Thursday, June 4, 2009

I wish I were Bogart, I'd love to love Bacall - "To Have and Have Not" Review

"You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."
This classic line is just one highlight of the first film to co-star Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They met on the set of this film, at 45 and 19 - two very different people who changed each other's lives. This was the only one of their joint films that I missed, and I used Netflix to finally catch up.

"To Have and Have Not" is Howard Hawks' excellent adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel. Rather than condensing the entire novel, Hawk's film focuses on one segment of the story, eliminating plot lines and characterization to create a concise, focused work. Set in 1940, Steve (Bogart) is a cynic with a soft spot, a man who hires his boat for recreational fishing off of Martinique. Local tensions are high because the French colony is run by the Vichy government (a Nazi-controlled regime).

Much of the film occurs within the confines of Steve's hotel. There he haggles with his latest customer, and meets Marie - the stunning woman across the hall (Bacall). He also has to fend off the hotel owner who, being a resistance supporter, wants him to help the locals' efforts against the Vichy.

Soon, Steve's customer is killed by a stray bullet, his money is impounded, and he's under police surveillance. His complicated relationship with Marie forces him to finally pick a side in this little war, and take risks he always avoided. If this sounds very much like "Casablanca," don't be afraid - this isn't a tired retread. These two great flicks simply have a lot in common.

Like a lot of classic films, the dialogue is fantastic. Small wonder, since William Faulkner wrote the screenplay. The words don't simply move the story along, they convey so much about the character speaking those words. Even the smaller roles are given dialogue that is rich and revelatory.

Naturally, the scenes between Steve and Marie are dazzling; the way they produce sparks is like two cars trying to run each other off the road. They fight even as they come to understand each other, and it's great to know that you're probably seeing two people really falling in love.

A magnificent tension unfolds. She holds her own as she struggles with herself - she's trying to play him, but feels something stronger. She's disappointed that she can't control him, but that won't make her stay away.

He's tough and unflinching - until he flinches. He defends himself, then changes his grip when he realizes he was holding a pistol with a shaking hand. [Oh the dialogue! "Isn't that silly? That's how close you came."]

She offers him her last dollar. He finds himself doing something dangerous to help her, while insisting that he's also helping himself - but he never really benefits...

Humphrey Bogart, a self-trained actor, had already established his token role: the hard-boiled tough (hiding his bruised idealism). This, however, was Lauren Bacall's first film. Apparently, she was shaking noticeably during their first scene - but the way she held her head and eyes would become one of her iconic expressions. Bogart took her under his wing (Hawks became jealous), and their professional and romantic collaboration began with him encouraging and supporting her. For all this, there is no lack of skill or confidence in her performance here.

Unfortunately, the pair only produced four movies before Bogart passed on - "The Big Sleep," "Dark Passage," and "Key Largo" are the other three. In my opinion, "The Big Sleep" is the best - it was also scripted by Faulkner, so it should be no surprise that the story and dialogue are strong (it's one of my favorite films ever). "Key Largo" is the weakest - for all its virtues, the film has a slow pace and feels very long. Even removed from B&B's other work, "To Have and Have Not" is a lovely film.

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