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"The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle." Stanley Kubrick

Classic Film Review: To Have and Have Not

Title: To Have and Have Not

Year: 1944

Director: Howard Hawks

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Walter Brennan

Synopsis: During World War II, American boat captain Harry Morgan helps transport a French Resistance leader and his beautiful wife to Martinique while romancing a sensuous lounge singer.

Ah, The Golden Age of Hollywood. When Hollywood films were made with such delicate craft that inspired and ignited hope, not despair. Today, most Hollywood films are made with just one goal in mind: make lots of money. Now, most of us find ourselves having to wander through the vast array of independent films in order to find a gem that gives off similar effects of a great big production film during the Golden Age. I like to consider The Golden Age of Hollywood the period of American films from the late 30s to the late 50s. When big-studio films were being made that induced originality, creativity, and immense joy. Filmmakers and producers were going out of their way to make movies that not only looked and sounded great, but told powerful and important stories. One perfect example of a film that displayed this was Howard Hawks’ 1944 masterpiece To Have or Have Not.

Hawks was one of the top American filmmakers of the time. Having already made classic films like Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, and His Girl Friday, Hawks decided to turn his focus toward making movies about the second great war. Of course, this is what was on everyone’s minds during this time. WWII was already a devastating disaster for so many countries, including The United States. Hawks’ previous film before To Have and Have Not was the 1943 war film, Air Force which was more of a war propaganda film that focused entirely on the aftermath of the attack of Pearl Harbor. To Have and Have Not, much like Casablanca, is a film that took place during World War II and dealt with some of the politics and controversy that was going during that time, but told a separate story entirely that just so happened to be going on during the conflict and controversy of the war. This is a film that has depth and isn’t just a singular film that tries to explain why the war is so bad.

The film takes place in an overseas region of France called Martinique which is where we meet our reluctant hero, boat captain Harry Morgan, played by no other than Humphrey Bogart. This is Bogart in his prime and and he plays a type of character that he masters. Morgan is very similar to Bogart’s character in Casablanca, Rick Blaine, where he has this cool and calm demeanor about him and just wants to mind his own business. He isn’t as cynical and hopeless as Rick though, as we see Morgan interact with close friends like his sailing partner Eddie for example. Much like Rick Blaine, Morgan finds himself in a situation where he must reluctantly sacrifice himself for the greater good, in the midst of the World War II politics that are going around. Yes, this film is very similar to the American romantic classic, but Howard Hawks still manages to make this film his own. This has something to do with the unique setting of Martinique, the brand-new and fresh chemistry of Bogart and Bacall, and Hawks’ signature directing trademarks. Let me first talk about the directing of Hawks.

Hawks was a very talented filmmaker and knew exactly when and where to put the camera. There are many wide-angle shots that present the setting and atmosphere of where the characters are. When a character enters a bar for example, he won’t show a closeup of the characters reaction necessarily, but freely move the camera throughout the room so we get a sense of where the characters are and get immersed in the atmosphere. He simply allows us to join in with the characters and never stiffly put the camera to a halt. Hawks is also a very patient filmmaker. He never over-does or over-exaggerates anything. There is just enough action, just enough plot, and plenty of subtle character moments. Hawks seems to be more focused on his characters and not the plot or story necessarily. Much like Brody, Quint, and Matt bonding on the boat in Jaws just before they meet up with the great white shark, Hawks has a similar tactic of allowing the characters to bond with one another before the action takes place. Hawks famously said that “a good movie is three good scenes and no bad ones.” I think that perfectly defines To Have and Have Not in a heartbeat…Of course it would be amiss not to mention the fantastic chemistry of our two leads in this film: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

This is probably what most people remember about the film to this day. This was Bacall’s very first film, and what an exceptional debut it was. She was only 19 when filming this movie, portraying a lounge singer who was 22, but she displayed as much confidence as a veteran actor would. She makes the perfect complement to Bogart because she is just as cool, calm, and collected as he is. Their sexual chemistry and back-and-forth repartee is captivating. Not only because the writing and acting are top-notch, but also it is real. Bogart would end up falling in love with Bacall on-set and eventually left his third wife for her and they got married shortly after. I think Bacall was the perfect actress to play opposite Bogart even though he was more than twice her age. They would end up making three more films together and stay married until Bogart’s death of cancer in 1957. One of Hollywood’s most iconic relationships on and off-screen was born in this film. You can sense the vibrancy between these two characters the moment they see each other for the very first time.

To Have or Have Not is a perfect representation of what Hollywood was capable of making when a group of very talented and powerful people worked together to make something with such emphasis and craft. There’s just nothing like much like To Have or Have Not in modern-day films. It’s structured perfectly. It never runs too long. Each scene is riveting, whether it’s just a subtle character building scene, or an intense action sequence. You can tell that if it was re-made today, there would be much more sex and violence, but the fact that there wasn’t so much in this film worked out in its favor. The sexual tension and the fact that we don’t see the two leads do any more than just kiss makes it that much more enduring. Also the violence is shown just a little bit throughout the film, but the tension that is shown before the violence is what is best about the film. Modern day films could definitely learn a thing or two from movies like To Have or Have Not. The script is as sharp as a razor blade, with brilliant dialogue, and the directing by Hawks is very calm and collected just like Bogart is. Everything just comes together and falls in to place perfectly. If you haven’t seen this 1944 classic film yet, than I highly recommend that you do. You just might become as nostalgic about the power of older films as I have become.

 

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