Did I mention I love that TCM’s star of the month is Lauren Bacall? I really wanted to watch and review The Big Sleep (which I love more than this film) but school is really kicking my ass. Regardless, I did pick a film that bestowed Bacall unto the masses as this adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel was the début of Bacall at the age of 19! Yeah, do you know any 19-year-olds with the class, grace, and sensuality of Ms. Bacall? Much like with my review of Gilda, I find that this film wouldn’t be as memorable without the actors as the plot is a blatant rip-off of Casablanca which came out two years prior. The plot is irrelevant when you have the stars this film does but it prevents it from being amazing.
Expatriate Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) is a fishing boat captain in WWII Martinique. He offers to help transport a Free French revolutionary and his wife which causes problems when the Gestapo come calling. With the aid a mysterious woman he calls Slim (Bacall), Harry will have to save the man and get out with his life.
You have to be able to see the connections to Casablanca with that plot summary? I mean Harry is obviously Rick with Bogart reprising his role and while there’s no Ilsa as the love interest the characters of Paul De Bursac (Walter Szurovy) and his wife Helene (Dolores Moran) are more than passing stand-ins. There’s even a piano player in this, played by Hoagy Carmichael (sadly “As Time Goes By” isn’t used). I think that really is what prevents me from loving this Howard Hawks directed film…it’s a bold carbon copy of a far superior film (and I’m not even a devout fan of Casablanca!). It’s a well-known fact that Warner Brothers wanted a Casablanca-esque story and did they get it. The original Hemingway book is incredibly different with differing characters and the removal of the love story making it a loose adaptation.
As for the film itself I just don’t care for the plot. To me, it thrives with the actors and the characters, again drawing comparisons to my review of Gilda. Bogart has perfected his surly wiseass character so he can play Harry Morgan in his sleep, although I did smile a few times at all the characters who call him Captain Morgan. I can’t fault Bogart because he played Rick so well so I do enjoy his role here. His chemistry with Bacall is nothing short of electric, I mean these two people are so into each other it’s rumored they had to take breaks to diffuse the sexual tension! You definitely feel that in their scenes together and, unlike in Casablanca, his transformation into a man with a soul is expertly shown. Throughout the film when Harry is with Slim you can see in his eyes and bearing that he’s being softened. It could be the effect of falling in love with his co-star but it works to the film’s advantage.
I can’t ignore this, I LOVE LAUREN BACALL! There’s a reason she’s sitting comfortably in my Hall of Fame top 3! I mentioned her being only 19 when she made this but not only was she so young but this was her film début! I defy you to find an actress who makes her presence felt so explicitly in her début. Several key scenes and lines have been immortalized from this film and for the most part, they’re all Bacall’s. She has the best entrance in film history, leaning against the door jamb of Harry’s room and asking “Anybody got a match?” From there you never know what to expect from Slim, only that she’s pure sex. Her first kissing scene with Harry where she plops herself into his lap is hot for 1944 and brazen. And yet for a role that could have proved insignificant Bacall makes every scene sing and really combines elements from film noir, romance, and comedy. She’s the mistress of stage business on par with Brando in my opinion. Her constant looking around when she sings to get Steve’s attention, even the little shimmy she does at the end of the film are necessarily needed but they make you remember her and show off sides of her character not expressed. Not to mention her jealousy towards Helene de Bursac makes for some quick comedy such as when Slim wants to keep drugging Helene to knock her out.
The film takes a fair bit of time to get going and it’s so close to Casablanca I don’t always pay attention because it’s obvious what to expect. The first ten minutes almost seem to be part of a different movie with the introduction of Morgan, his best friend Eddie (Walter Brennan), and the jerk Johnson (Walter Sande). You almost start to wonder if it’s just a bunch of guys on a boat! I do love Walter Brennan as the “rummy” Eddie. His line “Was you ever bit by a dead bee” is legendary and he’s just a sweet man wrapped up in shady business, constantly taken advantage of. The script, written by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner (yes that Faulkner), is amazing with some delicious double entendres. My personal favorite is again when Slim thinks Harry is seeing Helene and asks him to “Give her my love.” Harry, seeing Slim in a revealing black dress replies “I’d give her my own if she had that on.” Wow, that’s quite a zinger.
I like To Have and Have Not but I certainly don’t love it. It’s far too close to Casablanca and honestly, without Bacall and Bogart it’d be a minor copycat and nothing more. The acting and dynamic because this iconic screen couple sells the film! It’s worth a watch purely for the Bacall but I still prefer The Big Sleep.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.