“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”
One can only an imagine an audience in New York in 1944 sitting back with a gasp and then collectively going, “Whoa!” From her first moment on screen, Lauren Bacall lit up the cinema with her smoky voice and burning eyes, somehow keeping cool, almost mocking, while at the same time beckoning. Of course, it didn’t hurt that future husband Humphrey Bogart was the man she was looking at.
Although To Have and Have Not started out as an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, it ended up as a movie made to capitalize on the huge success of Casablanca and Bogart’s sudden and overwhelming popularity. Much of the film echoes the former movie with great success. Instead of Morocco, the movie is set in and around the Caribbean island of Martinique, part of the French West Indies, Bogart is a skipper of his own boat, rather than a bar owner, and the French underground is once again recruiting him to their cause of fighting the Nazis. This time, however, he doesn’t go for the foxy wife of the French freedom fighter, but rather the lost little American nightclub singer.
Skipper Harry Morgan (Bogart) has been hanging out in Martinique taking sportsmen out into the ocean for deep sea fishing. Accompanied by his alcoholic assistant, Eddie (Walter Brennan), Morgan has hired his boat out for the last two weeks to a fellow named Johnson Johnson (Walter Sande), who owes him $825. When Johnson blows his chance of hooking a big marlin, he decides to call it quits and Morgan asks for his money. Johnson tells him that he will have to get it from the bank the next morning and they agree to meet at 10:30. Returning to his hotel, the manager, a man they call “Frenchy” (Marcel Dalio), begs Morgan to help the French underground with a clandestine operation, but he refuses because the danger is too great. As they talk, a sultry young American woman, Marie Browning (Bacall), steps up to his door and asks for a light. That’s where the real fun begins. Right from the beginning, Morgan gives her the nickname “Slim” and she comes back with “Steve” and that is what they call each other from then on and there is no doubt whatsoever that these two are going to get together.
A group of French patriots visit Morgan trying to convince him to help them, but he still isn’t having anything to do with them. Later that evening in the hotel restaurant, Slim sings along with piano playing songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and flirts with Johnson, eventually picking his pocket. Morgan catches her. Up in his room, they look through the wallet and he discovers that Johnson has a plane ticket for 6:30 the next morning and a fistful of travelers checks. Figuring that Johnson was trying to skip out on him, they confront the man, but a gunfight breaks out between the police and the underground characters and Johnson is killed before he can sign over the traveler’s checks. Strapped for money and with Frenchy demanding the hotel bill get paid, Morgan agrees to go to another island and pick up resistance leader Paul de Bursac (Walter Surovy). When he and Eddie get there, they discover that de Bursac has brought his wife, sultry Helene (Dolores Moran). As they head back to Martinique, they encounter a patrol boat. Morgan raises his rifle to shoot at the boat and de Bursac, not realizing he’s firing at the spotlight, tries to stop him. In the gunfire exchange, de Bursac gets hit in the shoulder. Hiding in the basement of the hotel, Morgan removes the bullet and helps him to recover, with Helene hovering over him. This makes Slim jealous and intensifies her passion for Morgan.
With everything coming to a head, Morgan decides it’s time to get out. But how?
The nicknames Slim and Steve are really cool. It turns out that director Howard Hawks and his wife, Nancy Keith, used to call each other by those nicknames. It was Nancy, in fact, who saw Bacall’s photo in Harper’s Bazaar and pointed out the 19 year old model to Hawks, who was looking for somebody new.
Originally, Howard Hughes owned the rights to Hemingway’s novel, but sold them to Hawks, who had always wanted to do a movie based on a Hemingway book. According to the documentary which accompanies the 2003 DVD, A Love Story: The Story of ‘To Have and Have Not, Hawks told Hemingway that he could make a movie of the famous writer’s worst novel, which Hawks believed was To Have and Have Not. Getting the green light from Warner Brothers, he hired well-known Hollywood screenwriter Jules Furthman to draft the screenplay. With objections from the Roosevelt administration that the book was politically sensitive regarding Cuba, they brought in William Faulkner, who moved the location to Martinique and made other wholesale changes that rendered the book almost superfluous as source material.
The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall isn’t the only thing going on in this film. Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael are great together. Hoagy performs his own composition, “Hong Kong Blues,” co-written with Stanley Adams, and he plays with the little house band on a song called “The Rhumba Jumps,” that was co-written with Johnny Mercer. Bacall sings one song in the movie, “How Little We Know,” another Carmichael and Mercer composition.
In spite of all of the similarities with Casablanca, this movie has a completely different feel to it. The former film was pinned on the past love of the Bogart and Bergman characters and it burned with the passion of lost love. To Have and Have Not is the antidote to that: it is love found and it carries all of the positive energy of that love.
This is not a great film, but it is an iconic film. And it is undoubtedly a fun movie, one that be watched over and over without one’s brain breaking apart with deep thought or worrisome agitation. The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, in their first movie together, finding each other, is more than enough to sustain this film through the years.