Monday, April 5, 2010

Reeling Backward: "To Have and Have Not" (1944)

Lauren Bacall was 19 years old and a total acting novice when she appeared in a doorway to ask Bogie for a match. She reportedly was so nervous to be starring next to the screen legend that she tucked her chin into her chest to keep from shaking, tilting her eyes up at Bogart in an alluring way that soon earned a nickname, "The Look."

Later on in the film, standing in that same doorway, Bacall would deliver the lines that would cement her debut as one of the most memorable in cinematic history: "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."

Talk about togetherness: Bacall and Bogart would initiate a romance during the shooting of 1944's "To Have and Have Not" that eventually led to their marriage (and the demise of Bogie's).

Directed by Howard Hawks from a script by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, "To Have and Have Not" was based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway that bears little resemblance to the movie, other than the Caribbean setting and being about a fishing boat captain. Hawks supposedly called it Hemingway's worst novel, and the author dared him to produce a decent movie out of it.

The result is a film whose plot is a mishmash that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but is so strong on mood and romantic tension that we don't give a fig.

Bogart plays Harry "Steve" Morgan, an itinerant boat skipper in Martinique. Much like the city of Casablanca, Martinique is an exotic locale ostensibly under the control of the French, but with the influence of the Nazis clearly visible. The Vichy thugs are running the show, while the Free French are trying to drum up a rebellion.

As the story opens, Steve has been taking a rich American out for big-game fishing every day for two weeks, without much success. On the last day the client loses the rod and reel, and slaps Steve's friend and first mate Eddie across the face. Played by the great character actor Walter Brennan, Eddie is an old drunk who has to beg for his booze. But he's still Steve's friend, and he can't stand to see Eddie treated that way, even if he is a worthless rummy.

His client tries to skip out on Steve without paying his bill, but dies first in a gunfight between the Vichy and patriotic French. The fat, diabolical police Captain Renard -- played by Dan Seymour, in something like a combination of the Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet roles from "Casablanca" -- confiscates Steve's passport and money.

Penniless, he's forced to take a job from the resistance to pick up one of their leaders on a remote island, but the important passenger is shot during an encounter with a patrol boat. Steve spends the rest of the movie nursing the injured man, insisting to the Free French that he's not taking sides, and dodging questions from Renard.

It's funny; as you watch the movie, you can't take your eyes off Bacall. But once it's over and you start thinking about it, her character is almost totally unnecessary to the story. See, I just gave you a pretty complete overview of the plot without ever mentioning Marie Browning -- aka "Slim."

Slim is a young pickpocket whose M.O. is to lure men into buying drinks for her, then making off with their wallets. That's how she and Steve first meet -- she's just duped Steve's fishing client, and when he demands she return the wallet, he finds a ticket for a plane that takes off right before they were supposed to meet at the bank for his payoff.

Slim and Steve spend most of the movie fighting and kissing, often both within the same scene. It's real screen magic, the two of them. Bogart's doing his usual world-weary cynic shtick, but in between we catch little moments where he seems totally amazed by Bacall.

Jazzman/composer Hoagy Carmichael has a small role as Cricket, the saloon piano player, and Bacall even sings a couple of his tunes. Well, perhaps not. Accounts vary about whether the voice is actually Bacall's. According to legend, as a boy Andy Williams was recruited to dub Bacall's singing. It certainly sounds like her famously low (though not yet husky) voice.

I love the film's ending, which is somewhat abrupt but still satisfying. Having shot one of Renard's men, Steve proceeds to beat the captain and his cohort until they agree to release Eddie, who they've taken hostage. Leaving the villainous police in the hands of the resistance, they gather their stuff to hop on the boat, hoping they have enough gas to get them to another island and a new start.

Slim, whispering her goodbye to Cricket, asks him to play a happy song, and Bacall does this gorgeous little jig on their way out of the nightclub. It was the start of a beautiful friendship -- between Slim and Steve, between Bogie and Bacall, and between her and audiences for decades to come.

3.5 stars

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