Our review of Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection, published November 15th, 2010, is also available.
"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."
Well, it seems Warner Bros. have finally learned how to whistle. A title classic film buffs (or maybe just me) have been anticipating since the format's inception, To Have and Have Not is the film that delivered unto the public one of the movies' greatest on-screen couples in Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, a pairing notable as much for their whirlwind off-screen romance as for their four screen appearances together. Now almost sixty years old, this minor Howard Hawks classic comes to DVD in a slim but attractive package that serves as excellent collection building material for anyone who enjoys old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment the way it used to be.
Facts of the Case
Loosely based on the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, To Have and Have Not stars Bogart as Harry Morgan, a fishing boat captain in war-torn Martinique who makes his living by staying out of other people's business. When a mysterious bombshell (Bacall) begins to interrupt his dispassionate way of life, Morgan starts to see his cold, unfeeling exterior slowly start to weaken. And when political circumstances threaten to throw his world into chaos, he is forced to take sides in a battle he would much prefer to stay out of.
Legend has it that Howard Hawks was talking to Ernest Hemingway one day, and Hawks told him that he would be able to make a movie out of Hemingway's worst book. "What is that?" Hemingway asked, to which Hawks replied (and I'm paraphrasing here), "That piece of junk To Have and Have Not." Hawks then set about putting the production together. He recruited friend and frequent collaborator Jules Furthman to write the script, which he then had re-written by his favorite script doctor, William Faulkner. For a leading man, he chose Humphrey Bogart, who had recently become a major star after appearing in Warner Bros. pictures like High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and, of course, Casablanca. For his love interest, Hawks selected a 19-year-old model named Betty Persky, who would soon change her name to Lauren Bacall. The romantic leads ended up falling in love during the course the production and the rest, as they say, is history.
I've often heard To Have and Have Not referred to as a second-rate Casablanca rip-off (the description on the back of the case even admits to the obvious parallel), but it's a distinction I've always felt was somewhat unfair. Though the similarities are impossible to ignore (exotic WWII setting, ostensibly neutral Bogart character who learns to take sides), Hawks' film is played in a much more minor key than that certified classic, and doesn't take itself quite as seriously. As such, it ends up a perfectly satisfying film in its own right.
Certainly the most blatant similarity between the two films is the Bogart character, and there's not much here to distinguish Harry Morgan from Rick Blaine. Both are neutral in the ongoing fight between the Pro-Vichy and the Free French. Both portray gruff exteriors that serve to hide a sentimental heart. Both have been scorned by a woman in the past, though this character point isn't given quite the same emphasis in the Hawks film. And both face the decision at the end whether to remain neutral amidst the political turmoil or to choose a side that will endanger the lives of not only them, but of others around them. Having played essentially the same character earlier, Bogart was a perfect fit for Harry Morgan, and he carries it off his usual cynicism and tough-guy attitude.
It's in the female leads, however, that a divergence between the two films takes place, and in Bacall, Hawks found an actress who didn't simply fall prey to Bogart's signature tough exterior, but instead matched it note for note. With her darkly beautiful gaze and deep, throaty voice, Bacall isn't so much a love interest for Bogart as a tough, sassy equal. Their scenes together come off as more of a chess game than simple melodramatic mush, with the two dancing around each other and snipping like wolves. This biting chemistry gives the picture its refreshingly light tone, so that when the proceedings threaten to become heavy-handed, Bogart and Bacall toss out another zinger that brings the whole thing back down to earth.
The supporting cast is mostly assembled from WB contract supporting players, and it's fun to try to pick out the different recognizable faces from other films of the period. Dan Seymour, who does bad guy duty as corrupt police Capt. Renard, could be seen in a bit part as a doorman in Casablanca, and would later to on to play one of Edward G. Robinson's henchmen in Key Largo. Marcel Dalio, as saloon owner Frenchy, also could be seen in Casablanca as a casino croupier. The use of these actors would serve to provide a feeling of comfort for the audience back in 1944, so that when Dalio or Seymour showed up, you'd know you were in familiar territory. There's also terrific work from Walter Brennan doing the drunken old coot shtick that would eventually become his trademark, as well as a nice turn from Hoagy Carmichael as the saloon piano player.
For Hawks, To Have and Have Not mined some of the same thematic territory (female infiltration into what is mostly a man's world) that he had explored earlier in films like Only Angels Have Wings, and would go on to explore again later in pictures like Rio Bravo. But To Have and Have Not contains enough dramatic flourishes, and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall crackles so vigorously that what would normally feel rote and worn-out instead feels fresh and alive. After the success of Casablanca, it would seem only natural that Warner Bros. would try to duplicate that success by covering the same narrative ground, but what they wound up with was a picture that does just enough differently to carve out its own distinction as a tiny cinema classic.
Because I've been looking forward to this release for such a long time, I can't help but feel slightly disappointed at the video treatment given to To Have and Have Not on this new DVD. The 1:33:1 digital transfer itself isn't bad, and the picture takes on a solid film-like quality, but the source print seems awfully worn out, especially in darker nighttime scenes. Dirt and grain are evident throughout, and vertical scratches show up on a number of occasions. It's not a bad transfer by any means, and perhaps I've been spoiled by the splendid-looking DVDs of other Warner pictures like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, but I just wish they had taken the time and money to clean up the source print a bit more. It may not be in the same category as those other prestige titles, but it deserves better. Audio is presented in its original mono and sounds just fine, with subtitles provided in English, French, and Spanish.
And though the video isn't quite where I'd like it to be, Warner has managed to pay the film its respect when it comes to extras. Though not one of their spiffier two-disc releases, the disc does include a few supplements that give it its due. First up is a ten-minute making-of featurette entitled A Love Story: The Story of To Have and Have Not, which provides a good overview of the film's production, choosing (naturally) to highlight the off-screen romance that blossomed between the two leads but also offering a solid look at the genesis of the project (glad to see the Hawks-Hemingway story made it in there). Also included on the disc is a 1946 radio broadcast of the production, a great addition that helps to place the film in a historical context (this is the kind of thing people did for entertainment before TV). And as is becoming the usual with classic WB releases, the disc also features a classic Merrie Melodies cartoon, "Bacall to Arms," as well as the film's original theatrical trailer.
Despite any issues I may have with the disc's video quality, I'm thrilled to finally have To Have and Have Not on DVD, as it's a terrific light entertainment that holds a special place in my heart. While everyone involved with the production would go on to make better-remembered films, for an example of quality studio system-produced entertainment, it's worth its weight in gold. The disc can routinely be found for $14.99 or less at most retailers, so if you're looking for stocking stuffers for the classic film fan, you won't do much better.
To Have and Have Not is found not guilty on all counts, though Warner Bros. is advised to pay a bit better attention when it comes to restoring their lesser-known properties. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• A Love Story: The Story of To Have and Have Not Featurette
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