Thursday, May 28, 2020

To Have and Have Not







Ernest Hemingway







William Faulkner






Lauren Bacall magazine cover






Bogie and Walter Brennan





Hawks on the set with Bogie and Bacall










TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT      B                    
USA  (100 mi)  1944  d:  Howard Hawks

You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.
—Marie “Slim” Browning (Lauren Bacall)

While CASABLANCA (1942) is a beloved film and a timeless classic, filled with memorable dialogue, this is an offshoot of that film with Howard Hawks trying to resurrect that same kind of romantic fervor during wartime, but it feels trivial in comparison, lacking the darker themes so apparent in the original, becoming something of a bemused, lightweight spin-off that is notable for introducing 19-year old Lauren Bacall to the silver screen, while also using the collective talents of two Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning authors, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.  Hawks was good friends with both men, where the story goes that on a fishing trip together, Hawks challenged Hemingway that he could make a successful film out of his worst novel, calling To Have and Have Not “a bunch of junk” (a dark and brutal Depression era story that is endlessly bleak, where the protagonist refers to blacks as “niggers”), which was his way of urging Hemingway to come to Hollywood, write for the movies, and make a boatload of money.  Hemingway refused, of course, but Hawks was up for the challenge, first employing screenwriter Jules Furthman, then prestigious novelist William Faulkner to write adaptations, completely altering the original novel, where only the opening scenes with would-be big-game fisherman Mr. Johnson (Walter Sande) resemble the source material.  While Faulkner is one of America’s greatest novelists, he was a Hollywood screenwriter for hire since the early 30’s and did it largely for the money, working out of necessity because his income as a novelist was woefully insufficient.  As a result, his Hollywood screenplays are uneven and never rise to his stature as a novelist, but he worked well with Howard Hawks, writing five of his six credited screenplays.  Ironically, the screenplay he was most proud of received no screen credit, Jean Renoir’s THE SOUTHERNER (1945), because technically he was under contract by a different studio.  Despite the stature of the writers, Hawks was known for changing scripts as he went along, adapting the material to his shooting needs, where according to Bacall’s autobiography, she described the director’s “brilliantly creative work method” each morning on the set, where Hawks would sit in a circle with Bacall and Bogart and others in the scene with a script girl reading the scene.  Hawks would spice up the dialogue until he and Bogart felt comfortable before discussing the camera set-ups with the cinematographer Sidney Hickox.  This process explains the Hawks working method, always catering to the needs of his actors, making them feel comfortable, giving them the needed assurances.  It was Hawks idea to pair Bogart with Bacall, who was actually discovered as an 18-year old model on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine by Hawks’ wife Nancy "Slim" Keith, bringing their own pet names for each other into the film (which the Hollywood couple continued to use in real life), with Bogart calling her Slim, while she calls him Steve.  Sparks were literally flying between Bogart and Bacall on and off the set, falling in love during the production, with Bogart reportedly “giggling” whenever he was around her, so Hawks eliminated all the other love interests in the storyline, making them the romantic centerpiece of the film.  During the shoot Bacall was age 19, while Bogart was 45, with Bacall never reaching these cinematic heights again, as she would never get better lines, marrying a year after the film was released.  Forever known as Bogie and Bacall, they became the most romantic couple that existed in Hollywood during the 40’s and 50’s, embracing their role as the ultimate Hollywood power couple.  In October 1947, they led a Washington delegation of two dozen others that included John Huston, William Wyler, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, Sterling Hayden, Ira Gershwin, Geraldine Brooks, and Judy Garland (Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and “the Hollywood elite ...), all protesting McCarthyism and the era of Hollywood blacklisting announced just a month later, only to end up on subsequent blacklists themselves, having to openly denounce and repudiate communism before working again in the industry, with some, like Hayden, forced into naming names, an act he regretted for the rest of his life. 

It is ironic that with such an elite corps of writers, this is such an overly contrived and poorly written film, where the electric chemistry fueling Bogart and Bacall was captured with beguiling eye contact and some snappy dialogue, becoming the essence of the film, particularly the distinguished element of Bacall, who more than holds her own, pulling her own weight in a relationship, openly honest, tough, smart, and seductively alluring, in every respect Bogart’s equal, where she even sings, but the overall story feels hackneyed, where performances alone don’t make a film.  Without her presence this would be a really dull and insipid affair, as she’s the reason to see this film, steamrolling over everyone else, including Bogart, becoming one of the great breakout performances (how was she not nominated during awards season, as the Academy waited until 2009 to award her a Lifetime Achievement Award), catapulting her into instant stardom, with Hawks on a roll, delivering eleven consecutive box office hits from 1939 to 1951.  An intriguing Vertigo (1958) variation, Hawks claimed Bogart fell in love with Bacall’s character in the film, so she had to keep on playing her all her life.  The film is set during war time in 1940 on the small Caribbean island of Martinique, a French colony, after the fall of France, resulting in a Vichy government under a lengthy occupation by the Nazi’s.  This same balance of power was taking place on the island, where almost all the action takes place inside the Hotel Marquis, the film’s principal location.  Bogart is Harry Morgan, who runs a charter fishing boat renting excursions to tourist fishermen, like Mr. Johnson, who openly mocks the boat presence of Eddy (Walter Brennan), Harry’s alcoholic first mate, who spends most of the trip drinking beer or sleeping it off.  Johnson hooks a big game marlin on two occasions, but loses each one, as he’s unwilling to follow the instructions of the skipper, even losing the fishing rod and gear, accidentally dropping it overboard.  In a dour mood afterwards, he prickles at the thought of what he owes, claiming he can’t pay until the bank opens the next morning, with everyone meeting back at the hotel which features Hoagy Carmichael as Crickett the piano player.  Marcel Dalio plays the hotel owner Gérard (aka Frenchy), having a word with Harry in his room, asking if he could transport some “friends of friends,” a request he refuses, not wishing to get involved in the touchy political divide.  Across the hall, however, Marie (aka Slim) famously asks if anybody has a match, quickly disappearing afterwards.  Yet she’s seen again at a table having drinks with a drunken Mr. Johnson, under the curiously watchful eye of Harry, evading his lecherous grasp while moving quickly to the piano for a song, Am I Blue (1944) Hoagy Carmichael YouTube (1:40), then picking his pocket immediately afterwards.  Having a stake in the contents, Harry follows her upstairs and confronts her about the incident, which she doesn’t deny, offering reasons Harry can understand, discovering Johnson has more than enough money to pay Harry what he owes in travelers’ checks, also finding an early morning ticket for a flight out the next morning.  Meanwhile, the friends Gérard mentioned arrive at his door, upset how easily they are dismissed, but Harry is firm in his position, returning to the scene of the crime with Slim and the wallet, finding an embarrassed Mr. Johnson at their discovery.  As the friends exit the hotel, however, shots ring out, with police chasing after them, leading to mayhem, where Johnson is killed by a stray bullet before he has a chance to repay Harry.  Mopping up the scene is an enormously large Vichy police official, Captain Rénard (Dan Seymour), hauling in Harry and Slim for questioning, taking all of Harry’s money and his passport while slapping Slim in the face for perceived insolence, their fates seemingly linked together.

While the two take to each other immediately, Harry is impressed how she didn’t flinch during the police interrogation, “That slap in the face you took.  Well, you hardly blinked an eye.  It takes a lot of practice to be able to do that.”  After fleecing a customer for a bottle of wine, there is an introductory cat and mouse game played, pursuing, then deferring, with each asserting themselves at some point, then pulling back when they don’t get the expected reaction, but by the end of the evening they are a couple.  The most interesting part of the film is the spontaneous interplay between Bogart and Bacall, which is easygoing and pleasurable, like eye candy to watch, among the truly great screen couples, where the origins of their great love affair takes place on camera, where an unparalleled coolness sharing cigarettes becomes a metaphor for sexual foreplay (contributing to his early death from esophageal cancer at the age of 57, leaving her a widow at the age of 32).  Like a Bogart character, Bacall is equally rebellious and individualistic, a woman with a past, viewed as an unattached loner, a drifter visiting South American who happened to arrive on the island when she ran out of money.  Her slim figure and husky voice fit all the femme fatale requirements, defiant, tough as nails, yet intuitively smart and perceptive, offering what studios described as “The Look.”  She doesn’t have to guard herself as she has nothing to hide, openly confessing her attraction to Bogart with the infamous whistle line, Lauren Bacall Whistle YouTube (55 seconds).  In this film, it doesn’t have the depth of magnitude of Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA, who share a back story, where the atmosphere is so much murkier.  It’s also not one of Bogart’s better films, as his character is a little brutish and sadistic.  This film is all about Bacall’s deadly eye contact and her slow murmuring purrs when she comes on to him.  But with no money left, Harry is forced to reconsider Gérard’s earlier offer, taking money up front, buying a ticket for Slim out of the country that afternoon, while agreeing to transport resistance fugitives under cover of darkness, picking up Paul and Hélène de Bursac (Walter Surovy and Dolores Moran) at a designated off-island location, but they are intercepted by a patrol boat, with Paul cowardly trying to turn himself in, getting shot in the process, but Harry shoots out the searchlight and escapes in the fog, all meeting back in the hotel cellar, with Harry tending to the feverish man’s wound, discovering Slim has not left, wanting instead to be near him, assisting him in removing the bullet, with the patient making a miraculous overnight recovery.  By the next day, however, Eddy is in the clutches of the police, with Rénard and his goons soon visiting Harry at his hotel room asking questions about the de Bursacs, threatening to withhold alcohol from Eddy, which could leave him seriously harmed.  Harry has apparently heard enough, grabbing a gun in his desk, shooting one of the goons, placing the other two in handcuffs, ordering a release of Eddy.  When they refuse he brutally pistol whips each one of them until they comply, also signing “letters of transport” allowing the de Bursac’s free passage.  Baffled by his change of heart and sudden transformation, Gérard wonders what made him change his mind.  Harry reveals, simply, “Well, I like you and I don’t like them,” which is all that seems to matter.  Diverging dramatically from Hemingway’s novel, removing the tragic tone of despair, where there was a feeling that the novel had been betrayed, with a title about the economic disparity between classes making little sense here, where the film is anything but tragic, offering a lighthearted and even happy conclusion, including a joyous hip-wiggle from Bacall, a shuffle from Brennan, and a festive jazz free-for-all from the band sending them off in high style, "To have and have not" (1944) – Final scene (HD) - YouTube (58 seconds).     

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Laura








Director Otto Preminger (middle) on the set with his cameraman Joseph LaShelle








The various looks of actress Gene Tierney






















LAURA            A-                 
USA  (88 mi)  1944  d:  Otto Preminger

I shall never forget the weekend that Laura died.
—film’s opening line spoken by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb)

While generally regarded as a prominent example of film noir, placed on all the best noir lists, found at #20, The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time - Slant Magazine, listed at #15 by Graeme Ross at The Independent, 20 best film noirs: From Double Indemnity to Shadow of a ..., listed at #9 by Andy Crump, The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time - Paste - Paste Magazine, while the American Film Institute rates it at #4 in their mystery film category, AFI's Top Ten Mystery - AMC Theatres, and while it does contain extreme angles and dramatic lighting, this wasn’t shot with the German Expressionist film style that is at the root of noir, with stark contrasts between shadows and light (What is Film Noir? - The Film Noir Foundation), feeling more like a hybrid of noir and romance fueled by a murder mystery.  It does, however, provide the pervasive overall mood of fatalism and doomed romanticism, including the death of the entitled character at the opening of the film.  Released just a month after Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), which generated plenty of box office excitement and critical acclaim, the studios ushered in a new style of crime thriller shrouded in dark themes and a pervasive aura of cynicism.  While Wilder’s film unpeeled layers of concealed treachery in the sunlit Southern California locale, Preminger took aim at the witty and urbane East coast, as exemplified by the smug and sophisticated newspaper columnist and radio host Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), seen typing out his spoken narrative while naked in a bathtub, living in an extravagant penthouse apartment defined by its ornate décor, giving it a museum appearance, with a drawing room accentuated by a large oil painting of “Laura” hanging over the fireplace, presenting the façade of an illusion as one of the prevailing themes.  Under the Hays Code (Hays'd: Decoding the Classics — 'Laura' | IndieWire) censorship that regulated film content for nearly 40 years, depictions of homosexuality were forbidden, so gay characters were cloaked in innuendo.  Intruding into this perfumed world comes hardened New York police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), a working class stiff (never once seen at the police station) investigating the brutal murder of Laura, shot before the movie began in the face by a shotgun blast.  In contrast to Lydecker’s flowery language and effeminate style, seemingly pulled from the latest Noel Coward play, McPherson speaks the tough guy noir language, frank, directly to the point, like something right out of a Raymond Chandler novel, though the film is adapted from a serialized novel by Chicago crime author Vera Caspary, who typically merged a woman’s quest for identity and love with murder plots, introducing the story over seven installments in Collier’s magazine in 1942, republished in book form the following year while also turning it into a play, finally selling the book rights to Fox studios on the cheap after unsuccessfully shopping it around, becoming a box office smash hit.  Caspary was outraged at Preminger’s portrayal of Laura, largely defined by how men perceived her, symbolized by the towering presence of that painting, which is barely mentioned in the novel, claiming the film omitted her strong individualism, which is the centerpiece of the story.  Preminger was quoted with describing Caspary’s Laura as “a nonentity with no sex,” which prompted a Caspary response, “Do you mean she never got money out of men or mink or diamonds?  That doesn't mean a girl’s sexy, Mr. Preminger, it just means she’s shrewd.  My Laura knew how to love, enjoyed more than one lover, and enjoyed her lovers lustily.”  These differences led to a feud, resulting in an infamous shouting match between the director and the writer at New York’s prestigious Stork Club.  

Hard to believe this film was made during the war years, as there’s no sign of it anywhere, yet the film has a dazzling narrative style, filled with convoluted plot twists that are simply ingenious, along with expertly drawn characters, yet there’s an overall air of sophisticated romanticism that pervades throughout, elevated by a lush musical score written by David Raksin that weaves its way through the film.  While Lydecker serves as a central narrator, providing the engaging backstory of Laura’s life, a successful advertising executive loved and respected by all, revealed in flashback sequences, the story expands, eventually told from the viewpoints of several narrators.  What stands out, however, is the razor-sharp dialogue along with superb direction, casting a spellbinding allure over the audience, as every man seems to fall in love with Laura (Gene Tierney), even though she’s dead.  Inventively leading viewers down multiple storylines, the common element seems to walk us through the threats and hazards a woman must confront in negotiating her way through a male world, where even McPherson seems to fall under her charms, as what he’s really investigating is the story of her life, caught in the web of a murder mystery, similar to Jimmy Stewart’s role in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), particularly his mad obsession with a dead woman, becoming a psycho-thriller exploring class, crime, and sexual politics.  The enveloping characters stand out, including Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), exuding the smarmy sleaze of effete Southern charm, yet he’s a rich playboy (with bisexual suggestions) that never worked a day in his life, leeching off the success of Laura’s aunt Ann Treadwell, played by Judith Anderson, admittedly gay, known for her role as the devious Mrs. Danver from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), in order to maintain his privileged lifestyle, yet viewed with suspicion by Lydecker, who suspects him all along.  Carpenter spews derogatory comments at Lydecker, claiming he’s interfering in his relations with Laura, where their homoerotic in-fighting grows personal, developing a detestable odor.  Lydecker’s supreme arrogance is key to unraveling his world, where his narcissistic behavior always centers around himself, with suggestions of homosexual leanings, as his only interest in Laura is strictly platonic, where she is more like arm candy, drawing attention to himself when seen together in public, so he takes her out as often as he can, keeping him in the public eye, jealous of any man she takes an interest in, wanting her all to himself.  McPherson is more like the referee between these two sparring partners, where his sanity is perceived as the voice of reason.  Nonetheless, he’s losing himself in all the drama and romantic mystique swirling around this woman, who’s too kind and polite, perhaps even angelic to be considered a femme fatale, yet it’s curious how much attention she draws even from the grave.  So it comes as a bewildering surprise when out of nowhere she simply walks into the room, startling McPherson and viewers, changing the entire perspective of the story, which must be reevaluated in a different light, altering how we view each character, with everyone now seemingly suspect in a case of mistaken identity.   It’s a bizarre plot twist that is exceedingly rare in Hollywood movies, elevating the stature of the film, even with an emotionally flat performance from Dana Andrews and a miraculous build-up of Laura’s idealized character that few actresses could live up to, including Gene Tierney, who’s a bit too wholesome and naïve, not truly aware that she’s running in the company of sharks.

Caspary’s criticisms are justified, as Laura can be assertive, but remains overly passive, continually defined by the men that surround her, lacking the fierce individualism that they exhibit, or even other comparable women of the genre, like Barbra Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Joan Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE (1945), Lana Turner in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), or Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), all of whom tower over her in stature, which actually prevents this film from more consideration into the hallowed grounds of cinema.  Still, Laura’s saving grace, just like the others, is to be underestimated by men who wrongly view her as inferior.  The tenets of film noir allow these female characters to expand their roles, becoming part of the collective American consciousness, challenging the romantic notion of love and marriage as a fantasy, given the extreme postwar disappointment of having to live in a cruel and nightmarish world, offering instead a grim or fatally-tinged notion of romanticism.  There is a certain ambiguity surrounding ambitiously flawed noir women, more detached, no longer complacent, yet capable of savoring the fruits of their labor, earning money with regularity and enjoying the empowerment it brings.  This newfound independence can be an eye-opening revelation or a confusing threat to men who still view women “in their place,” as power overall is still defined by men, remaining a patriarchal society, yet there’s something altogether attractive about the idea of a better or more equitable balance of power, where women’s behavior is legitimized as equal in every sense.  Laura is a beautiful career woman, but remains misunderstood by every man in the film, as if she’s simply too mystifying, yet she strives to break out of that stranglehold of misconception, continually defined even throughout history as a femme fatale, suggesting a fatalistic outcome.  While she is mentored as a businesswoman by Lydecker, not that different than how men succeed in business, receiving help from influential people, she quickly rises up the corporate ladder, eventually living on Park Avenue, yet it’s harder for her to be accepted into “the boy’s club.”  For most of the film it remains unclear not only who committed the murder but who the real victim is, where this same mystery surrounds Laura’s interior motives, rewritten by Hollywood screenwriters into a sexless creature, seemingly attracted to the wrong type of men, a closeted homosexual and a gigolo fiancé, both attracted to her beauty, but clueless to her other traits.  Men in noir films see themselves as the protagonists, men of action, with visions of heroism, while women are seductive, more pliable and passive.  When the women stand up for themselves with their own plan of action, there is inevitably a meeting of the minds, a dramatic impact, where people react to failure and disappointment differently, as some are immediately threatened, as it changes their view of themselves, altering their behavior.  How this plays out is through a fatal attraction, where it’s most curious that the leading male suspects may themselves be queer, an unconventional portrait of masculinity, particularly in a noir film, though representative of the cultured upper class, with each behaving like jilted lovers, veering more into an Agatha Christie whodunit, where someone is disturbed enough to go off the rails, violating all moral boundaries, where they’re perfectly capable of committing crimes, even murder.  This descent into the moral abyss is at the heart of film noir, offering a malignant view of existence, though there are incredulous suggestions of a happy ending.