Tuesday, October 13, 2009

To Have and Have Not (1944)

To Have and Have Not looks at first sight like a kind of loose sequel to Casablanca (which is exactly what the studio was looking for). The formula seems almost identical. The setting is another Vichy French colony, Bogart is again the cynic who eventually risks his life for a noble cause, much of the action again takes place in a bar, there’s a piano player, and of course there’s a beautiful woman.

Bogart is Harry Morgan, a professional fisherman in Martinique. His friend the bar owner tries to convince him to transport some Free French agents in his boat but he’s not interested in politics and has no intention of taking risks for a cause. Of course we know right from the start that he will get involved, and that he will end up doing the right and noble thing. While he’s still trying to avoid this entanglement another much more interesting entanglement comes along in the shape of a husky-voiced night-club singer and part-time pickpocket (Lauren Bacall). We know her only as Slim, the nickname he bestows on her (while she calls him Steve). When his alcoholic partner Eddie is picked up by the police he realises he can no longer avoid taking sides, since he’s already had too much contact with the Free French and Eddie’s brains are so addled by the booze he’s bound to talk.

The plot, based very loosely on Hemingway’s novel, is predictable and fairly uninteresting. Which matters not at all, since the heart of the movie is provided by Morgan’s friendship with Eddie and, to a much greater extent, by his rapidly developing love relationship with Slim. The screenplay, by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, is packed with sparkling dialogue. Bogart gives his most relaxed and charming performance. Bacall is spectacular. Sadly, she would never be this good again. Howard Hawks did seem to have a knack for getting better performances out of her than anyone else could. This movie is the sort of thing that Hawks did extremely well, with its stylish and witty script and two perfectly matched leads.

It’s wonderful to see a 1940s movie with a love story between a man and a woman that is very much a meeting of equals, and where the attraction is both intellectual and sexual. Bogart and Bacall achieve a chemistry in this film that has rarely been surpassed.

I think it’s a better movie than Casablanca. It’s tighter, the wartime propaganda is much more muted, and Bogart and Bacall are a much more convincing romantic coupling than Bogart and Bergman. It doesn’t try to be epic. It’s really just a feel-good mix of romance with some humour (courtesy of Walter Brennan as Eddie) and a bit of action, and very large helpings of wit and style.

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