Legend goes that Howard Hawks was so confident in his ability to make great movies he bet Hemingway he could make a winner from the worst of his novels. The result was To Have and Have Not (1944). Hawks was right, this movie is awesome. I’ll say it. It’s better than Casablanca.
Bogart plays Harry Morgan, captain of a small fishing boat who gets involved with a Victor Lazlo-like representative of the Free French. Replace Conrad Veidt’s Nazi with Vichy representatives, you get the idea. Where this film differs is in Lauren Bacall. My god, of all the movie goddesses that have graced the screen, Miss Bacall’s star shines the hottest. She plays Slim, a not-as-innocent-as-she-claims-to-be hustler whom Harry meets after she steals his client’s wallet. Their on-screen chemistry is weapons grade.
Cinema history did not start with Pulp Fiction, which seems to surprise many these days. The film noirs that made Bogie a star in the 1940s should not be dismissed by the modern audience because of the age or their archaic cinematic style. Yes, Hawks’ cinema is expressed in a simpler idiom than we are used to today, but this is still a work of one of early cinema’s masters.
Like The Maltese Falcon, like the later The Big Sleep, and unlike Casablanca, I would ask modern viewers to listen carefully to the words spoken on screen. The dialogue and the depth of character here are decidedly modern. The dialogue is so fresh it could have been written yesterday. Compare it to the roles written for women to what followed in the 50s and 60s.
Slim is not looking for a man to protect her, she’s doing just fine on her own. She hustles tourists, she attempts to play the victim with Harry (who oddly, she calls Steve), she hustles in bars and manipulates her audience when she sings. See how she mocks Dolores Moran’s character (whose role was reduced because the studio liked Bacall). The limits to her character are her physical strength. She runs mental rings around everyone else. Apart from Harry.
Betty Bacall was obviously the real star here. She was a nervous 19-year- old whose on-screen posture, ‘the look’ (with her chin down) was a strategy she adopted to stop her shaking as she was so nervous. She shines in her debut here.
Two things in the final film show her greatness. One, of course, is how she looks at Bogie. You knew. It was there for the world to see. After filming, he went home to his unstable wife, she went back to live with her mother. Then there is that dance. To this day, I have no idea how she moved her hips like that. All I can say is I must have seen this movie at an impressionable age.
Much like Casablanca, the attitude here is cynicism, not romance. You feel the chemistry between Harry and Slim. Not need for the lemon-face or deep swelling music. Bacall’s Slim is not the two-dimensional cypher that Bergman’s Ilsa was. Her intelligence, actress and character, radiates off the screen. She’s capable, she’s confident. Slim is a predator, not a victim.
Consider the famous whistle scene. Bogie tells her to walk around him. She guesses he has no strings. She flirts. She manipulates. He resists. As real as screen relationships get. Surely, one of the greatest scenes every written.
Bacall’s debut was her best. She made other films with Bogie, Key Largo is so-so; The Big Sleep is divine. I don’t remember Dark Passage. After Bogie’s death, she lived a long and celebrated life. She heard the gun-shot that killed John Lennon.
To Have and Have Not is a true Hollywood classic. You witness true Hollywood legends in their prime and tinsel town myths forming in real time. Forget the technical limitations and the production values of the studio system, this is worthy of your patronage.
And there’s always Lauren Bacall jiggling her hips.