For this week’s post, I’m going back to Filmstruck, and going back to some classic golden age of Hollywood films. And I’m also switching up what I said I’d do last week.
This week’s films are:
Howard Hawks – To Have and Have Not (1944)
Howard Hawks – The Big Sleep (1946)
Last week, I had selected a different Howard Hawks movie in place of To Have and Have Not, because I couldn’t find a copy of it on any of the services I subscribe to. But when I was about to start the films this week, I discovered that FilmStruck had added it. So I decided to save Bringing Up Baby for another time, and moved my original choice into the top slot.
Both films are directed by Howard Hawks, and both star Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. We’ve covered Bogart several times before, but never Howard Hawks, or Lauren Bacall. Bogart and Bacall were a famous Hollywood couple, and they met on the set of To Have and Have Not. Bogart, being much older than Bacall and leaving his wife for the younger woman of course caused quite a scandal in old Hollywood, but the couple proved it wasn’t a fling, as they remained together until Bogart’s death in 1957.
Let’s get into the films.
To Have and Have Not (1944)
Harry Morgan is a boat captain in Martinique during World War II, spending his days taking rich men out fishing, taking care of his alcoholic friend Eddie, and meeting a beautiful young woman he nicknames Slim. When a friend asks him to take on a less than legal job, Morgan balks, wanting to stay out of the troubles between the Vichy government and the free French. But the trouble finds him anyway, and he finds himself in the middle of the struggle between the two sides. As he gets deeper and deeper, he’ll have to decide who he is, and where, or if he will draw the line.
The film is directed by Howard Hawks, and stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, in her first film. This also features Hoagy Carmichael in his first credited role. I talked a bit about Carmichael in a previous post, and he does a great job here in his element as a hotel piano player and band leader.
But let’s talk about Bacall. This is her first film, and her first credit on IMDb. She was 19 years old, and she totally lights up the screen. Her performance is sultry, and sexy, but vulnerable and real. Her voice is deep and powerful, and she commands attention whenever she’s on screen. It would be an impressive performance from anyone to steal attention from an actor like Bogart, but for a 19 year old in her first role, it’s especially impressive. The story goes that Hawks had a backup script to shoot if Bacall didn’t work out that would reduce her screentime. But she was so good, that William Faulkner, the screenwriter, was instructed to rewrite the script to feature her more.
We talked previously in our post about The Lady Eve about how sex appeal worked in films from that era. Actresses in that era didn’t have the tools that modern actresses have to portray themselves as sexy. There are no revealing clothing, and no sex scenes, and racy dialogue is layered so thickly in innuendo, it might be easy to miss. So it’s all on the talent of the actress to produce an scene that might be considered sexy or titillating in anyway. But Bacall does it here. This film is the source of the famous film line “You know how to whistle don’t you Steve? Just put your lips together, and blow.” Pretty tame by today’s standards, but electric in the 1940s.
The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is all over the screen as well. Their relationship is playful, and a bit adversarial from the moment that Slim appears on screen. Slim reveals herself as a petty criminal, robbing a rich man that owes Harry money. In a moment of self-preservation, Harry confronts her, getting the wallet back, and discovering that the man had plenty of money to pay Harry, along with a plane ticket leaving the next day, 2 hours before he had promised to pay. Harry is able to get the man to sign over some traveler’s checks, but not before a gun fight starts outside, killing the man before he could sign.
This is the moment that Harry gets sucked in. Before, with a big payday coming, he was able to ignore the problems of others. But now, his payday is gone, and he’s dragged into the police station, run by the Vichy France government. He and Slim are taken in and questioned. Harry has his money stolen by the officials, along with his passport.
At this point, he takes the job with the Free French, not just for the money, but to stick it to Renard, the leader of the Vichy officials. As Harry makes plans to complete the job, he gives Slim a plane ticket, hoping that she’ll leave before he gets pulled in any deeper. Harry takes his boat to a remote island late at night to pick up a couple at a remote dock. The man, Paul, is a leader of the Free French that is trying to get back to Martinique without the Vichy officials noticing, so he can continue to inspire the Free French, he’s traveling with his wife.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not totally crazy. While the film isn’t explicitly related to Casablanca, it feels a lot like that film. Bogart plays an amoral, yet noble character, who desperately wants to stay out of the troubles between the Vichy and the Free French, but is pulled into the Free French side, regardless. Both films include a friendly piano player and band leader who don’t have major plot points, but are highly visible throughout. Both films are set in a remote location controlled by the Vichy government in the middle of WWII, both center on a bar, and both involve Bogart’s character helping a married couple escape the notice of the Vichy government. They aren’t exactly the same, but it’s impossible to not recognize how similar they are. I think Casablanca is the superior film, but I think anyone watching both would wonder if they were based on the same material. They aren’t. This film is based on a book by Ernest Hemingway, though heavily altered.
On the trip, Paul is shot as they try to get away from a patrol boat. Frenchy, the bar owner and leader of the trip, brings Paul back to the bar/hotel where Harry and Slim live, and he gets pulled in even more, as he’s the only one who knows how to treat a bullet wound. We get hints of Harry’s background, but never the full story. This makes him more interesting. He owns the boat, but he isn’t a commercial fisherman, he just rents the boat out. But he knows how to make an illicit meeting without being seen, knows how to treat a bullet wound, and knows how to spot a pickpocket from across the room. He’s clearly had some experience in the criminal world, but is also noble and kind. When he is offered the opportunity to erase his debt at the hotel to treat Paul when his bullet wound becomes more serious, he agrees to do it, but also insists he’ll still pay the bill.
There’s also the matter of Eddie, his alcoholic friend, played by Walter Brennan, one of the most active character actors of the era. Throughout the film, Eddie makes things harder for him, showing up drunk, constantly asking for a drink, or money for drinks. When he is taken by the Vichy police, Harry goes running, assuming that when Eddie gets drunk, he’ll give up the whole operation. But he never considers cutting Eddie loose. He never has a bad word for him, and defends him from anyone else’s attack. He’s stern with him, trying to limit his drinking, but otherwise, takes care of him.
In the end, Harry has to decide where his loyalties lie, with the Free French, the Vichy, or himself. The conclusion feels a little abrupt, but it ends up being satisfying regardless.
This is a really satisfying film, and a good performance from Bogart. But the real highlight here is Bacall. She jumps off the screen and cements her place as a film powerhouse in her first role. Every moment she appears on screen is mesmerizing. And on top of her acting talent, she has a subplot where she takes a gig as a singer for the band. Now it’s possible she didn’t really sing the songs, but considering she also sang in other roles, and the voice matches, I believe it was her voice, and it’s stellar. It’s deep and loud, and you can’t ignore it.
Definitely one to watch.
The Big Sleep (1946)
Private Detective Philip Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to investigate a blackmail claim over some gambling debts his daughter Carmen has incurred. But when he begins to look into it, he gets sucked into a world of murder, gambling and dirty pictures that he might not survive.
The film stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and again is directed by Howard Hawks. The film is again written by William Faulkner, but this time is based on a story by Raymond Chandler. This story features his long running detective character Philip Marlowe who has appeared in many film adaptations, including the Robert Altman film The Long Goodbye.
The film is a classic detective story, giving us all the information we need, and giving the audience a chance to figure it out, but allowing Marlowe to explain it all to us at the end. We get the groundwork early on in the film as Marlowe meets with General Sternwood, the client. They ask each other about their backgrounds, which also allows us to learn about their backgrounds. We learn that Marlowe used to work for the District Attorney’s office, and that Sternwood has two daughters, Carmen and Vivian, which Marlowe describes as “pretty, and pretty wild”, from the rumors he’s heard.
We learn that General Sternwood is being blackmailed for the second time. He had been blackmailed by a man named Joe Brody over his daughter Carmen. He’s being blackmailed again over Carmen, this time for gambling debts from a man named Geiger. He also learns of the mysterious disappearance of his employee Shawn Regan, who he thought of as a son. Marlowe is instructed to make Geiger go away.
As he leaves, he is intercepted by Vivian, the older daughter, played by Bacall. She is asking him about what his job is, assuming it has to do with Shawn Regan. Marlowe sniffs out her intentions right away, holding his real job close, and noting how interested she is in his work.
The dialogue in the film is great, especially from Marlowe. Look at this exchange:
Vivian : I don’t like your manners.
Marlowe : And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.
Marlowe is the type of character that always has a comeback, always perfectly timed, and always able to shut down his conversation partner.
The first film of our pairing belonged to Bacall, but this film is all Bogart. His Philip Marlowe is capable, professional, and always in control. He’s a hit with the ladies too. After doing some research on his target, Geiger, he discovers Geiger runs a rare book shop. He gets some info on rare books, and goes into the store, asking for obscure texts. While he’s there, he notices another man getting waved into the back.
He goes across the street to another bookstore and asks for the same books, and the pretty, young clerk tells him they don’t exist. This confirms his suspicion that the rare book store across the street is a front for something far more sinister. He waits at the bookstore with the pretty clerk for Geiger to leave, who closes the store to get closer to him.
That evening at Geiger’s, Carmen shows up, and while he waits outside, he hears gunshots and sees two cars drive off. He runs inside and finds Carmen drugged out of her mind, and Geiger dead on the floor. Further complicating things is the camera he finds with the film removed. The picture is starting to become clear. Carmen is being exploited, either willingly or unwillingly, and Geiger was behind it.
The story continues getting more complex, as Owen Taylor, one of the chauffeurs for the Sternwood family, drove his car off a dock that evening, and died. Soon after, Vivian receives another blackmail from a woman who shows her the pictures that were taken of Carmen, asking for $5000. And it goes on from there.
I’m a person who loves mystery stories, but I’m terrible at solving them before the film ends. But I can usually keep up. This film I found really hard to follow. The dialogue moves fast, and is usually cloaked behind some other meaning. In addition, the antagonist keeps changing, to the point where I stopped trying to figure out who was the antagonist. The film introduces Joe Brody, but then he is killed, and we are pointed towards a man named Eddie Mars. We also have to consider that Vivian might be the villain.
Luckily, Marlowe is a much better detective than I am, and by the end of the film, he’s able to wrap it all up.
This is one of the ultimate Bogart roles. His Marlowe takes no crap from anyone, even when he’s being beaten. He always manages to turn the situation to his advantage. He’s a male ideal from this era. The epitome of masculinity from the mid-40s.
In return, Bacall becomes more of the classic femme fatale in a noir context. Her character is to be a source of danger and love to Marlowe, and she does that well, but she doesn’t jump off the screen like she does in To Have and Have Not.
The Double Feature
Though these two films have the same stars, director, and writer, I’m not sure they pair all that well. One is a fairly simple love story set on a backdrop of war and difficult decisions. The other is a complex hard-boiled detective story with half a dozen characters all interacting and dying and being suspects. It’s designed to be confusing to keep you guessing, the way Marlowe should be guessing.
It’s a real credit to the talents of the actors and particularly Howard Hawks that they could all work in such different styles. This is a hallmark of old Hollywood, when every actor and director had to be generalists, able to move from genre to genre and do all of them well. In the modern era, most directors focus on a single genre, or style, comedy, horror, suspense, drama, etc. It’s the rare director that can succeed at multiple types of films, but clearly, Hawks is one of them.
The semester is over, and I’m still working. I have my dissertation proposal to finish, and then I have to hit my dissertation hard. I’ve got a lot of data to analyze before I can really get into it. But I like where I’m at. I have a first draft of the proposal done, and I’m hoping to propose by the end of the month. Once I finish the proposal, I’m planning to take at least a week to myself off, just to get away from things for a bit.
But I will continue with the blog, of course. So let’s talk about next week’s films.
My first post on this blog was on May 17th, 2017. So when this one posts, it will be the first anniversary. But, I write these a week ahead, so when I’m writing the next one, it will essentially be on the 1 year anniversary. So let’s celebrate that a bit. When I first conceived of this blog, I thought I would just write about two filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock, and Akira Kurosawa. Since then, I’ve gotten quite diverse, but for next week, let’s look at two more films from these all time legends.
Next week’s films are:
Alfred Hitchcock – Rebecca (1940)
Akira Kurosawa – Throne of Blood (1957)
I have never seen Rebecca, but Throne of Blood is one of my favorite Kurosawa films. Should be a wonderful time.
See you then.