' Cinema Romantico: To Have and Have Not

Thursday, July 19, 2007

To Have and Have Not

Recently an esteemed colleague of mine Netflixed last year's little gem of a film "Thank You For Smoking" (read my review here, and ignore my mis-naming of the movie) and it was just as good the second time around. But that's not what I wish to discuss. What I wish to discuss is the moment in the film when Rob Lowe's character mentioned the great movie romance between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in 1944's "To Have and Have Not". This film long ago earned a spot in my DVD collection but I had not seen it in some time and its mention in "Thank You For Smoking" made me yearn to toss it in the DVD player. So I did. And it's just as I remember it. One of the greatest paradoxes of cinematic history.

"To Have and Have Not" is rarely mentioned among the great films. You didn't see it on AFI's Top 100, for instance. And I'll tell you why. The first 40-45 minutes of this movie is extraordinary. Utterly extraordinary. This is some of the finest stuff ever put on film. And the next 40-45 minutes, well, let's just say it goes downhill mighty quick.

The movie was made a mere two years after "Casablanca" and was clearly an attempt to cash in on the same formula. Set during WWII on the island of Martinique, Humphrey Bogart is Captain Harry Morgan (read the name again), a fisherman who - even though he doesn't say it -is the sort of person who sticks his neck out for no man. The owner of the hotel where he stays is, of course, involved in the French resistance and wants Harry to smuggle in "a few friends". Harry says no. Until the person who owes him big-time money for a fishing expedition turns up dead, that is.

Meanwhile Lauren Bacall is Marie Browning, a pickpocket from America who doubles as a singer in the aforementioned hotel (yes, there's even a friendly piano player). But really she exists for no other reason than to be Bogey's love interest. And that's fine.

This is a movie that, I think, proves once and for all that character often triumphs over plot. The story is thin all throughout and, quite frankly, when it's at its thinnest, the movie is at its finest. Once Bogey gets involved in all the French resistance mish-mash no one really gives a proverbial hoot. We just want to see Bogey and Bacall (note: she calls him Steve and he calls her Slim throughout) being cool, and charming, and elegant, and smoking, and exchanging witty repartee. And for 45 minutes that's precisely what it is. That's all it is.

At one point during the first half of the movie Bacall brings a liquor bottle into Bogey's room. She leaves. Bogey brings the bottle to her room. He leaves. Bacall brings the bottle back to his room. This is what passes for so-called story. But all the while they are exchanging looks that sizzle and dialogue that crackles like......like.......like.........oh, Lord help me! I'm metaphor-less in the face of such words!

Steve: "How long have you been away from home?"
Slim: "This is about the time for it, isn't it?"
Steve: "The time for what?"
Slim: "The story of my life. How do you want me to begin?"
Steve: "I've got a fair idea already."

"Youthful" viewers may find this all a bit unrealistic. They may find the dialogue "awful" (a comment made by someone with whom I once viewed part of the film). Uh, it was made 65 years ago. Things were a tiny bit different. Dialogue was not meant to reflect reality. It was fantasy, and a helluva' fantasy to boot. The point of watching a Bogey and Bacall pic back in the day (and watching one now, I guess) is that YOU wanted to be chillin' in the Caribbean with someone as dazzling as Bacall (or Bogey) trading quips and a bottle.

This was the first pairing of Bogey and Bacall and it was also where they fell in love, despite their massive age difference (he was 44, she was 20). And you can see it, too. Clear as day. These are two people who enjoy the company of one another. And watch the many instances of Bogart laughing directly after Bacall has said something. This is not laughter merely called for in the script. This is genuine.

I also urge you to keep a close eye on the eyes of Ms. Bacall. This is the greatest performance by a set of eyes in the annals of film. Really. Despite the fact that in many scenes other people are talking and she is just listening I strongly suggest that you WATCH.....THOSE.....EYES. The word hypnotic comes to mind.

And once Steve, or Harry, or Bogey, or whatever you want to call him, decides to help the Resistance go right ahead and turn it off. It's okay. No one will be mad. And you'll be much happier having just seen the opening 45 minutes - one of the greatest halves of a movie ever made.

"You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." - Marie (i.e. Slim, i.e. Lauren Bacall)

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