Essentially Hemingway’s novel of the same name crossed with “Casablanca.” Instead of the Depression it’s WWII and we’ve moved from Cuba to the French Island of Martinique (or have we moved from North Africa to Martinique?). Slimy Vichy fascists replace the Nazis. As the title suggests, both the novel and the film are about the confines of poverty, or those about to slip into poverty, but explore this theme through high adventure and atmosphere rather than overt preaching.
Humphrey Bogart plays a tough fishing boat captain who takes crap from no one, save his rum-soaked pal Walter Brennan (relatively young). An empty wallet convinces him to take part in a rebel smuggling run that has trouble written all over it. Lauren Bacall plays a penniless pickpocket, far from home, slinking around and looking like a million bucks. She’s a lot of fun, one moment smirking at everything under hooded eyes like it means nothing, the next dropping her guard around Bogie, and usually regretting it. “I went to a lot of trouble to get you out of here,” Bogart says to her, to which she huskily intones, “That’s why I didn’t go.”
The film’s biggest potential shortcoming isn’t its lack of fidelity to the source material (even the Netflix DVD sleeve claims it was “allegedly” inspired by Hemingway’s novel). My wife felt that every inch of the set-up suggests that we’re watching a noir. Bogart again and again claims there are no strings attached to him, but he is faithful to Walter Brennan and becomes equally faithful to Bacall and the French Resistance. He keeps spinning more and more plates – he violates his code and in the noir universe, that means he should eventually be smote for it. “Double Indemnity,” oft considered the first true noir, came out the same year; maybe Hawks just wasn’t ready for a gloomy ending.
Co-scripted by William Faulkner, who invents Bacall’s character out of whole cloth, it’s economical in an old Hollywood way, leaving out Hemingway’s rhapsodic bits and huge episodes in favor of a tight storyline. Also invented for the novel is Bacall’s rival (Dolores Moran), an Ingrid Bergman-esque wife stuck to her Resistance husband. Bacall knows she has a thing for Bogart when she tries to slap him. As they say in “1001 Movies to See Before You Die,” “Hawks would have no patience with a woman who saw her job solely in terms of making a happy home life for the hero and so makes Bacall…as intrepid and daring as Bogart…not just a love interest, but a partner.”
Because they’re often mentioned in the same sentence, I have to say I prefer Howard Hawks over John Ford. Hawks is said to have made professional movies about professional men; everything here is to a purpose. Bogart does math in his head and dispenses orders and one-liners at a good clip. He stands remorseless over a client killed in a crossfire, rifling the man’s wallet and regretting that he didn’t sign his traveler’s checks.
As in “The Big Sleep,” director Hawks lets Bacall lip sync a couple songs in a nightclub (in between double entendres, that is). It’s rhythmically perfect to switch from the light-footed economy which surrounds it to a suddenly leisurely singalong, as she leans luxuriously over a piano while sweaty musicians strum and smoke. The framing is a little cramped, as often the case in mid-century Hollywood. Part of why “Citizen Kane” and “The Third Man” are among the best movies of the era is because ofhow open they are.
And the innkeeper is called “Frenchie;” I want to know what you have to do on a French island to earn the nickname Frenchie.
(Not to be confused with “The Big Sleep,” authored by Raymond Chandler and co-scripted by Faulkner, and not to be confused with “Double Indemnity” authored by James M. Cain and co-scripted by Raymond Chandler).
Finished Saturday, December 16th, 2006
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