Love story


Howard Hawks' film version of Ernest Hemingway's short novel To Have and Have Not came about while they both were out shooting quail. Real men used to do things like that in those days. Hawks said to Hemingway, "Look, you're broke all the time. Why the deuce don't you make some money? Anything you write you can make into a movie. I can make a movie out of the worst thing you ever wrote." Hemingway then asked, "What's the worst thing I ever wrote?" "That piece of junk called To Have and Have Not," replied Hawks. "You can't make a picture out of that," said Hemingway. "No," said Hawks, "but the two lead characters were marvellous in their relationship. What about if we told how they met?"

And so Hawks did just that, turning out the only film that had two Nobel prize-winning authors working on it (William Faulkner and Hemingway, also helped by Hawks' long-time collaborator Jules Furthman). The finished product only bore any relation to the book in its first 15 minutes, before Lauren Bacall arrives on the scene. Later, while they were out hunting again, Hemingway asked Hawks if he could hit. Hawks duly hit him and broke every bone in his hand. "He laughed like hell," said Hawks, "and sat up all night making a splint out of a tomato can so I could go on shooting with him next morning. It didn't do my hand any good. It's an absolutely different shape." Real men used to do that sort of thing, too.

For casting, Hawks already had Humphrey Bogart as Harry Morgan, "one of the best actors I've ever worked with". Bogart never smiled because he had a split lip from an accident and he had lost some nerves when they stitched it up. But Hawks insisted he smile, and for the first time on screen Bogart looked simultaneously attractive and sinister.

Lauren Bacall he found quite by chance. She was a model in New York, and Hawks saw her on the cover of Harper's Bazaar and asked his secretary to find out about her. The secretary mistook his orders and had her flown out to Los Angeles. Hawks was embarrassed by the 19 year old at first, not least because she had a high nasal voice that he disliked and could never use in his movies. Unfazed, she simply replied, "What do I do to change my voice?" and from that moment Hawks knew he had found his kind of woman. He packed her off to the surrounding hills, and had her shout down the canyons until she was hoarse. The way he tells it, he also taught her to be insolent to men, a ploy she tried out successfully on Clark Gable. He then decided to put her up against Bogart, who was the screen's most insolent man, and see what sparks might fly.

The sparks flew all right. They fell in love, and it shines through the film as clear as day. The most famous scene in the film has Bacall leaning on the door of Bogart's hotel room saying, "You don't have to do a thing. Not a thing . . . Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to . . ." If you have seen the film, you can fill in the rest yourself; if you haven't, you have a major erotic thrill in store.

If you want to get clever about To Have and Have Not, you could say that it is the story of one man's journey from isolation to commitment. Bogart runs a fishing boat out of Martinique and is only interested in getting his money. But watching Bacall stand up to the bullying Vichy French authorities, and falling in love with her, persuades him to help the Free French. I prefer to see it as a film in which Bacall gets to sing in a smoky nightclub to the piano-playing of Hoagy Carmichael. And then take the world's most insolent man and turn him to putty in her fingers.

Incidentally, Howard Hawks is the greatest film director there has ever been. Good critics have been saying so for 20 years, but still some people haven't quite caught on.

"To Have and Have Not" opens on 8 January at the NFT and the Curzon Soho

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium