Is Howard Hawks’ TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944) a better film than Michael Curtiz’s CASABLANCA (1942)? Filmmaker and critic Dan Sallitt thinks so.
“You will probably feel the CASABLANCA presence hanging over the movie. For a long time, that was enough to disqualify it as an artistic work,” Sallitt said before a screening of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT on the opening day of a 39-film Hawks retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image. “Something made in the shadow of something else, can, in fact, be the superior work of art. I would certainly say that’s the case here.”
Sallitt’s bold statement was not met with a chorus of Cannes-style catcalls from MoMI’s reverent audience of film fans, nor was it delivered with provocative brio, but it has to be considered controversial. CASABLANCA, which celebrated its 70th anniversary last year with a million-dollar restoration and a national theatrical rerelease, is one of the best-known and most beloved films of all time. Even people who’ve never seen an old movie have heard of it and can likely quote at least one of the film’s iconic lines: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
On the other hand, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (which celebrates its 70th in 2014 with no announced plans for a restoration) often feels like a cinematic footnote. Despite its literary pedigree – Ernest Hemingway wrote the novel upon which the movie is loosely based and William Faulkner worked on the screenplay – the film can come across as a chintzy rehash banged out by studio hacks, sort of like CASABLANCA 2: RICK ON A BOAT. Sallitt himself concedes that it’s often dismissed as a “knock-off,” and I can’t say I’ve disagreed with that assessment. Until now, perhaps.
As the movie unspooled in MoMI’s Sumner Redstone Theater on Saturday in 35 mm – every title in the ten-week series will be presented on actual, olde fashioned film – the inevitable comparisons flooded my mind. And there are certainly plenty of similarities. Both films star Bogart in his prime as a romantic rogue. Both were released by Warner Bros. and produced primarily on the studio’s stages and backlot. And both feature screenplays adapted from lesser works – CASABLANCA from the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT from the Hemingway novel, which Hawks may or may not have called “a bunch of junk.”
“Hawks’ stories always had to be taken with a grain of salt,” Sallitt said. “Some of them don’t check out, and that one can’t be checked out. “
But the most striking similarities occur on screen. Both films share a setting in an occupied French territory during World War II, feature Bogart as an American ex-pat reluctantly helping a couple escape to freedom, take place largely in a nightclub setting, and feature a piano-playing supporting character. As Sam (Dooley Wilson) is to Rick Blaine, Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) is to Harry Morgan, and both musicians croon memorable tunes that subtly reflect core elements of the narrative. Even the map graphics and instrumental themes in the title sequences are similar. (CASABLANCA was scored by Max Steiner, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT by an uncredited Franz Waxman).
“Warner Bros was quite eager to make a film in the CASABLANCA vein,” Sallitt admitted.
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT premiered in New York City on October 11, 1944, less than two years after CASABLANCA’s release. In the interim, the latter was honored with Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, and nominated for five more Oscars, including Best Actor for Bogart.
But that is where the similarities end. TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT received no Oscar nominations (though Bogart was honored for Best Acting by the National Board of Review). Despite the presence of the delightful Walter Brennan at Bogart’s drunken mentor/cautionary tale, it also has nowhere near the rich supporting cast of CASABLANCA. According to the American Film Institute, Curtiz’s film boasts “actors of thirty-four different nationalities,” many of them refugees from the Nazis. This adds a feeling of authenticity to the film that TO HAVE lacks. Ironically, Sallitt praises the “documentary” naturalism of Hawks’ films, and of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT in particular.
One who falls into the latter category is Dan Seymour as the villainous Captain Renard. (To make matters even more confusing, Seymour also appeared as Abdul the doorman in CASABLANCA and the Prefect of Police in the Marx Bros. 1946 parody A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA.) The portly, Chicago-born actor appears to be playing a Frenchman (the beret is a dead giveaway) in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, yet his accent ebbs and flows like the Fort-de-France Bay, as does that of oddly cast New York City native Sheldon Leonard as Lt. Coyo. Marcel Dalio, another CASABLANCA vet — he played the sweaty croupier Emil — fares better as “Frenchy” the Resistance leader who manages Rick’s Café – I mean the Hotel Marquis Café.
If you’re scoring at home, CASABLANCA is the clear winner in a head-to-head match-up so far. But TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT has one thing Curtiz’s film does not: a secret weapon known as Lauren Bacall.
“Bogart and Bacall fell in love on the set of this movie,” Sallitt said. “This is what people mostly remember it for.”
And with good reason. Making her film debut at age 19, Bacall is the physical embodiment of the uncertain discovery of female sexual power. As Marie “Slim” Browning, a thief pickpocketing her way across the Caribbean, Bacall is a young woman outwardly confident, but inwardly unsure, getting by on bravado, camouflaged in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Apparently a bundle of nerves on the set, Bacall’s anxiety fuels a strikingly vulnerable performance that is stripped of all stylistic tricks. And Bogart discovers this as we do, from their first meeting 13 minutes in (where she visibly trembles while lighting a smoke) to the final shot of her bopping out of the bar on her way to a happy life with the (much older) man of her dreams. As she shakes her hips in that closing sequence (exuding a sensuality Miley Cyrus could only dream of), Bacall lowers her head and eyes Bogart up and down with a sly smirk. For my money, that’s the moment that made Lauren Bacall, even more so than “just whistle.”
Although the off-screen affair between his two stars apparently incensed Hawks the man, Hawks the director had the good sense to catch the lightning on celluloid. He self-consciously stops the action for a nine-minute tete-a-tete in which “Steve” and “Slim” go back and forth from his room to hers and back again, in the sort of euphemistic ballet that stood in for sex in the days of the Motion Picture Production Code. These scenes do nothing to advance the plot, but who cares about plot when you have Bacall purring lines like “It’s even better when you help” to Bogie after they kiss?
If I’m understanding Sallitt’s meaning correctly, the “electrifying” hyperrealism of the interaction between Bogie and Bacall, juxtaposed against the conventional genre trappings of a performance like Dan Seymour’s, is exactly what makes this film so memorable.
“There’s a general set-up that makes you think genre, that makes you think this is a film you’re familiar with, a structure you’re familiar with,” he said. “He needs those expectations, and he devotes a certain amount of energy to setting those expectations up. And then, when the right time comes, he lets his actors play at a level that is more realistic, faster, more scaled-down than the genre expectations led you to believe. The gap between those things feels like realism.”
“Realism doesn’t mean reality,” he added. “It’s a strategy that makes you feel like it’s real.”
And that’s a perfect description of what happens in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. It’s also something that doesn’t happen in CASABLANCA, where the relationship between Rick and Ilsa has, to my taste, always felt narratively convenient but emotionally inert. I know I’m in the minority in this opinion but, as much as I love and respect the film, I’ve never felt any chemistry between Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. When Rick bangs his fist on the bar and drinks himself into a stupor on the night Ilsa shows up at his “gin joint,” I don’t entirely buy it. I don’t feel the realness of his pain to the same degree I feel the genuine lust when “Steve” whistles after “Slim” walks out of his bedroom.
In that sense, regarding the relationship that lies at the core of each story, I’m prepared to seriously consider Sallitt’s thoughtful argument about the superiority of the imitator to the original. In the meantime I’ll be rewatching the Hawks film to study up, with a particular emphasis on certain scenes featuring Miss Bacall. I have a ways to go to catch up to Sallitt, though. He’s seen TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT 13 times, which sounds pretty lucky to me.
The Complete Howard Hawks, curated by David Schwartz, continues through November 10 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. For more information click here.