To Have!: An Argument in Distinguishing TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT from Its Contemporaries

7 September 2014

Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944) is an adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s 1937 novel of the same title.  The film takes place in Martinique, a French province, during WWII.  A fisherman, Harry “Steve” Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), gets involved with the French Resistance, eventually being tapped to sneak a Resistance leader and his wife to Martinique.  To complicate the situation more, Steve falls in love with an American woman, Marie “Slim” Browning (Lauren Bacall), who is staying at a local hotel. As the police catch on to Steve’s dealings, he and Slim must outsmart the French authorities to save the French Resistance leader, his wife, and themselves.

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Many suggest To Have and Have Not, as well as other noirs of the 1940s, is greatly influenced by Casablanca (1942).  To Have and Have Not specifically because it stars the same leading man (Bogart) and was released less than two years after Casablanca; also, there are narrative similarities between To Have and Have Not and Casablanca that further connect the two.

To some, To Have and Have Not has existed in Casablanca’s shadow for the last 70 years. Unfortunate because To Have and Have Not is not the same film at all, not on nearly any level—cinematic or thematic.  More pointedly, there is a glaring difference between the two films, and that difference is purpose.  One film focuses on the cinematics with the primary purpose of cinematic development and evolution; the film’s message(s) are secondary to its cinematic communication.  The other focuses on theme with the fundamental purpose of social and political commentary; the cinematics of this film are secondary.  Thus, while both films star the same actor, have similar settings, and follow a similar plot arc, each film has a respective purpose, and for To Have and Have Not to be appreciated to its fullest, that point may need to be explored more.

First, cinematically, To Have and Haven Not is extremely simple and to the point.  Yes, the film uses a variety of dramatic lighting, but dramatic lighting, for effect, was the style of 1940’s dramas, thrillers, and action films, particularly the narrower genre of film noir, which was exploding during this decade in American cinema.  Thus, To Have and Have Not’s lighting design is remarkable, but no more than any of its contemporaries.

Other than that, all Hawks’ cinematic moves are textbook: close-ups are used to show emotion and importance, patterns in cuts remain consistent with the time period’s norm, and, aside from a crane shot or two, no dramatic camera angles or movement are used in To Have and Have Not.

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Therefore, unlike Casablanca, a true noir, which relies on cinematic devices to capture the narrative, and therefore has a more complex cinematic construction, To Have and Have Not keeps it simple.  Why?  Perhaps because, unlike Casablanca, Hawks’ To Have and Have Not is less about how the film will communicate (the cinematics) and much more about what the film will communicate (the theme).  And this is the distinction, the difference in purpose between the two WWII crime dramas, which truly separates To Have and Have Not from Casablanca.

In fairness, although Casablanca is more interested in how it, as a film, communicates (the cinematics), the film does communicate strong messages about honor and dignity.  These messages are evident in Rick’s final sacrifice in the film’s conclusion.  Yet, two years later, when To Have and Have Not released, the world was a much different place.  War still raged on, but a glimmer of light shinned at the end of the bleak tunnel; the end of WWII may be on the horizon.  Therefore, unlike Casablanca, To Have and Have Not is a film about life, a film about new beginnings and hope for the future; not a film about dignified endings.  Without complex cinematics, To Have and Have not focuses on this message, making the film’s purpose to communicate that obstacles are overcome, hope remains, and, importantly, life always goes on.

Obviously, the on-screen chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is electric, but it is not only their real life emotions spilling into the film that speak to the film’s commentary on life and vitality.  The script itself calls for a highly sexual relationship between Steve and Slim, and this sexually charged relationship is part of the film’s commentary on life and hope. Take, for example, Slim’s remark, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?  You just put your lips together and blow.”  The now famous line oozes with sexual innuendos.  Or, when the two walk into a nightclub, a sordid establishment, communicated by the fact that they must walk down stairs to enter the main room of the club.  Steve leaves Slim to use her feminine wiles to get a bottle of liquor for the two to share in his room later that night.  Slim, of course, is successful in her mission, secures the bottle, and returns to Steve’s dimly lit apartment in the middle of the spirit (pun intended).  In large part, the film’s vitality comes from the sexualized relationship between Slim and Steve, a relationship full of life with generous hope for the future.

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Hope is an essential part of To Have and Have not, and connected to the film’s message about life enduring and beating adversity.  Even though the dramatic lighting and many narrative details suggest the film is a noir, To Have and Have Not does not end in the traditional noir style.  In a noir, the ending would be bleak, perhaps not fatal for all, but unsettling and troublesome.  To Have and Have Not ends on a high.  Just as Slim tells the piano player before she and Steve leave in the film’s final scene, To Have and Have Not keeps it light in the end.  Steve, Slim, and their company all walk right out of danger, literally, overcoming the “bad guys.” In opposition to noirs, namely Casablanca, To Have and Have Not leaves the audience with a feeling of hope; the “good guys” do come out on top.  Together, Steve and Slim are off to new places, safer places, free of the danger they once encountered.  Then entire film, evident by some consistent attempts at comic relief, is working toward this uplifting, positive, and hopeful ending.

Unlike Casablanca, the film To Have and Have Not is all too often compared to, To Have and Have Not is a hopeful film about overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life.  Beyond the casting and surface similarities in plot points, there is not much alike in these two films.  To Have and Have Not commits to a message, a theme related to the adversity in life and the fact that, in the end, hope still exists and the “good guys” can win.  And, in its execution, To Have and Have Not communicates its theme well, all on its own, without the influence of any cinematic contemporary.


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~ by Kate Bellmore on 07/09/2014.

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