Film Studies

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To Have and Have Not is being re-released - not that it has ever been away since the Bogart revival of the 1960s. For this blithely casual rendering of the Hemingway book is the keystone of our romance with Bogart (and Bacall). As far as one can tell, the two of them not only met on the set at Warner Brothers, but fell in love to the fantasy accompaniment of the Howard Hawks picture they were making. He was 44 and desperate in his third marriage, to an alcoholic, hell-raising actress, Mayo Methot. She was 19, New York Jewish, and less knowing than her witchy "look" promised.

But she had that line - "You do know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? Just put your lips together, and blow." Whereupon she stopped holding up the doorway to his room, and sauntered off into the gloom of the hotel, and the brightness of our dreams. In the wake of this, her first screen appearance, Bogey grins and practises a whistle. So they carried the same rapture over into life, of course. They married, had two children, and were damn near perfect until Bogart was taken out by cancer in 1957.

That's the legend - the tough, sardonic guy who knew it all until a 19- year-old knocked him sideways. Do you want to hear more - or would you rather protect the dream? Paragraph break for hesitators.

Betty Joan Perske had a strange look - she could seem nearly Slavic, or very sophisticated - and she was trying to be a model. That's how Slim Hawks saw her picture. Slim, or Nancy, was one of the great women of our time - a smart, tall, lovely northern Californian who had gone down to LA and been invited to parties. That's where she met Howard Hawks, an edgily cool (all right, cold), grey-haired dandy, one of the greatest directors of popular entertainment ever (Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday), a gambler, a liar and a chronic fantasist.

That's how Slim described him years later. They were divorced by the late 1940s, but she was fond of, and amused by, him still, and she thought it wondrous that this steely man's man was himself totally into daydream - yet believed he was doing realism.

Well, Slim saw a picture of Betty Joan and dropped the magazine in Howard's lap. "How about her?" she said. It was the banter that keeps happiness and risk hand-in-glove in some marriages. To cut a long story short, Hawks, signed Ms Perske, came up with "Lauren Bacall", and then based her debut character on ... Slim, who was famous as a fashion-plate and a wit. It was Slim Hawks who wore berets and hound's tooth suits, and who knew how to coin "whistle" lines. Hawks and his screenwriters carried every detail into the movie - where Bogart called Bacall "Slim".

You'll have guessed the picture Howard was seeing. He would bed Bacall - in life, as it were, as well as on the screen. (I use the word "life" in the loosest way.) Of course, Slim guessed as much - she was a gambler, too, as well as ready for her own affairs. Hawks schooled Bacall's voice - he sent her to the top of Mulholland Drive to read aloud, to get her pitch lower - how to stand, how to pause, how to look and be looked at. He was brilliant at such things, and all the time he was having and having not - if you see what I mean. The one thing really derived from Hemingway was the title's perfect expression of the way movies seem to deliver imagination's impossible fruit into our mouths.

Except that Bacall fell for Bogart. Howard wouldn't have expected that because he knew Bogey was a wreck, a boozer, terrified Mayo might kill herself, and a guy who needed a toupee to look good. Still, Bogey was a movie star, and if they practise kissing with a movie star long enough a lot of 19-year-olds will lose their critical faculty. Even so, Bogey was indecisive: he would leave Mayo, or he wouldn't; he hated the drunken scenes but feared that so sultry a kid would soon dump him. It was a mess - and the movie isn't.

They did become a couple. Bogart enjoyed maybe his happiest years. They made another film with Hawks - The Big Sleep, better still, a masterpiece of those dreams that flicker on large walls - but Howard was in such a huff he was hardly talking to them.

Those two films are all Bacall needed. She was seldom a fluent actress, and I doubt that she ever quite appreciated the sultry light in which Howard had placed her. But in two films she is sly, sexy, drawling and crawling into your nervous system.

Hawks got over it, and went on dreaming - Red River, I Was a Male War Bride, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo. Bogart and Bacall were together at his end, though the cause of history compels one to add that fidelity never imprisoned them. Bacall, for instance, was heavily into Sinatra as Bogey wasted away.

You could argue that To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep were as good as American movies ever got. So long as the public were all fantasists. Perhaps we are, by now. Perhaps we all have the thing you cannot actually have. Yet maybe we're liars because of it.

So is it a good picture? Oh yes, I'm afraid so.

The answers to last week's Christmas quiz are at the bottom of the page.