There’s a word that often comes up in discussions about the films of Howard Hawks, and that word is “delight.” The word is useful as a noun (“To Have and Have Not is a delight.”) but also as a verb capturing the vibe emanating from the players (“Bacall delights in the dialogue.”)
I wanted to start there; on the off chance that someone reading this piece hasn’t seen this movie, or is unfamiliar with Hawks generally, hopefully I can offer a gentle shove in that direction. To Have and Have Not is a great time, not just because it conjures up so much of that classic Hawksian feel, but also because it’s the first, most effective pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
And there’s another reason: I was desperate to bury the lede that has become customary whenever this film is discussed – namely that To Have and Have Not would seem to be Hawks’ attempt at remaking Casablanca, albeit shorn of flashbacks, trench coats and infuriatingly noble third wheels. I’m not so anxious to get behind any hot takes about chicken-and-egg superiority one way or the other, but ask me which one I watch more often. Go ahead; I have nothing to hide.
To Have and Have Not is one of those irresistible films that proves impossible to turn off – call it the “wrath of THAHN” effect – and so much of that is down to Hawks’ bewitching hangout tone and quasi-musical playfulness. Sure, there’s a story in there somewhere, but like Rio Bravo, no one involved is in any hurry to find resolution, certainly not at the expense of getting to watch appealing characters have a good jaw courtesy of a crackerjack screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner. (The poster announces “Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not”; I haven’t read the book, but this credit has been known to raise eyebrows among those who have.)
Almost as soon as the movie gets underway, the players broadcast a knowing intolerance for elaborate exposition with a forthrightness one can’t help but find endearing – witness the playful irritation of Captain Harry Morgan (Bogart) at having to provide details to the harbor master in order to get clearance to do the same thing he does every day: take his fishing boat out for a charter off the coast of Martinique. By the standards of 1944, this almost constitutes a “meta” moment: Bogart’s exasperation mirrors every audience member who’s ever had to sit through tedious set up en route to an inciting event.
Morgan’s first mate is Monsieur Eddie (Walter Brennan), and moving pictures have never served up a more heartfelt, congenial drunkard. He’s also very funny.
“Drinking don’t bother my memory. If it did I wouldn’t drink; I’d forget how good it was. Go back to drinking water again,” he says with a shudder of disgust.
As a foil for Bogart, Brennan is almost as potent as Bacall, a tender lost soul who is incapable of deception, malice or the slightest guile. In four short lines concerning Eddie’s shaking hands, we get all the information we need about the easy closeness that exists between the pair.
“Sure got ‘em this morning.”
“You’ve got ‘em every morning.”
“Not last Thursday.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. I forgot.”
The charter belongs to Walter Sande as one Mr. Johnson: discourteous shitheel, lousy fisherman. Johnson’s unpleasantness and general incompetence are in sharp contrast with just about everyone else who hangs around the local bar, so it’s no surprise when he tries to skip town without paying Morgan his fee. To be fair, how seriously would you take someone called “Captain Morgan” who drinks rum and sports a naval captain’s lid?
The hotel/bar owner, Frenchy (Marcel Dalio, another face from Casablanca), wants to hire Morgan’s boat for “friends of friends,” members of the Free French resistance, but one thing you should know about Morgan is that he sticks his neck out for no-
“Anybody got a match?”
Just shy of the fifteen-minute mark the screen catches fire, victim of an errant spark off the match of “Slim” (Lauren Bacall), checker-suited and sporting a gaze and a voice like melted butterscotch. For the next few minutes – hell, maybe for the rest of the film – Bogart’s amusement with/attraction to Bacall is the only game in town, threatening to obliterate any fast-fading concerns about story proper. And the two of them know it. “Quit the baby talk,” he admonishes with a smirk, but in reality he’s all-too-game to play along with the “Slim” vs. “Steve” repartee – each a cat, each a ball of yarn.
My favorite moment is Bacall’s offense following this exchange:
“I’ve got a job.”
“Frenchy seems to think I can sing.”
(with an almost imperceptible shrug) “It’s his place.”
At the bar, when a shootout breaks out between Vichy stooges and resistance fighters (and a stray bullet kills Johnson), we meet our heavy in the form of Captain Renard (Dan Seymour). Seymour plays the part with thick-lidded, unhurried menace. He’s not terribly intimidating or interesting, purring out menacingly accented English and sometimes sporting a saucy beret; Richard Widmark of Fort de France he ain’t.
Once again, whether it’s the Casablanca effect or the Hawks effect, the more plot-oriented scenes involving the resistance are not nearly as captivating as the burgeoning Bogey and Bacall shenanigans or Hoagy Carmichael’s Cricket noodling at the piano. The film itself seems rather blasé about the war effort generally, particularly for a Hollywood venture circa 1944; there’s certainly no sign of sentimental recollections of our beloved Paris, or teary renderings of La Marseillaise.
Little surprise then, in a film with at least a little bit of shooting and cannon fire, the only powerful moment of violence is Morgan slapping Eddie to keep him away from Frenchy’s potentially compromising charter job. The slap doesn’t work (Eddie sneaks aboard) but Brennan’s wounded reaction is enough to make you cry. Morgan is also unable to convince Slim that he wants her to leave town, despite saying so repeatedly and even buying her ticket home himself.
In other words, Harry Morgan is exactly the type of character Bogart was made for: a decent man ever hiding his decency because to reveal it would make him less effective. And this isn’t just another Casablanca hangover: in Hawks’ The Big Sleep he operates in the grey area between righteous bootlegger Sean Regan and malevolent gambler Eddie Mars; in Huston’s Key Largo he goes to rather improbable lengths to escape his heroic nature; as far back as The Maltese Falcon he could be heard snarling, “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I pretend to be.”
Despite the complete supremacy of character beats over plot points in To Have and Have Not, the two converge with typical Hawksian grace in the final twenty minutes, beginning with the gestapo’s one unforgivable act: using liquor to manipulate Eddie into betraying his friend. This sort of rum conduct demands swift ownage, first verbal then physical, with Bogart’s conversational dominance eventually yielding to actual beatings; there is justice in the universe of Howard Hawks.
And since a happy ending is assured, let’s tarry at the bar a while longer and hear a little something from Slim and Cricket.