I’m in love with this movie and think it’ll end up making ranking among the top ten or twenty favorites from the List overall. If you’re even the least bit interested in watching some movies from the first half of the 20th century, but you’re looking for a friendly and familiar place to start (I’m guessing everybody knows Bacall’s face and Bogart’s), this is one of the first things you should grab from the library.
It’s the sixth movie on the List to be directed by Howard Hawks and the fourth one to leave me rapturous and chatty: Scarface is great, and a terrific conversation piece when you wanna talk about its place in the pantheon of gangster films (as well as the fascinating inside story of how Hawks carried it through the censors); Only Angels Have Wings executes one of the most mutedly suspenseful scenes ever set to film and stands as a gorgeous example of a movie that belongs, in more ways than one, to its era; and Sergeant York is basically two movies in one, each of them exciting and moving, with action that’d rival (early) James Cameron for its timing, its clarity and slickness, and for how Hawks enhances the stakes by making us care for the characters with storytelling that feels more efficient than inspired. It feels effortless. No big flourishes and the shots don’t seem laboriously considered. It’s just solid filmmaking.
I was thinking up to now that I don’t like Hawks’s attempts at romance too much. The romantic story in Sergeant York is whatever, disposable, and the romance in Only Angels Have Wings works well, but only as a complement to the larger story. Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday are impressive for what they are, and it’s cool that they’ve got a distinct kind of fast-talking comedy that was obviously a difficult thing to pull off for everybody involved, but otherwise they don’t really do it for me.
And yet for all of the action and intrigue of To Have and Have Not, for all the novelty of knowing that it’s an adaptation of a Hemingway novel that improves on the source material (and that it was written by Hemingway’s rival, William Faulkner), what I think most enthralls me about the movie is the romance between Humphrey Bogart, who plays a boat captain/fishing guide, and Lauren Bacall, who plays a traveling American, with the beautifully noirish name “Slim,” who might have stepped out of The Sun Also Rises, or Hemingway’s memoir of 1920s Paris, A Moveable Feast. She’s traveling for the love of travel, uninterested in other people’s opinions about it, doing her thing. A culture vulture. Just wants to see the world.
I’ll say here again that I don’t really know what people mean by on-screen “chemistry” between actors, but what does seem visible throughout the movie is a trace of what was happening behind the scenes. Bogart and Bacall were becoming friendlier and friendlier until one night, outta nowhere, Bogart pulled a move that was allegedly out of character (or so the reports belabor) by putting a hand under her chin, tilting her head up, and kissing her. It’s probably the only behind-the-scenes romance to be told again and again with the same minor detail.
After that they stole little moments of intimacy all the time — riling the ire of Hawks, who had a crush on Bacall himself, and imbuing her scenes with an added layer of…yearning? It’s there in how they look at each other and don’t look at each other. They’ve got this secret affair going on that they’re enjoying, that probably worries them as much as it thrills them, and when their characters on screen trade these hard looks, each trying to figure the other, we can see the actors themselves, the human beings underneath, doing the same. Bogart was wondering if he’d be prepared to leave his wife for her. Bacall was wondering if she was ready to get involved with a married man twice her age.
It all worked out, following a spell of hardship when Bogart returned to his wife for a while and set a divorce in motion, and they shared a happy marriage for several years as one of Hollywood’s storybook “perfect” couples. Their marriage had its ups and downs, they cheated on each other (I read in a Bogart biography that Bacall had a tryst with Frank Sinatra while in the trenches of tending to Bogart’s hideous self-inflicted demise, but I’ve read elsewhere that Sinatra was just courting her at that time, with effusive condolences and offers of comfort, and that Bacall went and dropped into his arms only as soon as Bogart was dead), but they balanced each other nicely. Not sure it’s the kind of marriage that’d be celebrated if we were scrutinizing it through a paparazzi’s lens today — Bogart, especially, would be problematic and demonized as a chainsmoking alcoholic who wanted women to be barefoot at all times, hopping from the bedroom to the kitchen to the rug before the fire.
But the romance worked.
In the first act of To Have and Have Not we see Bogart’s character get stiffed on a huge bill that’s owed to him by a client. Shortly afterward he agrees, grudgingly, to smuggle two French resistance fighters onto the island. He meets and romances Bacall’s character beforehand and when Bogart returns from the trip with a grievously wounded resistance fighter (there’s a wonderfully tense shootout with the police in dark foggy waters) he relies on her help to tend the wounds of the French guy he just smuggled over. Things go from there — Hawks was trying to capitalize on success of Casablanca, understandably, so this feels like that movie except the plot is a little more A-to-B-to-C and the action is more exciting and the romance more conventionally gratifying.
There’s no question it’s a great movie, iconic for its merits as a work of art, but it’s also got that gloss of Hollywood magic when you factor in the star quality: two iconic figures coming together in a way that seems almost like fairytale (if you ignore the little details of infidelity and substance abuse and Bogart’s hideous, prolonged, agonizing death in the master bedroom).