#27 — To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944)
Lauren Bacall was nineteen years old when she made her film debut in To Have and Have Not. Famously spotted on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar by Nancy Keith, the wife of director Harold Hawks, Bacall was given the role of Marie Browning. Nicknamed Slim, just like Keith, the character was a singer in a bar, spotted by Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), the captain of a small chartered fishing boat. More importantly, Slim was designed to provide the formidable match for the film’s leading man. As Hawks explained to Bogart, “You are about the most insolent man on the screen, and I’m going to make the girl a little more insolent than you are.” In the unpredictable alchemy of moviemaking, Hawks got exactly what he’d hoped for and more from Bacall. She’s utterly commanding every moment she’s in the film, sloping through scenes as if she not only owns them, but can confidently give them away with assurance that she can snatch them back whenever she wants. Her famed tutorial on the fine art of whistling is the understandable exemplar of this quality, and yet it’s not even her strongest moment in the film. There are probably half a dozen instances peppered throughout in which she’s even more striking and casually forceful in announcing her presence as an instant star, someone who was made for the movies.
Hawks saw Bacall’s talent right away, not only casting her in the first place, but expanding her role once he saw what she could do, particularly in that famous chemistry with Bogart. If the director wanted an actress who could metaphorically jab back at Bogart, he got it. If the word “dame” didn’t already exist, they would have needed to invent it for Bacall. Luckily, the film started in fairly raggedy shape, giving Hawks the latitude to make adjustments to accentuate the best of what he saw in front of him. The film is based on an Ernest Hemingway novel, but ever so loosely. Hawks reportedly deemed it to be the author’s worst work, choosing to rejigger it with Hemingway’s permission and assistance, eventually enlisting no less than William Faulkner to help complete the screenplay. The finished product is heavy with echoes of Casablanca, which had its premiere less than two years before To Have and Have Not hit screens. Bogart is once again an expatriate reluctantly drawn into the French resistance movement during World War II, all while pining after a beautiful woman. There’s even a friendly piano player, portrayed in this instance by Hoagy Carmichael.
Indeed, the film is similar enough to Casablanca, and really any number of wartime dramas, that it should feel like a retread, a film locked into amenable but intensely familiar pattern. It transcends that, though, in part due to the legendary dynamics between Bogart and Bacall, but more because of the consummate skill of Hawks. While he was hardly perfect every time out — the directors of this era worked so much and so fast that a flawless record was practically a statistical impossibility — when he was at his best, few could build a movie with such a flawless sense of pace, tone, and timing. As with other peaks in the Hawks oeuvre, To Have and Have Not is so splendidly aligned with its own storytelling goals that it is almost unimaginable to think of it in any other form, presented in any other way. Like Bacall, it is preternaturally meant for the big screen.