Sunday, February 01, 2009

To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not posterTo Have and Have Not (1944) bears little resemblance to the original story by Ernest Hemingway; director Howard Hawks and screenwriters Jules Furthman and William Faulkner turned it into a rehash of the recently released Casablanca, even including some of the same cast members! The plot unfolds in the French colony of Martinique in 1940, after the fall of France, when it was run by the Nazi-aligned Vichy government. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall add an American twist to this French Caribbean environment, making for a nice variation of a war-espionage film.

Bogart is American Harry Morgan, who runs a charter boat in Martinique with his alcoholic buddy Eddie (Walter Brennan). His current client is an American fisherman who can't seem to pay his bills. Harry and his client are both staying at a big colonial hotel run by a local Frenchman, appropriately called Frenchie. After a day of fishing, both men return there, and Harry bumps into a young teenage runaway Slim (Lauren Bacall) with whom he has undeniable sexual chemistry. Before he can do anything, he is approached by Frenchie and some other men, who are members of the French Resistance and want him to help them smuggle one of their members from another island to Martinique on his boat. Harry refuses and stomps back down to the lounge. All of a sudden a machine gun opens fire on the lounge, and people scream and duck. Harry's American client and a few other Frenchmen are killed. This is the work of the Vichy government, in an attempt to weed out some some Resistance fighters. Following the shooting, the French police chief comes in and takes Harry, Slim, and others in for questioning. They're looking for any information about the Resistance, and try unsuccessfully to bribe Harry.

Upon his release from police headquarters, Harry makes up his mind to help the Resistance, and agrees to do the job for Frenchie. Part of his motivation is that the money he earns will go to buying Slim's plane ticket back to America, freeing her from her lonely, broke existence in Martinique. That night, Harry sets out in his fishing-boat, only to find Eddie has hidden in the cabin, despite Harry's earlier insistence that he stay in town. Harry seems secretly relieved to have a partner, however. The two make it to the mysterious island in the fog, and pick up Free French member Du Bursac and his wife, Helene. On the way back, they encounter a patrol boat, which shines a spotlight on them and opens fire. Du Bursac is hit in the shoulder, but Harry manages to shoot out the spotlight and speed away without being chased. Back in Martinique, they transport the fugitives to a basement room in Frenchie's hotel. Harry is surprised to find Slim has not left for America, and has chosen to stay. She helps care for Du Bursac so that she can be with Harry. Unable to find a doctor who won't snitch to the police, Frenchie asks Harry to remove the bullet from Du Bursac's shoulder. After initial refusal, Harry agrees to do the surgery, and takes out the bullet without any problems. Du Bursac's wife is very grateful, which makes Slim jealous.

The next morning, Du Bursac is healthy and things are looking up. Slim has found a job singing in the hotel lounge. However, the police chief is snooping around the hotel. He gets Eddie drunk and questions him to see if what he suspects is true, but Eddie reveals nothing and plays an innocent drunken fool. That night, the police kidnap Eddie so they can use him as a bargaining chip with Harry Morgan, hoping for Harry to sell out the location of Du Bursac. They go up to Harry's hotel room to threaten him, while Slim and Madame Du Bursac hide in the bathroom. With Slim's help, Harry gets a gun from a desk drawer, kills a policeman, and turns the tables. Now that the police chief and two of his men are Harry's hostages, Harry can solve everything. He forces the chief, at gunpoint, to call headquarters and order Eddie's release; he also forces him to sign the paperwork releasing Harry, Slim, Eddie, and the Du Bursacs from Martinique for good. When this is done, the four of them leave for unknown adventures, while the lounge piano player sings and Slim does a dance out the door.

The Frenchmen on Martinique are all small men in white suits with thin moustaches and slicked-back hair. They seem not to fit in the hot, tropical climate and the colourful cultural setting. They seem to have little to do with the local blacks, except employ them as barmen. Upon close scrutiny, the people in the background of every scene are mixed without segregation; black sailors flirt with white women and buy them drinks, a mixed-race crowd stands around the piano and sing and dance together. The island is definitely a French colony first and foremost, and the local Caribbean culture is not very prominent.

The Caribbean is seemingly a place where Americans can go and not take sides; Harry's initial refusal in about every aspect of helping the French resistance is always accompanied by his insistence that he is on neither side and is just doing his job. Perhaps this is Harry's reason for being in Martinique, so he can be free from politics and drama and just make some money without being judged. But it turns out that even the Caribbean cannot escape the war's highly politicized and dangerous grip, and Harry is sucked into making a decision between doing the right thing while risking his life or remaining safe while helping no one. Slim is also trying to escape from some difficult past in Martinique, but is happy in the end to have given some of herself to a cause. And Eddie is also escaping in Martinique by drowning himself in a rum-bottle, but his help is actually indispensable to Harry and the Du Bursacs. The Caribbean may help obscure the line between right and wrong, but in the end the choice always has to be made.

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