Monday, June 23, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944)

Lauren Bacall got her introduction to Humphrey Bogart and the world with Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944), which only vaguely resembles the novel by Ernest Hemingway but really exists as its own gloriously weird melange of Casablanca (1942), comedy, and film noir cool. Bogart and Bacall burn up the screen as jaded expatriates who fall for each other in the dangerous heat of Vichy Martinique, and their chemistry is as palpable to viewers today as it was to the wartime audiences who first watched Bacall teach Bogart how to whistle. Sexy and smart, even if it isn’t all that interested in its plot, To Have and Have Not sells its strange brew with knowing repartee, an exotic location, and Walter Brennan’s lovably daft obsession with the bite of a dead bee.

Bogart plays American fishing boat captain Harry Morgan, who has brought his boat and his alcoholic partner, Eddie (Walter Brennan), down from Key Largo to Nazi-occupied Martinique. There they eke out a living taking tourists out to fish while avoiding the local politics, even though their friend, Frenchy (Marcel Dalio), begs Harry to transport some resistance leaders wanted by the Vichy officials. When a beautiful but broke pickpocket named Marie (Lauren Bacall) arrives on the island and needs his help, Harry changes his mind about working for the resistance.

From the start there’s a lot of Casablanca being revisited here, from Bogart’s standoffish expatriate to the freedom fighters he inevitably decides to help. Instead of Dooley Wilson as Sam we get Hoagy Carmichael as Cricket, while Claude Rains’ morally ambivalent Captain Renault gets merged with Peter Lorre’s oily Ugarte in Dan Seymour’s creepy Captain Renard. The big difference is Lauren Bacall in place of Ingrid Bergman, but Bacall’s not too good girl changes the whole temperature of the picture; here is an angel already tarnished enough that Bogart doesn’t have to give her up to prove he’s an honorable guy. The resistance fighter’s wife, played by Dolores Moran, never gets the chance to choose Bogart over her heroic spouse because a jealous Marie is already on the scene, and Marie pointedly thwarts Madame de Bursac’s constant attempts to flirt with Harry.

In addition to the chemistry between the two fascinating leads, the picture gets its appeal from its crackling dialogue, in which Lauren Bacall generally has the last word. Marie always calls Harry “Steve,” while he calls her “Slim.” After they kiss for the first time, she tells him, “It’s even better when you help.” Later she says, “I’m hard to get, Steve, All you have to do is ask me.” It’s hard to believe that Bacall was only nineteen when she threw these lines at Bogart with her knowing look and been-there casual despair. Her world-weary youth makes a sharp contrast to Walter Brennan’s aging innocence as the perpetually thirsty Eddie. “Was you ever bit by a dead bee?” he asks everyone he meets, but only Bacall’s Marie has the perfect comeback to win him over.

To Have and Have Not launched Bogart and Bacall’s storied romance but also a series of costarring roles. See more of their onscreen heat in The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948). Howard Hawks directed a slew of classic favorites, including Bringing Up Baby (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), and Rio Bravo (1959), but he earned his only career Oscar nomination for Best Director with Sergeant York (1941). See more of Walter Brennan in My Darling Clementine (1946), Red River (1948), and Rio Bravo. Bogart is unforgettable in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca, and The African Queen (1951), but Bacall also has great solo roles in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Shootist (1976), and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996).