The film that paired Bogie and Bacall. What do you say about that? A film that starts an offscreen romance that lasts until one of the actors dies? Well, I guess I’ll figure something out. The first thing I noticed about this film (apparently, as many note in reviews, Howard Hawks directed it on a bet that he could make something of the worst novel Ernest Hemingway wrote, and made major changes to the novel to end up with this film) was its similarity to Casablanca from two years earlier. Harry “Steve” Morgan (Bogart) is a working stiff who runs a boat rental for fishing services on the French island of Martinique. His friend Eddie (Walter Brennan, in a very fun role) is a drunk, which does not sit well with his customer Johnson (Walter Sande). When Johnson attempts to stiff Morgan, Harry finds himself in the middle of an unsolicited deal with bartender Gerard, aka Frenchy (Marcel Dalio) to pick up two members of the French resistance–Vichy France having fallen to the Nazis–from Devil’s Island. The men Frenchy wishes Harry to meet are suspicious to local inspector Capt. Renard (Dan Seymour), who is loyal to Vichy France. Finding himself in need of money, Harry caves to Frenchy’s friends requests for help and takes on the mission. Now he must take a stance, or at least role, in a war he previously ignored in favour of self-interest. Sounds familiar, no? Well, we’ve also got the slightly obese Raymond who bears that trait in common with Sydney Greenstreet, and even Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) a pianist who works in the hotel and plays assistant to Rick. I mean, Harry.
That’s not fair though. Yes, the movie bears a strong resemblance to Casablanca, but it’s not a derivative feeling, or a negative. It’s saved more by performance than plotting though–despite a nice, tight plot and solid action, that portion is too familiar. I was a bit disappointed as I started the film and it felt so achingly familiar. But then the romantic subplot began with the appearance of Marie “Slim” Browning (Bacall). There’s an absolute magnetism in the interactions between Bogie and Bacall (as most point out, likely inspired by their real life love developing), something that instantly drew me in to the rest of the movie. Walter Brennan’s performance, too (with a voice almost as distinct as Andy Devine’s, and a probable similar ratio of imitation) is engaging. Carmichael’s Cricket is a little less forced into participation than Casablana‘s Sam, more often simply doing his job as pianist and darting off quickly with a nod to do something for Harry, but with little interaction. I suppose this is natural considering he is not an employee of Bogart like Sam was, but it was still a little more exciting for that. Or it could be the strange feeling that Carmichael looked familiar–my brain sorting through names like John and David Carradine, Billy Drago and others before finally settling on the name that eluded me and matched the face in my brain: Scott Glenn. He seemed like a more laidback and friendly version of Glenn (insert discussion here about who is a version of whom in light of age) which I found quite appealing. Seymour has a perfectly slimy nature about him (as well as a slippery accent that seems like a perfectly handled bad French accent, or possibly some kind of regional one with which I’m unfamiliar–in either case, it’s consistent at least). Dalio (and Walter Szurovy and Dolores Moran as his rescued associates) is passable but does not make a name for himself. Bogie and Bacall, without a doubt, dominate though. Witty banter (including a line of now unknown origin, suspected to be either Hawks’ own for Bacall’s screentest or perhaps William Faulkner–yes, that Faulkner–as screenwriter) abounds, including the infamous line about whistling Bacall hands Bogart. When Harry steps on a line from Slim it’s hard not to smile with the delight of perfectly attuned onscreen chemistry. Bogart is always entertaining for this reason though, perfect at the deadpan sarcasm and barbs that he’s always got written for him it seems.
It tends to remind me of that difference I always note between films from the first half of the 20th century and the second half: there’s a feeling of stage training and interest in acting for entertainment more visible in the first half, a sort of conscious ignorance of “realism” in acting that leaves it completely entertaining and interesting without being saddled with that scrutinizing eye of reality that so besets the other half of that film-making century (as well as current films). It seems like the division developed around the 60s when I think of those revolutionary films like the looseness of Easy Rider or the later method acting in films like Scorsese’s. My tastes show I have no absolute preference, but I do miss that easy familiarity of films from the 1940s, where an indepth history of a character was not required for a performance, and stars were made from stage actors and faces instead of the endless myths, rumours and sordid truths of tabuloid garbage, obscuring any interest in talent.
It’s a very good film, though, but it’s difficult to get around the Casablanca resemblance completely. Best to accept this as you go in and just enjoy one of the greatest onscreen pairings I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.