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Leo F. Forbstein

Big Shots: ‘The Roaring Twenties,’ ‘High Sierra,’ ‘White Heat’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

While The Roaring Twenties is hardly a definitive history of an era, its chronicle of the intersecting careers of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and two buddies from the Great War has a sharp bite socially and more than a touch of tragic vision. Here as elsewhere, the Cagney character is the focal point of a deadly disparity between society and the man who lives by his instincts, and the elegiac tone which the film builds around him is a way of paying respects not to a bygone era, but to a naïvely vigorous man on whom time and change have tromped. Here the “Roaring Twenties” are more or less what happens in between an era that sets a man up (World War I) and an era that tears him down (the Depression), and the ultimate effect is one of waste, of quintessential vitality (Bartlett’s) squandered in a age too confused to find a place for it. In one sense the film spells out the limitations of Cagney’s film persona; but the downward spiral of Eddie Bartlett’s career and the upward spiral of his lawyer pal’s (from bootleg bookkeeper to assistant D.A.) also suggest that society’s values move in brutally indiscriminate character’s inability to find a suitable companion in life ultimately constitutes an important, though tacit, social problem as well.

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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.

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