Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall
“You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Not even Bogart had a clever rejoinder for that one. To Have and Have Not, besides just being downright enjoyable, is an important film for being the debut of one of the big screen's best pairings: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Without that electric pairing the film may well have been a retread of Bogart's earlier and very successful romantic war drama, never rising to the occassion of becoming a film in its own right. Of course, being directed by Howard Hawks couldn't hurt either.
From the opening credits – laid out over a shot a map in a way that’s reminiscent of Bogart’s previous hit – the film seems intent on emulating the Casablanca formula. Take a foreign location, a reluctant hero, a blonde love interest, a tricky political situation, a colorful supporting cast and a club with plenty of music and, well, here's looking at you, kid. The plot of To Have and Have Not is similar in many ways to Casablanca in that it takes place in a Vichy occupied French territory and centres on an American who is intent on having nothing to do with resistance efforts but finds himself drawn into the fight for the sake of a woman. There are some important differences, however, not least of which is that the affections of the love interest are never in question and, perhaps because of that, she's got a lot more spunk.
The protagonist in this one is Harry Morgan, captain of a fishing boat and occasionally known as “Steve,” and the love interest is Slim (Lauren Bacall), a young woman in bad financial straits who sashays into his life after stealing a wallet belonging to one of his clients. They engage in a bit of back and forth before being interrupted by the Free French fighters, who want make a deal to use Harry’s boat. Harry isn’t interested at first, but when his passport and all his cash are confiscated by the corrupt police, he decides that he has no choice but to take the chance. Besides, he wants to give Slim the means of getting back to the States - although she has other ideas.
It goes without saying that the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is off the charts. They play off each other with a great deal of ease, clearly enjoying their interplay as much as we, the audience, do. It’s surprising that this was Bacall’s first screen role (and that she was only 19 when filming) because she brings such self-assurance to the character. Played by Bacall, Slim is a woman of intelligence and resourcefulness, in control of her sexuality at all times, except for a few moments when she’s alone with Harry. There’s a lot of fire in this character which perfectly complements Bogart’s more laid-back style of taking care of business.
The film itself, directed by the great Howard Hawks and loosely adapted from a novella by Ernest Hemmingway, runs at a good pace, never taking itself too seriously but managing, nevertheless, to remain grounded in reality. Through the caper at the story’s centre the film manages some subtle commentary on political/military attitudes amongst Allied forces, most obvious in an exchange between Harry and the Free French fighter he’s hired to ferry on his boat. When a patrol boat happens upon them Harry’s ready to fight while the Free French member is almost immediately prepared to surrender – a fact which Harry wastes no time in mentioning and which can be read as a commentary on an undercurrent of U.S.-French relations during WWII (especially since the film takes place "shortly after the fall of France"). The film doesn’t delve too deeply into this particular aspect of the story, but of course the story itself is really just an excuse for the romantic sparring at which Bogart and Bacall excel.
To Have and Have Not is an immensely enjoyable film to watch, one that’s fast-paced and well-acted and just generally quite charming. It doesn't have the gravitas of Casablanca, nor is it the best of the four Bogart & Bacall outings (that would be The Big Sleep), but it's a well-made lark of a film with many memorable moments. It’s definitely a must-see.