Continuing my current Howard Hawks obsession, I’ve just re-watched one of his most famous films, the one where Bogart and Bacall met. The chemistry between them is just as sizzling as I’d remembered it from watching the film years ago – but what really struck me this time, after submerging myself in Hawks in recent weeks, is how much the movie has his stamp on it.
The movie is loosely based on a famous Ernest Hemingway novel (I’ve read it many years ago but don’t remember much about it) and has a screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, but the plot construction feels very Hawksian, all the same, and there are several lines which are similar or even identical to those in his previous films. “I don’t think I’ll ever shout at anyone again,” a line spoken wearily by a wife who has just faced losing her husband, is one of these, almost identical to a line in Ceiling Zero in a slightly different context.
The central romance plot is similar to that in Only Angels Have Wings, as a woman turns up by chance in a turbulent setting, falls for a stranger, and stays around to see whether they have a chance together even when he tries to ensure that she leaves. Here, the setting is Martinique under the rule of Vichy France, where Harry Morgan (Bogart) sails a fishing boat for hire, but becomes fed up with his current client’s refusal to pay the money he owes. (In the book, Harry made his living ferrying contraband between Florida and Cuba.)
Young runaway Marie (Bacall) arrives on the island and comes to Harry’s attention when he notices her stealing a wallet. Soon they are falling for one another, and have christened each other “Slim” and “Steve” – but there isn’t much time or space for romance, as Harry reluctantly agrees to ferry a French resistance fighter in his boat. He claims he is doing it just for money, but it’s clearly also because he finds he can’t stand aside from the conflict around him after all.
As well as having similarities with other Hawks films, the movie also has similarities with other Bogart movies made by different directors, showing how important Bogart’s screen personality was by this time to the shaping of his movies. This film was made a couple of years after Casablanca – and I’m struck by how similar Bogart’s role as Harry is in some ways to Rick, as again he plays an outsider in a wartorn region, trying not to get involved but in the end having to choose his side. Again, as so often, he has the air of world-weariness that is perhaps his main quality, but Harry/Steve does seem a little softer-edged, a little less tough than some of his characters.
One reason for this is his love for Slim – where the real-life relationship between Bogart and Bacall shines through, crystallised in the famous “You know how to whistle” scene. Hawks said in an interview in Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies that he wrote the whistle scene for Bacall, because he liked to “try things out on her”, and then found somewhere to fit it into the movie.
It’s hard to believe that Bacall was only a teenager and this was her first major role – she seems so assured. I’d forgotten from previous viewings that she sings in the movie, in some scenes joining Hoagy Carmichael, who plays the hotel pianist Cricket. Again as in Casablanca, and also as in Hawks films like Only Angels Have Wings, the musical scenes somehow add to the feeling of a small ex-pat community huddled together in a temporary setting which is constantly shifting around them.
The relationship between Bogart and Bacall might be the most memorable thing about this movie, but the long-suffering friendship between Harry and his hopelessly drunken sidekick, Eddie (Walter Brennan) is also an important part of the film and another thing which softens Harry’s character. Hawks’ fascination with male bonding is clear here – Harry is often infuriated by Eddie, who is likely to infuriate the audience at times too. He doesn’t have any hope that his friend will give up the booze or sort himself out, but it’s clear that he himself will never give up on Eddie. The way Harry keeps on giving Eddie coins to buy himself small helpings of booze each day is a bit like the way Jean Arthur keeps on giving Cary Grant matches in Only Angels Have Wings. It’s a little repeated gesture which expresses a relationship without it being said in so many words.
Reading back through this review, I realise I haven’t said much about the plot which sees Morgan ferrying French resistance fighter Paul de Bursac (Walter Szurovy), and his wife, Hellene (Dolores Moran), who come under fire. For me, these action scenes don’t have quite the intensity of those set in the hotel, but I was interested to see that both Paul and Hellene are shown to be nervous and vulnerable. Paul admits that he is never certain whether he is doing the right thing, always afraid, and Hellene keels over and faints when her injured husband is being operated on. Yet they are both shown as being courageous in carrying on despite their fear. This recognition of fear is something that often seems to happen in Hawks films. In The Big Sleep, Bogart’s character confesses at a key moment: “I’m scared, angel.” Hawks’ heroes and his heroines may both be tough on the surface, but they are vulnerable too.
Although Bogart is so much older than Bacall, they seem far more equal in this film than Grant and Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings. There, Arthur’s character has to give up everything for love. Here, Bacall doesn’t really have anything in the first place that’s worth regretting – she’s a runaway and a thief, and she herself decides to give up living by crime not because Bogart tells her to, but because she wants to. They are both outsiders who are thrown together, rather than her having to mould herself to fit his world.