To be clear, we’re talking about the movie, here. I’ve never read Hemingway’s novel of the same name. No, I mean the Howard Hawks film To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
This isn’t the best work from any of the people involved. Most people think it wasn’t Hemingway’s best novel. It wasn’t Hawks’ best film, not by a long shot. Ditto for Bacall and Bogart. But it says something, something about how casually, insanely good these folks were at what they did, that the film is still pretty damn good. Of course, I might be biased. Of course, I spend the entire film watching Bacall.
This was her first film. Bacall was nineteen when she filmed this, according to most sources. She and Bogart famously, scandalously, fell in love during the filming. They kept their affair from his wife — for a while. I don’t think they kept it from the camera. Watch this film. Watch every scene in which Bacall and Bogart appear in the same frame. Look at them.
I found out all of this, about their off-screen relationship, long after I fell in love with the film. I saw this movie during the summers when WGN in Chicago would run Bogie Marathon Weeks. It was the start of my love for noir, for older films. Bogie week would show The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, all his great films. And it also showed lesser works, like To Have and Have Not.
I remember sitting on the dingy family room couch, bare legs drawn up, shorts and t-shirt sticking to me in the clammy summer basement heat. Lights off, because lights made things hotter, turning away my siblings’ requests that I play with them. There was a world there, on the screen. Climbing trees and playing Runaways, or War, these things could wait until the incomprehensibly, tantalizingly alien characters on the screen were gone. I watched Bogart movies as if they contained secret messages, codes I had to break. I watched Bacall and Bogart with an almost desperate intensity, trying to figure out what they were telling me.
At this distant remove, I think I understand why I was mesmerized by these films. By these actors. They were blindingly in love. They also wanted to be having sex pretty much every moment of filming To Have and Have Not. As an eleven-to-thirteen-year-old, there was some sort of invitation to me in these films, some sort of warning.
I painfully wanted to rescue someone like Bacall’s Marie “Slim” Browning. I wanted to meet some exotic, beautiful, scared, arrogant, angry girl and be her best friend and live with her forever on a ranch in Montana and breed dogs for a living. We would be best friends forever, and she would be less angry and scared because she could trust me, the way Slim eventually figures out she can trust Harry “Steve” Morgan. When I was a young teenager I didn’t understand that the looks these people give each other are smoldering with sex. Years later, after I came out, I saw the film again. Yep. Still wanted a Slim to look at me that way. Still wanted that relationship of growing trust, of partnership, of heat.
Still. Look at that. Just look at that. Don’t you want someone to look at you that way? Either of them, the way they watch each other. They ways they don’t watch each other, the way they avoid tracing their gaze over the other’s face, or body. There’s a passion in the ways they touch and they ways they don’t touch. It has to be seen to be believed. It’s lovely, and young, and romantic, and entirely sexual. Not, maybe, the best relationship role model for a closeted teenage lesbian, but what can you do? A girl could do worse in life than growing up to be Harry Morgan.