Whatever To Have and Have Not’s original intent—not just novel versus film but film in pre-production to film completed—what it ends up doing and doing better than maybe anything else ever is star-make. To Have and Have Not showcases Lauren Bacall in constantly imaginative ways, including how much you can like her when she’s not being very nice. And how good she is at not being very nice while still seeming like she’s immaculate. So Bacall’s an unenthusiastic ex-pat in 1940 in Martinique; the French have already fallen, the island run by Nazi-allied Vichy. Except the locals are pro-France but quiet about it in general. The United States isn’t in the war yet so there are Americans around the island. Including lead Humphrey Bogart. Now, To Have and Have Not is a Humphrey Bogart movie. You’re supposed to entertain the possibility he’s actually flirting with Dolores Moran, which Bacall gives him crap about but everyone—Bacall included—can see every time Bogart’s got a scene with Moran, he’s just clamoring to get back into the banter with Bacall. When Bacall’s offscreen in Have Not, which is an actual action movie with Nazis trying to get the good guys—including an adorable, hilarious drunk Walter Brennan—so there are stakes here—but any time Bacall’s not around, it’s all about getting back to her. The movie’s already got a big problem with the end, who knows what it’d be like without Bacall enchanting the whole thing.
Bogart’s got a boat and takes rich guys out fishing. Not exciting but it keeps him fed and best friend Brennan sufficiently drunk. He’s apolitical until fate drops Bacall into his proverbial lap (and later in the literal) while also taking away his payday. Now in a spot, he decides to help out friend, bar-owner, Frenchman, resistor Marcel Dalio. Dalio’s got some friends of friends who want to bring another friend to the island so then they can break yet another friend out of Devil’s Island, the French prison island. As long as it pays, Bogart’s fine with it. Because he’s going to at least get Bacall out of there before the local Vichy police (Dan Seymour is the boss in an okay but not great performance) starts stamping down harder. War’s coming, after all.
Throw in actual good guy Walter Szurovy for some ideological clashes with Bogart’s right-minded but mercenary approach, Moran as Szurovy’s wife who no one believes Bogart’s interested in, drunk Brennan getting into trouble, Hoagy Carmichael as the piano man, Sheldon Leonard as one of the cops–To Have and Have Not has everything; actually it’s excessive. And it’s beautifully made. Hawks does a great job with the direction. Especially of the actors, but in general he and photographer Sidney Hickox do an excellent job making the handful of sets feel like a whole world, without ever being constrained. It helps the action follows Bogart out onto the water. The more complicated shots are all the action thriller stuff, the more complicated lighting is all the Bacall and Bogart stuff. Hickox, presumably under Hawks’s direction, brings the shadows for those scenes. Even when it’s a daytime shot, they find some blinds to shade Bacall. It’s like the movie’s doing lighting tests on her or trying to psyche her out and see how she responds under pressure. The sort of proto-noir expressionist lighting never makes a scene and occasionally gets old. See, the audience already has a read on Bacall because her performance hits the requisite beats as far as the narrative goes, but just because Bacall doesn’t have a line doesn’t mean she’s not the focus of the moment.
And the famous “you know how to whistle” scene is pretty early in the picture. And it’s as good as everyone says. All because Bacall. During the second act the way the narrative distance works—Bacall clearly excelling but the film not giving her increased attention for it—kind of promises there’s going to be something worth it in the end. Yes, Bacall does get the final moment (plus a punctation), but she doesn’t get the third act itself. It’s still that action thriller with Bogart, albeit a lovestruck one.
Good script from Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, despite the movie not having an ending; some of the dialogue is phenomenal—at one point Bogart just starts grinning through most of it, positively giddy regardless of the danger because Bacall. Unfortunately that giddiness isn’t enough to cover for the resolve being so blah. Still. Good script.
Pretty good editing from Christian Nyby, who occasionally cuts a little too late and a little too soon and there are costar reactions in shots. Bacall watching Bogart and Brennan do their thing, Bogart watching Bacall walk then remembering he’s supposed to be listening too. It ends up being charming, even if its loose.
To Have and Have Not is good action thriller with a singular performance from Bacall, a strong, nimble one from Bogart, and solid work from everyone else. Even if they don’t make the most of the role (obviously not Carmichael, who’s awesome as the piano man). Hawks’s direction is excellent, writing’s good, just don’t have an ending. It’s a good film.
And Bacall makes it a classic one.
This post is part of the Third Annual Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.