Wednesday, August 13, 2014

You Know How To Whistle, Don't You?

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not

According to legend, To Have and Have Not (1944, directed by Howard Hawks) was made on a bet. Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway were hunting (and drinking) buddies. Hawks was a fan of the writer but not of To Have and Have Not. "A bunch of junk," he called it. He bet Hemingway that he could make a good movie out of it, or so the legend goes. Whether this is true or not doesn't really matter, I guess. It's Hollywood, after all, and when the legend becomes fact and all that. What we do know is that Hawks bought the rights from Howard Hughes and sold them to Warner Brothers, hired an out of work and out of print writer named William Faulkner to write the movie with Jules Furthman (a move that surely rankled Hemingway, given the rivalry between Faulkner and Hemingway), and discarded most of the second half of the book. He also cast an unknown actress in the lead. Her name was Lauren Bacall.

Humphrey Bogart and Walter Brennan in To Have and Have Not

The story in To Have and Have Not follows a fishing boat captain named Harry Morgan as he navigates the shifting politics of Martinique under the rule of the Vichy French. Morgan acts as a fishing guide for rich tourists and the tourist he has as the film opens is a greenhorn named Johnson, who owes Morgan $825. Into this comes Marie Browning, "Slim" to Morgan, an itinerant pickpocket who lifts Johnson's wallet. Morgan is onto her and relieves her of the wallet only to discover that Johnson is going to skip out on him. Unfortunately for Morgan, Johnson is killed in a skirmish between the local authorities and a cabal of Free French fighters before he can sign over the traveler's checks to pay him. Suddenly penniless, he takes on a job for those self-same Free French partisans, and brings Paul du Bursac, a partisan operative, and his wife to Martinique from Devil's Island. The local despot, Captain Renard, suspects him, and begins needling Morgan's alcohol-soaked friend, Eddie, for information. This comes to a head as Morgan is asked to contrive an escape for the du Bursacs...

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not is instantly recognizable as a riff on Casablanca. You have the same mix of politics, the same world-weary cynic with a heart of gold in the lead, the traveling freedom fighters, even the man at the piano (in this film, Hoagy Carmichael). What it lacks is Casablanca's sentimentality. The characters in this film are altogether more hard-boiled than Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund. I presume that Dolores Moran's Madam du Bursac was originally intended as the Ilsa character--she's certainly the softest character of the bunch--but she's entirely steamrolled by the ascendancy of Lauren Bacall. This is in spite of the fact that Hawks was having an affair with Moran at the time. He lusted after, but never got Bacall, but he also recognized a star when he saw one. He fancied himself a star-maker, and damned if he didn't make one in this movie. The politics of the movie are of their time, but World War II has become so mythologized that anything set against that background--particularly from the period itself--takes on the allure of that myth. The politics of the day forced the filmmakers to change a number of key elements of the story. The idea of corrupt government officials was judged by the Roosevelt administration to be antagonistic against Cuba, who the United States was courting with their "good neighbor" policy. The only setting in the region that was outside that sphere was Martinique, then under the control of Vichy France. This transforms Hemingway's emphasis on the ideological moral problems suggested in the book's title into a propaganda opportunity.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not

The behind the scenes story of To Have and Have Not is essential to its mystique. This film is famous for the great romance of its two leads, which played out on screen in smoldering dialogue scenes in which the off-screen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall seeped into the movie. It's been said of this film that you can see the process by which two people fall in love for real in this film--it's not acting, as it were--and certainly, that's part of the film's enduring appeal. But if that's all true, then it's the most sophisticated courtship I ever heard of, replete with subtle role-playing, gruff bravado, and double entendres.

Oh, those double entendres. This film is a pre-code film dressed up to put one over on the censors, one in which the dialogue isn't objectionable on the page, but which no one can mistake as chaste and proper by the Breen Office's dim lights. It's wittier than the book ever was.

Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not

As a film, this is one of those Hawks films where the scene completely outranks the plot. The plot, let's face it, is completely irrelevant to the film's forward motion. What the plot does is provide a framework for scenes. In truth, most of the scenes that don't feature Bacall are kind of mundane, but that might just be because they exist in her shadow. The action scenes in this film are good, but nothing special. Bacall herself describes herself as being completely terrified of the process of making movies. Her first scene, where she asks Bogart for a match, found her trembling so much that the only way to calm herself was to hold her head downward and look up. This is "The Look," for which she became famous, though it should be noted that "The Look" was already there in the modeling photos that first brought her to Hawks's attention in the first place. All stage fright should be so serendipitous. The "Whistle" scene was not in the original script. It derives from Bacall's screen test for the film with Bogart, who loved it. So in it went, and history was made.

Bacall provided a unique problem for the filmmakers in her scenes with Hoagy Carmichael: finding a singing voice to match her speaking voice. This film has another legend attached to it, mostly perpetrated by Pauline Kael, which holds that Bacall's singing voice in To Have and Have not was dubbed by a young Andy Williams. Untrue, it turns out, though Williams, among other singers, did record tracks for the film. Bacall sang live on the set, and Hawks found her voice acceptable. In truth, she's not particularly good--she was never to be a star of musicals.

Lauren Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael in To Have and Have Not

For his part, Bogart used this film to further perfect the "Bogart" persona: wisecracking, competent, cynical, idealistic. The Bogart persona is a distillation of the wise-guy heroes of Warners' films from the 30s, James Cagney grown worldly and wise, if you will, but with a shading of fatalism. Bogart's face was not handsome, but it reflected light in ways that compelled you to watch him, a quality amplified in this film by the shadowy, noir style employed by cinematographer Sid Hickox. He may not have had matinee idol good looks, but he had the "it" factor of a movie star. This isn't technically a film noir, but it occasionally looks like one. This is particularly evident in the scenes between Bogart and Bacall, most of which take place in shadowy hotel rooms. The visual beauty of these scenes sets them apart from the other parts of the film, which are less expressionistic.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not

This film has a wealth of interesting faces in supporting roles. The key supporting performance is provided by Walter Brennan as Eddie, a genial drunk and lovable idiot. This is a light role for Brennan, who could veer between comedy and drama with ease (this role is a far cry from his turn as Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine). The film gives Eddie signature character tics--his patter about dead bees, for instance--that would be annoying in the hands of another actor. Brennan makes it work. The other key role is Dan Seymour's Captain Renard, who the actor underplays, perhaps as a means of keeping his French accent under control. This works for the character, though. His quiet menace is effective. It oozes corruption. Most of the other characters are negligible. Walter Sande's Johnson is a generic ugly American, while Marcel Dalio's Frenchy is a character that Peter Lorre should have played. The background bit players, though, are surprising. Hawks raids Val Lewton's company for a number of the faces that populated I Walked With A Zombie: Sir Lancelot, Chef Milani, Marguerite Sylva. To some degree, the presence of black actors in the background, but with none in the foreground, is one of the film's minor failings. It's a diverse cast, but one in a colonial setting in the service to a story about white people's problems. One wishes for a character with the same prominence and agency as Dooley Wilson's Sam, but this is only a nettling complaint, really.

Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not

Humphrey Bogart and Dan Seymour in To Have and Have Not

Dolores Moran takes it on the chin in this film. Originally cast as the lead, she found herself becoming more and more marginalized by the film in spite of the fact that she was sleeping with the director. Moran probably wouldn't have become a star of the same magnitude of Bacall--her life was plagued by scandal, which was never good for anyone in Hollywood who wasn't Robert Mitchum--but this film might have put her in the spotlight. Chalk it up to being struck by lightning, because that's a close analogy for what happened here. She mostly provides Hawks with an opportunity to indulge in his habit of placing incredibly beautiful women in the frame even when he doesn't have to. It's probably just as well that Mme. de Bursac wasn't the lead in the film, because she wasn't Hawks's kind of woman at all. "Slim," on the other hand, was entirely his creation, one modeled on his wife and sculpted by all the tools of the Hollywood star system. Moran had no chance against that.

Humphrey Bogart and Dolores Moran in To Have and Have Not

In any event, To Have and Have Not is one of those films that I turn to as comfort food. It's one of my favorite movies and has been ever since my mother introduced it to me when I was a teenager. I'm writing this on the occasion of Lauren Bacall's death and it seems a fitting tribute. I don't know if I prefer To Have and Have Not to The Big Sleep among the films Bacall made with Bogart, but it's not a choice I really have to make. Both films are eternal. Bacall was a star from the get go, and what a fearless career she had. It's a rare actress who can count among her directors Howard Hawks, Douglas Sirk, John Huston, Robert Altman, Hayao Miyazaki, and Lars Von Trier. She was 19 when she made To Have and Have Not. Her remaining 70 years were a life well-lived.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not

A short note to direct interested parties to Lauren Bacall's autobiography, By Myself and Then Some, which is candid and conversational. Bacall was a bright and thoughtful woman and that shines through.

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