People Who Need People – ‘To Have and Have Not’

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

She brought the bottle to his room and then he took the bottle to her room and now she has brought it back to his room without anyone having had a drink so far. He cocks an eye at their mutual pretext and remarks, “This is getting to be a problem.”

The line gets a laugh. And as you laugh at it, you can’t quite say why you’re laughing, but you know you’re laughing at a number of things at the same time. It’s more than two people getting set to play a love scene. It’s two people laughing at themselves for going through all this ritual to get at the scene, and it’s also two people digging the ritual and digging themselves for having set it up. It’s two canny actors, who are also people, enjoying and capitalizing on the happy fact that they are playing about the same scene they’d be playing anyway if there weren’t a camera crew standing around. It’s also Howard Hawks and his redoubtable extra-dialogue man William Faulkner and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—only recently Betty Perske, unknown fashion model—laughing at the way they’ve just said “Screw it” to the whole bothersome notion of following a scenario.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

For it must have been after the shooting of the second stage of the bottle’s progress that Bacall said—as James Agee recorded for Time and posterity—”God, I’m dumb.” Hawks asked why and she said, “Well, if I had any sense I’d go back in after that guy.” Hawks had to agree and that’s the way they went.

To Have and Have Not, then, is firstly and most durably a movie about the making of this particular movie. In his enormously suggestive book Movie Man, David Thomson has remarked that, with Hawks as with Jean Renoir, one so often has a feeling that the director and some friends of his have got together and, simply because they happen to be phenomenally talented people in the same line of work, made a movie. While there are moments implying breezy, spontaneous improvisation in virtually all Hawks pictures, no other has such an all-pervasive sense of a floating party where a couple of particular people keep bumping into the fact that there’s something lovely about each of them and something cosmically joyous about the two of them together.

Harry Morgan and Frenchy, Humphrey Bogart and Marcel Dalio, go upstairs to argue about espionage and free enterprise. Hawks’s camera sits low for an uncharacteristically decorative shot of the hotel corridor filled with tropical sun and shade as Bogart unlocks his door. Across the hall an anonymous flank eases into the frame. Then Bogart’s door is open and Hawks cuts to the room. Before Bogart and Dalio can get into their conversation, a voice offscreen husks “Anybody got a match?” and we and Bogart are reacting to the most arrogant slouch in a doorway since Dietrich took off with the Shanghai Express. The laughs start here: gasping laughs, appreciative laughs, laughs that say “I can’t believe I’m believing this!”

Neither can Bogart. Hawks’s characters manage to be almost as tough as they want to be. What makes them tough and true is how they react when caught trying. As character and as performer and as love-antagonist to Bogart, Bacall goes too far; but the beauty of it is that if she didn’t go too far she wouldn’t have gone far enough. No Hawks people can stand alone—the recognition of which is their greatest strength, greatest bond one to the other, profoundest self-knowledge. In the quicksilver shifts of advantage, of hurt into edge, insult to assent, stand-back to come-hither, Hawks’s “mating duels” constitute the most elusive, most cinematic, most surreptitiously yet openly touching liaisons-in-progress in American films.

Lauren Bacall, Marcel Dalio and Humphrey Bogart

Hawksian relationships and Hawksian reality are always fluid. Everyone has to be on, all the time. Hawks celebrates knowledge, knowledge of situations, of how to adapt, how to coast, how to land running. Watching a Hawks picture, you get to share the director’s appreciation of how a black drummer lingers over his newspaper one moment more, even though Hoagy Carmichael has started his lead-in, because he knows there’s time before he has to pick up his brushes and settle into the rhythm. You appreciate, without moral compunctions, the shrewd efficiency of a Vichy cop who, separated from his Free French quarry by a wagon, bends over in the street and machine-guns the man’s legs. You wonder what the hell’s going on when Bogart tells Bacall “Walk around me” and she wonders too, behind a wiseass grin, but she walks around him, and we watch her get it, and then she tells us so we finally know too: “OK, Steve, there are no strings on you.” What Hawks is doing, what he’s doing most of the time in all his films, is talking about how to survive. And one survives with knowledge, with a quick sense of improvisation, with jazzman’s cool, and with a sense of style so existentially reflexive and resourceful that one can, as Bacall’s character does here, walk through an action equivalent of an unspoken figure of speech, and pick up on it.

And of course any message so circuitously transmitted and received, coequally and codependently participated in by both parties, becomes geometrically more sardonic, and in the very lavishness of its communication becomes a bond of mutual respect and understanding, a consummate instance of style denying and transcending mere literal content.

Hawks’s characters need each other, but they also need to prove their mutual worth. Bogart and Bacall, Harry and Marie, “Steve” and “Slim” have to keep taking each other apart in order to put the two of them together again. Harry’s pal Eddie is a rummy of little utility to anyone, but he “used to be good” and so Harry “carries him,” although Eddie thinks he is taking care of Harry. Although the espionage subplot of the film never quite gets integrated with the real action of Bogey and Betty bouncing off each other’s cast-iron crust, even the colorless Free French patriot is out to prove himself to himself, and to his wife, and to his cause. It is he who delivers the film’s one conspicuous speech, on one level a wartime gesture toward Allied superiority, but on another an index to the dubious consolation of the essential Hawksian philosophy that goes at least back to the futile succession of walking-dead commandants in The Dawn Patrol: “There’s always someone else.”

Bacall, Bogart, and Walter Brennan

Worth does tell. Hawks may follow the logic of his characters at the expense of a pre-planned scenario, but he does get the job done, does manage to tie off his melodramatic narrative with an offhand efficiency that is absolutely stunning in its throwaway quality. Bacall’s first request for a match elicits a pack from a drawer in the table in Bogart’s room. Later, with her man about to rain messy and unproductive retribution all over a welsher in a bar, she distracts him from folly (according to a tradition honored in Only Angels Have Wings, Red River, The Big Sky, etc.) by striking a match in front of him. Later still, she will take a cigarette from him and a match from the mark she has selected in another crowded bar; and her and Bogart’s complex mutual discomfort over this use of her charms will be the first certain sign of their growing together. Lastly, they and their friends will be back in that hotel room, under the guns of the creepiest threesome in Vichy Martinique (slug-like Dan Seymour, the internationally guttural Sheldon Leonard, and a long malignant weed named Aldo Nadi), and Bogart will casually feel for a cigarette and light, Bacall will say “There’s some in the drawer,” and as Bogart dives for what else is in that drawer, their stylish collaboration reaches a culmination on both levels of the narrative.

To Have and Have Not lacks the sassy packedness of The Maltese Falcon, the delirious Warners voluptuousness of Casablanca, the near-hallucinatory surrealism of the later Hawks-Furthman-Faulkner The Big Sleep. But it occupies privileged space along that borderline between art and life, movies and us, so that we recall what should be an anticlimactic fadeout with special affection: Lauren Bacall pausing on the way out of Frenchy’s to say goodbye to Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, then shimmying her way forever into the fondly firm grasp of Humphrey Bogart, while Walter Brennan brings up the rear dance-limping with her suitcases and musing to himself on the sting of dead bees.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944)
Direction: Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, after the novel by Ernest Hemingway. Cinematography: Sid Hickox. Editing: Christian Nyby. Music: Leo F. Forbstein; songs: Hoagy Carmichael. Production: Hawks. A Warner Brothers–First National Picture.
The Players: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan, Marcel Dalio, Hoagy Carmichael, Daniel Seymour, Sheldon Leonard, Aldo Nadi, Dolores Moran, Walter Molnar, Walter Sande, Paul Marion, Patricia Shay, Pat West, Emmet Smith.

Note: The foregoing, or most of it, was originally written in celebration of the resurfacing of To Have and Have Not in 1972 after half a decade in copyright limbo. It originally appeared in The Seattle Flag.

In connection with Hawks and movies about movies, I have been struck by the gee-whiz reaction attendant upon François Truffaut’s confession that his own Day for Night had been inspired by Hawks’s Hatari!, which he regards as a film about filmmaking. What startles me is not Truffaut’s interpretation of Hatari! so much as his having been inspired by that particular film. What inspires Truffaut is his business, of course, but a more lucid allegory of Hawksian filmmaking is to be found in Only Angels Have Wings (which I have been telling film classes since 1969), with its airline as film production unit, Dutchy as producer (down to the classic, if disputed, Goldwynism “Include me out!”), and Geoff Carter as director if not auteur (“Who’s running this airline anyway?”). As Hawks’s accounts of working with Grant, Bogart, and Wayne have made abundantly clear, the director receives plenty of invaluable suggestions from his cast and incorporates them into the structure of his own vision (Bogart’s flit number opposite an authoritative Hawks female in Geiger’s bookstore—The Big Sleep—fits right in with that film’s running account of sexual abrasiveness involving all sorts of odd couples). This is something we observe again and again in the films: Captain Ken Tobey asking for, getting, and acting on advice from Crew Chief Dewey Martin, in The Thing, and then brushing off Martin’s ironical praise for having such a good idea; in Rio Bravo, John T. Chance—and, moments later, a fascinating but unidentified Burdette gunman—hearing a slightly subordinate crony make an offhand wisecrack and recognizing the strategic truth it contains. —RTJ

Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson


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