Bogart and Bacall: A Four Film Retrospective

Nathanael Hood does a deep dive into four seminal films, the only ones featuring Bogart and Bacall in the box set, Bogie & Bacall: The Signature Series

He, the long-faced tough guy with the weary eyes. She, the sultry stunner with a voice and look that could crumble city walls. When they first met, he’d crawled his way up from theatre and B-movie obscurity into one of the most recognizable actors on the planet. And she? Just a kid from the Bronx moulded by Howard Hawks from common clay into one of Hollywood’s most mesmeric femme fatales. Never mind that this tough guy was twenty-five years older and secretly going bald. Never mind that she was freakishly tall by Hollywood standards and so nervous during her screen tests she literally quaked with terror. Few couples have ever had such immediate and perfect chemistry as Bogart and Bacall. Both on and off screen, theirs was one of the most celebrated romances to ever grace Tinsel Town, a perfect combination of scruffiness and refinement, of street-gutter know-how and uptown elegance.

Hollywood’s PR staff couldn’t have created a better power couple if they’d tried—and they certainly did. The fact that, in hindsight, Bogart and Bacall only shared the screen together in four films seems inconceivable. How could they have not starred in dozens of classics? But alas, bitter reality reminds us that while their real-life relationship weathered over twelve years until Bogart’s death in 1957, they only worked together for four. But those four years gave us four stylistically innovative, artistically audacious, and expertly crafted 1940s classics. With Warner Archive Collection releasing all four films on Blu-ray, there has never been a better time to revisit the collaboration that brought Hollywood to its knees.

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944)
Dir Howard Hawks

Adapted partly as a joke to make a successful movie out of the worst thing Ernest Hemingway ever wrote, Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not sidelined large chunks of the original novel, streamlining plot points, deleting and creating new characters, and moving the action from Cuba to Vichy-occupied Martinique. The story centers on Harry Morgan (Bogart), the cynical owner of a small fishing boat who eventually joins the French Resistance. When he wasn’t playing private dicks or gangsters, Bogart specialized in such world-weary tough guys finding causes worth fighting for: Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), and Passage to Marseille (1944), and John Huston’s The African Queen (1951). But To Have and Have Not had something those other classics couldn’t replicate: the debut of Lauren Bacall. Bogart’s onscreen relationship with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca may be the definitive Hollywood romance, but as film critic and historian Leonard Martin points out about To Have and Have Not: “Bogart was smitten with his leading lady, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it shows…it’s one of those instances where it’s quite possible that we are eyewitnesses to an actor and actress falling in love.”

After discovering her as a magazine model, Hawks labored to transform Bacall into a star, coaching her on manners and acting and going to bat for her against unconvinced studio executives. He even hired a vocal coach who helped lower the pitch of her voice from a high, nasal soprano into the syrupy alto she made immortal. So when she debuted in To Have and Have Not, Hawks pulled out all the stops. Consider her first scene: she appears in the entrance of a room and asks if anybody has a match. As Bogart helps her light up, she turns her head and chin down to her chest and gazes straight up into his eyes. Watch how cinematographer Stanley Hickox dapples Bacall’s face with inverse parabolas of light and shadow. It’s pure sex, pure desire. It’s one of the most effective debut scenes of any actress in the hey-day of Hollywood. No wonder Bogart was smitten.

The effortless chemistry between Bogart and Bacall help distract from the fact that To Have and Have Not has little more going for it. It apes many plot points from Casablanca, including a nightclub pianist who befriends the protagonists (here played by legendary Tinpan Alley composer Hoagy Carmichael). The film also ends rather anti-climactically: a key character gets kidnapped offscreen, the antagonist threatens Bogart, Bogart gets the upper hand, and Bogart & company just sorta…leave. And despite the fireworks between Bogart and Bacall, the most organic, believable, and moving relationship in the film is between Morgan and Eddie (Walter Brennan), an old drunk and even older friend Bogart insists on hiring as a crew member on his fishing boat. It’s in this relationship that Hemingway’s obsessions with male friendship, fraternal bonding, and loyalty shine through the pulpy trappings of Hawks’ adaptation. But all that ceases to matter when Bogart and Bacall are onscreen together. Consider the most famous line in the film: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and…blow.” Yes, Ms. Bacall, we do.

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One of the scenes added after principle photography wrapped

THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
Dir. Howard Hawks

Let’s be blunt: almost nobody watches Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep for the plot. The story is notoriously labyrinthine—one treasured anecdote recounts how not even Raymond Chandler, the writer of the original novel, knew who killed one of the ancillary characters who turns up murdered. As private detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) gets drawn further and further into the maddening secrets of the wealthy Los Angeles Sternwoods; it becomes harder and harder to figure out what’s going on. Much of the story is told through tedious exposition that leaves us with a list of unseen characters with constantly changing loyalties. By film’s end, we’ve long given up trying to follow it.

But why have generations of filmgoers flocked to The Big Sleep? Mostly because the film is an apotheosis of film noir moviemaking. It features one of the most crackling, endlessly quotable screenplays this side of a Monty Python movie (my personal favorite: “she tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up”). Hickox’s chiaroscuro cinematography made the darkened streets and interiors of Los Angeles into claustrophobic nightmares. And of course, Bogart gives one of his definitive performances as Marlow, himself one of the definitive private detectives in movie history. To watch The Big Sleep is to witness a distinctly American film genre at the heights of its power, nonsensical plot notwithstanding.

The Big Sleep (1946)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Shown: Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart

The film was also a milestone for Bogart and Bacall’s on- and off-screen relationship. In real life the two were madly in love, but Bogart was trapped in a loveless marriage with an increasingly self-destructive alcoholic. Bogart’s sense of propriety—he considered himself a “last century man”—prevented him from outright cheating on her or getting a divorce. But his angst took a devastating toll during shooting. For the first time in his career, he would show up onset unprepared. To make matters worse, the film labored through a tortured production schedule. After Bacall’s performance in Herman Shumlin’s Confidential Agent (1945) received negative reviews, Warner Bros. panicked. Eager to recapture the spark of To Have and Have Not, they ordered massive reshoots on The Big Sleep after it had originally finished principle photography. To capitalize on her bad girl persona, the studio demanded Hawks add at least 3-4 scenes of Bacall being insolent to Bogart. To make room for the new scenes, they chopped out a good nine minutes—almost the entire seventh reel. Unfortunately, it was this reel that helped explain many confusing plot points, including one scene in the D.A.’s office where a police officer practically recaps the film for Bogart. Elsewhere, a demure exchange between Bogart and Bacall in his office was replaced with the now infamous scene where the two meet in a nightclub. Comprised almost entirely of scintillating banter, it features one of the naughtier and sexy exchanges to ever sneak its way past the Hays Production Code:

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Sexual innuendos are flying!

Bacall: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.”

Bogart: “Find out mine?”

Bacall: “I think so.”

Bogart: “Go ahead.”

Bacall: “I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.”

Bogart: “You don’t like to be rated yourself.”

Bacall: “I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?”

Marlowe: “Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.”

Bacall: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”

The new Warner Archive Blu-ray of the film thankfully includes both cuts of the film, the 1946 cut and the original 1945 pre-release version. Comparing the two is an essential education for any film buff. The ’45 film is the superior detective film. But the ’46 cut has all the additional elements that made The Big Sleep immortal. And chief among them is the scorching heat between its two leads.

Dark-passage-the-retro-set

DARK PASSAGE (1947)
Dir. Delmer Daves

By the time The Big Sleep wrapped, Bogart had finally had enough from his corrosive first marriage and gotten a divorce. Three days after shooting ended, Bogart and Bacall announced their official engagement. They would never again have to hide their love. How odd, then, that their relationships in their next two films would be considerably more subdued than in their first two. Not that they didn’t have chemistry, but neither film had the easy, magnetic charm of To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.

Take Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage. In this film Bogart plays Vincent Parry, an escaped prisoner from San Quentin wrongly accused of murdering his wife. While on the lam, he’s taken in by Irene Jansen (Bacall), a painter who just so happened to arrive right as the cops were closing in on Parry. Coincidentally, Jansen had been obsessed with Parry’s case. Stranger still: she’s good friends with Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), the woman whose false accusations got Parry sent to jail after he had spurned her romantic advances. Yes, the first part of the story relies a bit too heavily on chance and characters being in the right place at the right time. But many people fail to notice this thanks to Daves’ curious decision to film the first half or so of the film in first-person from Parry’s point of view. Later in the film he gets plastic surgery from a back-alley surgeon. After several days of wearing heavy bandages, Parry removes them to reveal Bogart’s face! The first-person shooting is little more than a gimmick: it doesn’t add anything to the story that couldn’t have been achieved with regular cinematography. But other fans might grumble that it prevented Bogart and Bacall from sharing the screen together until about an hour in.

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Bogart’s character “before” Plastic Surgery, Bogart “healing,” Bacall and Bogart look over his “new” face

Yet Dark Passage is unique in how it shows Bacall in total control over Bogart. In the other films, she’s a partner, an accomplice, a co-conspirator. But here, she’s his protector. Instead of assuming a more maternal persona, Bacall comes across as icy and prim. Notice her posture in this film—she stands straight as an arrow. The resultant relationship is more natural and believable than the tempestuous affairs that dominated their first two films. After it sheds its experimental trappings, Dark Passage settles into itself as a thoroughly satisfying noir. Moorehead is deliciously nasty as the jealous, malevolent Madge. And Clifton Young steals all of his scenes as Baker, a blackmailer who tries to pull a fast one on Bogart to the tune of $60,000. But even though the Bogart and Bacall relationship is put on the back-burner here, it’s as sizzling as the romances in their first two movies, when compared to their last team-up.

KEY LARGO (1948)
Dir. John Huston

It’s pure irony that perhaps the objective best Bogart and Bacall film has their least satisfying onscreen relationship. Set in a massive hotel in Key Largo, Florida during a terrible hurricane, the bulk of Key Largo follows a group of guests held hostage by the elements and the murderous gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Bogart plays Frank McCloud, an ex-Major in the military who’d come down to Florida to visit the family of a slain friend. Bacall plays the friend’s widow, Nora Temple. Predictably, the two fall in love. But whatever sparks might come from their relationship take a backseat to the ensuing hostage/crime drama which itself centers on a very different relationship: Rocco and his alcoholic lover Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor). The two steal the film from right under Bogart and Bacall. The crowning moment of the film—one of the crowning moment’s of Huston’s entire career—comes when Rocco torments Gaye by having her sing “Moanin’ Low” for the hostages after promising the increasingly frenzied addict a drink. After a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking performance where Trevor definitively earns her 1948 Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Rocco cruelly denies her the drink after all. Why? Because he could. It’s this abuse that truly pushes Bogart over the edge, not Rocco’s mistreatment of Bacall.

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Robinson and Trevor “steal” the movie

Despite being a character study, there’s a freedom and breeziness to Huston’s shots and camera movements that’s lacking in the other films. It feels more visually alive than anything in the first hour of Dark Passage or any of the Stygian interiors of The Big Sleep. Much of this comes from cinematographer Karl Freund, a German-Jewish emigre who shot Fritz Lang’s expressionist sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis (1927) and Tod Browning’s classic pre-Code horror film Dracula (1931). He breathes actual life into the cramped spaces of the film—we breathe and sweat and scream and die right alongside the characters as the hurricane rages around them. It’s enough to make us forget that our lead couple is almost totally superfluous. Consider this: there’s no reason why Bacall’s character had to be in the film.

So whatever happened to Bogart and Bacall after these four films? Bogart would continue his career as one of Hollywood’s greatest icons, eventually winning a belated Oscar for his role in The African Queen. But a lifetime of smoking and drinking left his body ravage with cancer: when he died days after turning 57 he weighed only 80 pounds. But Bacall? She soldiered on until 2014, finally passing from a stroke at the age of 89. She had remained active until the late 90s, winning Tony Awards and receiving an Honorary Oscar of her own in 2009. There were other loves after Bogart, including a disastrous marriage to actor Jason Robards. But looking back in interviews, she said that there had only been Bogie. How lucky we are that we got to share in it, however briefly, however fleetingly.

Bogie & Bacall: The Signature Edition was released on Warner Home Video, and is now available in four separate Blu-ray editions through Warner Archive Collection.

About Nathanael Hood 94 Articles
Nathanael Hood is a 25 year old film critic currently based out of South Florida with a passion for all things cinematic. He has a Master's Degree in Film Studies from New York University - Tisch and is currently a writer for the Turkish Journal of American Studies, TopTenz.net, and TheYoungFolks.com.

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