Friday, March 5, 2010

Review – To Have and Have Not

March 5, 2010

To Have and Have Not – U.S., 1944

Watching Howard Hawks’ 1944 film To Have and Have Not, I felt an eerie sense of déjà vu, as if I had seen this film before. In truth, I had only seen parts of this film, and they were better the first time around. By now, audiences all over the world probably recognize the following film elements - a man in an occupied country, a young woman in danger, a secret mission that the man is hesitant to get involved in, the musician who plays a rather telling musical number, a spy who must find a way out of a country, and the consistently impressive Humphrey Bogart. That these elements would again appear in a movie so soon after 1942’s masterpiece Casablanca is not entirely surprising. After all, if it works once, who’s to say it won’t work a second time?

And for many people, To Have and Have Not indeed works. Martin and Porter give the film four and a half stars, the film has an 8.1 ranking on IMDB, and on Rotten Tomatoes the film has a perfect rating of 100%, although it should be noted that only twenty-one people have seen fit to rate the film. However, with rankings such as these, someone viewing the film for the first time would probably be forgiven if he went into the film expecting to be completely dazzled by what he saw in front of him. The problem is that such high expectations are rarely met, and such is the case with To Have and Have Not.

To Have and Have Not is essentially two films – a political thriller and a romance, and it only succeeds at being one of these. The film’s central character is Harry Morgan, the captain of a small fishing boat docked on the French island of Martinique. His crew consists of two men, Horatio and Eddie. Horatio (played by a man named Sir Lancelot) appears in the beginning of the film, seems to be an important figure on the boat, and then disappears from the film entirely. Eddie (Walter Brennan), on the other hand, is given plenty of screen time, and despite Morgan’s assertion that Eddie is looking after him, I can't escape the feeling that Eddie exists solely for comic purposes. Why else would a character be given what could be a form of memento, keep asking people if they’ve ever been stung by a dead bee, and ask for alcohol in such a sympathetic way as to elicit the kind of sighs normally reserved for small furry animals in a Disney movie?

After an opening scene designed to establish Morgan as a righteous and noble character – he defends his two friends after some rather mean-spirited remarks are hurled in their direction – Morgan finds himself being recruited by members of a French liberation group. It seems there’s a mission of vital importance that only he and his boat can handle properly. In true Hollywood fashion, Morgan turns their offer down. After all, he knows what happens to those who are caught aiding the enemy of the Vichy. Eventually, he changes his mind though and stealthily embarks on a secret mission that neither he nor the audience fully understands the significance of. This aspect of the film, while being somewhat predictable, was well made and somewhat suspenseful, for we get the sense that danger lurks everywhere around Morgan – on the streets of Martinique, in the hotel, even at sea.

As a romance, however, the film falls somewhat short, for the relationship between Morgan and Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall), a woman staying in the room adjacent to Morgan’s, simply never achieves absolute believability. Sure, the two of them are attracted to each other, and yes, they are not meeting in the most ideal circumstances for a budding romance, but there’s appears to be very little to their growing love than a few casual remarks that get under the other’s skin and the sense that both of them have been wronged by love in the past. Neither of them is forthcoming about the past, and they seem to push each other away just as often as they draw each other close. One could argue that this is the way love develops in an occupied land filled with potential assassins. In fact, this is indeed what has been said about the lead characters in Earnest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. I didn’t accept that explanation when I read that book as a literature major at U.C. Riverside, and I don’t buy it when it comes to To Have and Have Not either. Think of it this way. There’s a difference between accepting the existence of love prior to a film’s opening scene, which we do when we watch Casablanca, and watching love develop in front of us. It’s takes much more to convince me that two characters are falling in love than it does that they are already in love. The former requires not only attraction and circumstance but also time and deeply personal conversation, two ingredients that exist sparingly in Hawks’ film. In fact, the film even acknowledges the almost silly nature of Morgan and Browning’s relationship when it has Browning sing a song about how little two people in love know about each other. Just when the piano player named Cricket got around to writing that one, I’m not sure.

To Have and Have Not does have some clever dialogue, and there is indeed great chemistry between Bacall and Bogart. I particularly enjoyed their banter about just which of them is sore at the other at certain points throughout the film. However, the much touted “You know how to whistle” scene did nothing for me. Neither for that matter did either of the film’s four musical interludes. For me, therefore, To Have and Have Not is an average film that is made slightly better by some of the performances of its cast, in particular those of Bogart, Bacall, and Dolores Moran, who plays the wife of the French spy that Morgan is sent to pick up. Still, if it’s something memorable and fresh that you’re looking for, I’d stick with Casablanca. (on DVD)

3 stars

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