Tuesday, June 3, 2008
To Have and Have Not
If Howard Hawks' low-key WWII thriller To Have and Have Not seems a bit too much like Casablanca for comfort, the film goes a long way towards making up for its lack of originality in the accumulation of small details and the fine central performances that Hawks brings to the film. Obviously contrived as an attempt to restage Bogie's iconic turn as Rick, this "sequel" once again sets down Humphrey Bogart in the middle of contested wartime Martinique, this time as the fisherman-for-hire Harry Morgan, doing his best to stay out of the increasing strife between Vichy sympathizers and the "Free French." I'd normally summarize some more of the plot here, but Hawks seems largely unconcerned with it, so I'll just go ahead and admit that so was I. There's something about a rebel (Walter Szurovy) who needs to be ferried into Martinique, and for some reason his on-island allies decide that Morgan is just the man for the job. There's a daring escape from a Gestapo patrol boat, and an inquisitive and leering Gestapo captain (Dan Seymour) who's putting the screws to Morgan to find out what he knows.
With all this at stake, both for Morgan and Martinique as a whole, you'd never know it from the film's meandering, laidback pace despite the trappings, this isn't really a suspense film, or a spy film, or a wartime thriller. It's a showcase for Bogie, and especially for his sizzling onscreen romance with first-time actress Lauren Bacall, sauntering onto the scene as the young girl on the run from her past and adrift on her own. Bacall is the film's real star, delivering a stunner of a performance that threatens to make even Bogart recede into the woodwork altogether. As soon as she slithers into Bogart's room for the first time, uninvited and interrupting a frantic conversation concerning the Resistance fighters, she takes over the film with her sheer presence. She just wants a light, but she might as well have said, "Hey, forget all that spy stuff, look over here." Even the way she asks Bogie for a match, her mouth twitching suggestively and her hips nestling against his doorframe, telegraphs her raw intensity and sensuality. Her chiseled marble face, already looking wise beyond her years, is a fount of subtle emotion, and she invests her cipher of a character with far more depth and complexity than the writing deserves. Just looking at her, the way she carries herself and the way she speaks and the way her eyes move, is to know something of her story and what she's like. Her sidelong glances, cast back over her shoulder, freighted with hidden meanings, carry a static charge that can't help but energize anybody hit with that blazing stare.
Bacall manages to carry her character, "Slim" (a typical Hawks nickname), through even the script's unusual excess of misogynistic tripe, which seems a bit much even for a Hawks film. It's not enough that the film is populated with one "silly dame," it has to add a second (Dolores Moran as the frail wife of the French Resistance fighter), and has both of them confess to Bogie that they're "making a fool" of themselves in front of him. These women both seem eager to apologize to this man they hardly know, and the film's weaker moments require a real suspension of disbelief to see the rock-hard Bacall making gestures of contrite acquiescence towards her leading man. It's slightly more bearable when it's Moran in this role, playing a one-note weak woman who faints at the slightest provocation despite her initially hard aura. The whole second woman thing is silly to begin with, so much so that even the two leads seem to realize it, and consequently Bogie downplays his reaction to this interloper even as Bacall downplays her jealousy. The result adds some pleasant friction to these scenes, and even comes close to redeeming the contrivance altogether.
Elsewhere, there's the usual undercurrent of Hawksian machismo, a sense that women shouldn't get in the way of men's stuff, and that the men who allow such intrusions are somehow cowardly and weakened by it. The script requires Bogart, who's clearly outmatched by the fiery Bacall, to nevertheless get the best of her, seeing right through her and condescending to her at every turn. Only Bacall's innate toughness allows her character to come through it unscathed, and as a result it's hard to take Bogart's bluster too seriously in relation to her. Instead of two equals sparring, it seems more like Bogart's putting up a masculine front in an attempt to save face. But it's a vain effort, and once he finally gives in to Bacall's charms, the game is lost. After one passionate clench, she tells him to go shave and gives him a playful slap on the cheek, a bit of S&M foreplay that mirrors an earlier scene where the Gestapo slapped around the completely unfazed Bacall as Bogart watched.
The film also offers up one other uncontested pleasure on the acting front, and that's the surprisingly nuanced turn from Walter Brennan as the hopeless old drunk Eddie. Brennan played the grizzled old coot, the comic relief sidekick, in countless movies, practically making a career out of it, but this performance is something of a revelation for anyone tempted to dismiss him as limited in range. Eddie's character is well within Brennan's comfort zone, a washed-up drunk who was, Morgan says, once a great fisherman, but is now just about useless. Brennan infuses this character with a ragged charm, a rambling, discursive wit, and an incredible amount of pathos. He's a man who knows he's used up, who clings to his last loyal friend with a puppy-like dedication and obedience. And yet he's also a soulful, complicated character, displaying flashes of a shrewdness that must be a carryover from his youth, and a sense of humor that's all his own. His frequently repeated joke, "was you ever bit by a dead bee?" coaxes some subtle repartee out of Bacall, who distinguishes herself by playing along with the old man instead of just dismissing him like everyone else does. In the two brief exchanges they have together, which mirror each other towards the start and end of the film, Brennan and Bacall prove why they're the film's true linchpins, as Bogart just stands off to the side and smirks.
Hawks is wise to let these fine actors just do their thing, and he's also wise to keep the focus as far off the plot as possible the action happens in fits and starts only, with long scenes of moody, atmospheric stasis in between. Especially characteristic of Hawks are the many scenes that take place clustered around the piano in the local hotel. It's here that Bacall delivers a trio of sultry, low-voiced torch numbers, and where the local pianist (Hoagy Carmichael) croons out a handful of smarmy ballads. Hawks loves this kind of scene, with musicians and audience alike gathered around the piano, as many people crammed into the frame as possible, fostering a sense of warmth and camaraderie that is very dear to Hawks' heart. Variations on this scene recur frequently in his films, most notably in Only Angels Have Wings, though none of the scenes here have the poignancy, urgency, or depth that the similar scene possessed in that film, where the gathering at the piano took the metaphorical place of a drunken wake for a dead friend. Here, these scenes are just atmosphere, helping to infuse the film with a distinctively Hawksian character but not adding up to much otherwise. The same can't be said, fortunately, about a similarly crowded scene around the bedside of a man with a gunshot wound as Bogart attempts to remove the bullet. Hawks orchestrates this scene with surgical precision, culminating in a shot where Bacall stands in the foreground, holding a bottle of chloroform and fanning away the fumes, as across the prone body of the patient sits Bogart with scalpel in hand, two assistants holding a lantern and a water basin over his shoulders. This careful clustering also creates that tight, cluttered image that Hawks loves so much, though here the deliberate arrangement of the figures and the tensions that all focus on a single point as small as a bullet, create a scene of lasting power.
Despite its limitations, this is a sharp, smart film from Hawks, one that completely dispenses with its ostensible subject in order to squeeze in as much of the good stuff (Bacall!) as possible. Hawks presumably recognized the film for what it was, a somewhat cynical remake of a film that had, after all, only been out two years earlier with the same actor in the lead. And instead of taking it seriously, he decided to take to the margins and just have fun with it, letting Bacall's saunter and Brennan's wit take over the film. This holds true even down to the final shot, in which the central trio walk off into the foggy night together towards unknown adventures. Bacall executes her exit with as much aplomb as her entrance, slithering offscreen with a playful sway to her hips and a smile on her face, as Brennan agreeably bops his shoulders in sympathy. In keeping with the film's wry spirit, this trio doesn't just walk off into the fog; they dance off.