Let me set the scene: It is 1944. Casablanca has been around for 2 years, but it is not the hugely successful and critical acclaimed film we see it as today. It is just another standard Warner Bros./Bogart/Curtiz/Bergman film. America has been involved in WWII for 3 years since Japans Dec. 7th attack on Pearl Harbor, and now, America is only months away from dropping the atomic bombs, “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” on Japan, portending the end of WWII. While Americans grow victory gardens, Hollywood studios grow into efficient and glamorous machines, churning out what are now some of the most famous and beloved films in cinema history. As America feels the weight of the war, Hollywood is producing the dreams and fantasies that keep Americans hopeful, removing people from the sacrifice, suffering, and death they face everyday at the home front.
Side note: here are some pics of USO entertainers such as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, and Mickey Rooney.
But back to 1944.
The films have more glamor, singing, dancing, color, and movie stars, than ever before. Going to the movies is a way to escape, and the studios eagerly accept the challenge to remove Americans from a coarse reality and transport them to a different world for a few hours each Saturday at 32 cents a ticket. Even in Oppenheimer’s top-secret labs in Los Alamos, Hollywood pervades, and a type of atomic bomb is named after the Dasheill Hammett novel and film, The Thin Man, and the actual bomb dropped on Nagasaki, “Fat Man,” is named after Sidney Greenstreet‘s “Kasper Gutman” character in The Maltese Falcon.
To Have and Have Not (1944) was the first film Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together (out of four total) and it was the film where they fell in love. Luckily for us, Bogie and Bacalls’ on and off screen chemistry is the heart of the film. Watching them interact is not so much watching a passionate love scene, but feels more like watching two kids with a chemistry set, taking turns adding elements that may or may not explode at any moment, laughing in each others faces and playing chicken to see who will flinch first.
To Have and Have Not is a poker game. Like many Hawks films, the dialogue is fast, overlapping, and biting. The Hawks film, His Girl Friday, (which lucky for you is on youtube in its entirety, and which you are going to watch now) is the ultimate example.
Lauren Bacall is a Hawks woman: beautiful, tough, a woman who sure as hell don’t need a man, but is damn good at keeping him on his toes. Howard Hawks utilizes long takes that let your eyes soak in exotic Martinique, the many colorful characters of the film, as well as Bogart and Bacalls’ every move. But whereas His Girl Friday is a boxing match of words, To Have and Have Not is a poker game because of the looks. I have never been fond of the term “eye sex” but after watching this film you know why that term was invented (it was obviously after someone had seen this film). It is not just Bacall’s gorgeous smoky eyes, her direct piercing look or even the playfully challenging way Bogie looks back at her. It is the multiple wordless conversations they have and the interactions where the words mean one thing and the eyes say another that make this film wonderful.
Who would have thought that watching Bogie and Bacall watch (and seduce) each other could be so enjoyable?
To Have and Have Not in relation to Casablanca is interesting. They are remarkably similar: they start with a map, an exotic location and music, conflict with the French and Gestapo, a hero that seeks shelter, his beautiful wife, a lost cause that Bogie claims he will not get involved in but ultimately joins to save the day at great personal risk. But where To Have and Have Not takes a delightful twist away from Casablanca is that the revolutionary plot and the romance remain quite separate, beyond their existence in the same physical location. Bogie still plays the curmudgeon who doesn’t pick sides and who doesn’t want to help the valiant revolutionaries but ultimately ends up doing the noble thing and helps them. But when the fugitive couple shows up, Bogart is not interested in the beautiful wife who inspires her husband to continue on. Steve (Bogie) has Slim (Bacall), who is in no way involved in the politics except where Steve is concerned. The romance and the plot are almost two separate stories that happen to overlap at points. And frankly, the romance is more interesting.
It is only in the middle of the film, when Steve goes on a mission, that Slim is not around and the pace of the film changes. An adventure scene is thrown in with some shooting and a get away, but then we are back to romance and the slower, sultry pace. And boy, are we glad when Steve returns from his adventure to find Slim singing by the piano after she has not left using the plane ticket he bought her (how sexy is that?) so they can spar with words and eyes and innuendo.
In Casablanca, I cared about the cause. In To Have and Have Not, I really don’t give a damn. It is just an interesting way to bring Bogie and Bacall together, and in that way it serves its purpose. I am more than satisfied to watch Bacall dance toward Bogie, maintaining eye contact and smiling mischievously, and then he grabs her arm and they walk out into the fog. It is the perfect ending.
One of the most iconic Bogie/Bacall moments is a line from To Have and Have Not is, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Steve of course responds (after several seconds) by whistling. While the writers included Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, Hawks apparently wrote this scene for Bacall’s screen test and he liked it so much it was worked into a later version of the script. It is said that when Bogie died, Bacall placed a whistle on his coffin. There have been many on/off screen romances: Liz and Dick, Katherine and Spencer, Bogie and Bacall. And there is something special on screen when we see these couples. I think as the audience we pick up the little specks of real romance. And that is never more apparent that when you watch To Have and Have Not. Because nothing is like watching Bogie and Bacall watch each other.