“You know how to whistle, don’t you?”
So Lauren Bacall asked Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, and it no longer mattered that we were watching a Casablanca retread, comprised of an Ernest Hemingway novel (or at least its title), a Jules Furthman screenplay and a few ideas thrown in by William Faulkner. We were now watching a retread featuring a startling new talent by the name of Lauren Bacall.
That’s not entirely fair to Bogart, who’s doing far more than going through the motions as Harry Morgan, an American charter captain on the Vichy-controlled Caribbean island of Martinique. Nor is it fair to director Howard Hawks, who adds perhaps the only thing that Casablanca possibly lacked: a bit of screwball zip. But the picture’s reason for being is Bacall, whose Marie “Slim” Browning slinks onto the screen asking Harry for matches and walks away with the entire movie.
What you notice first is the confidence, both of the character and the performer. Here she was at 19, making her screen debut opposite one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and she doesn’t flinch. She does, importantly, have the skill to allow a peek at the chinks in Slim’s armor, to suggest that her bravado is born of a rough past. But even then the performance itself is shockingly assured.
Bacall says things out loud that should really be whispered.
Early on, Harry accuses Slim of “baby talk,” yet it’s anything but. Loaded with innuendo – that whistling bit – and delivered in a low purr, she says things out loud that should really be whispered. Hawks emphasizes the intimacy by frequently keeping the top of her face in shadow, only allowing her eyes to enjoy the light. No wonder a publicity campaign would dub Bacall “The Look,” something she encouraged by frequently holding her chin down so that she would have to gaze upward, falsely demure.
Hawks needed more than a model, however. The director of His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby, Hawks preferred actresses (and actors) who could deliver smart dialogue as much as strike a pose. And here’s where the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall came in. Harry and Slim are initially brought together as partners in crime, when he spots her lifting the wallet of a charter client who was planning on skipping out on his bill. Soon enough, they’re in sync. As Slim says after an especially intense kiss, “It’s even better when you help.”
To Have and Have Not gets some help from its supporting players: Hoagy Carmichael as the piano man in the restaurant where most of the action takes place; Walter Brennan as Harry’s “rummy” of a first mate. Then there’s a rotund Dan Seymour as the local Vichy investigator, trying to sniff out whether or not Harry is involved in a Resistance plot. Seymour is no Sydney Greenstreet – his counterpart of sorts in Casablanca – but that’s OK. We’ll always have that Hollywood classic; Bacall fans have this.