Monday, February 25, 2008

Target #193: To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks)

TSPDT placing: #319
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Ernest Hemingway (novel), Jules Furthman, William Faulkner (screenplay), Cleve F. Adams (uncredited) , Whitman Chambers (uncredited)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Moran, Hoagy Carmichael, Sheldon Leonard, Walter Szurovy, Marcel Dalio, Walter Sande

If Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall occupy the same screen, you can safely expect fireworks. My first Bogart-Bacall collaboration was John Huston's Key Largo (1948), a solid thriller with a brilliant performance from Edward G. Robinson. However, the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall was surprisingly lacking, and, at the time, I wondered why there was such a fascination for the couple. Recent viewings of Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946) and To Have and Have Not (1944) have completely swayed my opinion, and I am now in no doubt of the pair's potency: the sexual chemistry positively sizzles while they're both onscreen! This particular film was Bacall's debut performance, the picture that introduced both audiences and Bogart {he would marry her the following year} to one of cinema's most iconic beauties, fondly remembered for her erotically husky voice. To Have and Have Not is an interesting mixture of war-time adventure and hard-boiled film-noir, set on the island of Martinique under the Vichy regime, and Bogart's Harry "Steve" Morgan is forced to navigate swathes of low-lifes and immoral authority figures.

Howard Hawks, perhaps Hollywood's most versatile master director, was a considerable fan of author Ernest Hemingway, but didn't think all too highly of his 1937 effort, "To Have and Have Not." Taking it upon himself to improve the story, Hawks set his writers upon Hemingway's "bunch of junk," and created what is considered by some to be one of his best films. With its abundance of pistol-clad gangsters and Bogart's legendary noble tough-guy, comparisons with other pulp film-noirs {such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Hawks' own The Big Sleep} are perfectly justified, as are the noticeable parallels with Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942), with its intriguing war-time tale of romance and loyalty, in addition to a suitably ambiguous ending that emphasises the sheer uncertainty of warfare. A hilarious Walter Brennan provides the comedic relief as Eddie, a well-meaning but hopelessly addicted alcoholic who likes to ask people such inane queries as "was you ever bit by a dead bee?" Marcel Dalio, in a role that would ideally have suited Peter Lorre, is also good as Frenchy, the sincere owner of the local hotel with sympathies for the French Resistance.

What ultimately separates a good film like To Have and Have Not from a masterpiece like, say, Casablanca, is the depth of the characters. By the end of the latter film, we feel as though we've known Rick (Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) for their entire lives, and we feel pain for their romantic sorrows. Howard Hawks has always been more concerned with witty dialogue than character development, and, though there's no doubting the sheer entertainment of his pictures, they are rarely able to strike a chord close to the heart. Most of this film's characters are little more than two-dimensional caricatures, and the camera, in order to avoid distracting from the excellence of the screenplay, does little of any interest. To Have and Have Not is certainly a solid film, but it's not exactly "exciting" film-making, with the exception, of course, of the coupling of Bogart and Bacall, which was a stroke of genius on Hawks' part. Also notable is the musical soundtrack, with Hoagy Carmichael appearing as a hotel piano player to perform “Hong Kong Blues,” and Bacall singing “How Little We Know.”

Currently my #5 film of 1944:
1) Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
2) Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra)
3) Gaslight (George Cukor)
4) Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock)
5) To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks)

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