Howard Hawks never once gave much of a damn about a plot. For him, a plot was simply an excuse for scenes. As long as the scenes were good, then the movie would be good. Here, the scenes are great.
Today, the film is best remembered as the first pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but it’s important to remember that for Warner Brothers in 1944, it was just the new Bogart picture. After toiling in gangster roles in the thirties, a new Bogart had emerged in the forties. John Huston made him a hardboiled hero in The Maltese Falcon in 1941, and Michael Curtiz had taken that hardboiled hero and made him into a romantic figure in Casablanca in 1942. Hawks built on what Huston and Curtiz had done by making him funny. Of course, there had always been wittily sarcastic lines in the Bogart repertoire, but they were shaded with sadism and the darkness of film noir. Here, though, there’s a lightness to wit, a fun-for-fun’s sake. There’s even a kind of sweetness. Take this argument at the start of the film between Morgan and his surly fishing client, Mr. Johnson:
Johnson: I don’t see why you want that rummy around.
Morgan: Eddie was a good man on the boat before he got to be a rummy.
Johnson: Well, he's no good now…Is he related to you or something?
Johnson: What do you look after him for?
Morgan: He thinks he's lookin' after me.
Of course the real verbal fireworks start once 19-year-old Betty Bacal walks through the door. Hawks’ wife, Slim, had seen her on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and suggested to her husband that he screen test the sultry young model. Hawks brought her to Hollywood, gave her a new first name, added a second L on the end of her last name, and Lauren Bacall was born. She’s 25 years younger than her leading man, but she treats him as if she’s got him figured all figured out. She names him Steve for no reason, and he calls her Slim (Steve and Slim were the nicknames of Hawks and his wife) and we’re off to the races.
Slim: Who was the girl, Steve?
Morgan: Who was what girl?
Slim: The one who left you with such a high opinion of women. She must have been quite a gal.
The spin Bacall puts on that last line, the giddy sarcasm of quite a gal, is the key to Bacall’s performance—the key, really, to the whole movie. For the first (and sadly the only) time in Bogart movie, the woman gets most of the best lines. Did Bacall know that, in fact, she was getting the best lines she’d ever get? Maybe. Of course, she and Bogart were falling in love during the film, so some of what you’re seeing is the bloom of real romance, but this is also a 19-year-old kid playing a grown up woman of the world opposite the screen’s foremost tough guy. You can tell she’s having the time of her life, luxuriating in her youth and beauty while getting to play a dame who’s seen it all.
[She sits in his lap and kisses him]
Morgan: What'd you do that for?
Slim: Been wondering whether I'd like it.
Morgan: What's the decision?
Slim: I don't know yet.
[She kisses him again]
Slim: It's even better when you help.
This is dialog as mating ritual. This, my friends, is foreplay.
While the sexiness and the comedy are the main appeals of the film, Hawks doesn’t skimp on the intrigue or adventure. The plot here is a plagiarism of Casablanca, with a disillusioned expatriate Bogart rediscovering his sense of duty by helping a European freedom fighter flee the Nazis and their Vichy lapdogs, but To Have and Have Not is less of a patriotic call to arms than a boy’s adventure tale. Darkness isn’t permitted except to shade the action and create tension that can be relieved with a wink or a joke or, toward the end, with some Bogart badassery. When Eddie is taken hostage by Vichy thugs, Morgan springs into action, killing bad one guy and setting up two more for a working over until one of them telephones their base to release Eddie.
Morgan: You're both gonna take a beating 'til someone uses that phone. That means one of you's gonna take a beating for nothin'. I don't care which one it is.
[He walks over to one guy]
Morgan:We’ll start with you.
In the cinema of Howard Hawks, problems get resolved by action, by decisiveness and clarity. It’s a fantasy of stalwart dignity stylishly exerted. The pairing of Bogie and Bacall was a Hawks creation which he carried into their next picture, The Big Sleep, but this trio made in heaven would end once Bogart and Bacall revealed that they had fallen in love and were going to be married. Hawks, as possessive of Bacall as Alfred Hitchcock would be of Tippi Hedren, did not exactly comport himself in the manner of a Hawksian hero once it became clear that his creation had slipped free of his control. After The Big Sleep, neither Bogart nor Bacall ever made another picture with Hawks. Bogart would die in 1957, followed by Hawks in 1977. And now Betty is gone, too. But their greatest work, To Have and Have Not, will live for as long a people watch movies—a shimmering, silvery testament to love and joy.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.