Monday, October 20, 2014
Ernest Hemingway’s To Have Or Have Not-Once Again Kudos Ms. Bacall- Take Two
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
A while back, sometime in the summer of 2014 after the well-known and beloved actress, and wife of the late actor Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall passed away Josh Breslin found himself in a sentimental mood. Josh, a guy I have known since just after we both graduated from our respective high school when we were pursuing the same young woman at a rock and roll dance held in my hometown who subsequently in order dumped both of us, had written a short piece about the effect that Ms. Bacall’s first film with Bogie had on him. That film the cinematic adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have Or Have Not, which he first viewed in the early 1970s at the retro Brattle Theater in Cambridge (and several times since). In that piece Josh mentioned that the Marie of the film (Ms. Bacall’s role) would probably not have been able to stay in the same room as Hemingway’s sleazy, grubby, stinking cutthroat Captain Morgan (Bogie’s role in the film, although there his first name is Steve as against the book’s Harry) in the book for two minutes.
Sometime after writing that piece, maybe about a month later, Josh showed that piece to his friend from high school, from North Adamsville High back in the 1960s, Sam Lowell, who he had been in frequent contact with since both had joined a class website established by the Class of 1964 reunion committee (and which Sam was a member of). Sam who had seen the film, seen it more recently than Josh having ordered it from Netflix one night, but had not read the book was astonished at Josh’s remark since he had assumed that the film fairly closely followed the book. That got Josh to thinking about how the two versions differed in order to explain to Sam why he had made that remark. The more he thought about it the more he realized how very far the two stories were. He chalked it up to Hollywood cinematic license and maybe to the recurring animosities between Hemingway and one of the screenwriters, the author William Faulkner but that was pure speculation. Still there was that gap. And that nagging question of Marie’s ability to take Captain Harry’s guff for more than two minutes.
First of all the timing and settings between the two vehicles were all off. Hemingway had written the book in 1936 while the war drums were beginning to beat loudly in Europe with the preclude of the Spanish civil war heating up and other events that would push Europe once again to the brink that was in the future while the film is set in wartime, after the fall of France and its occupation by German troops in part of the country and a Nazi-friendly Vichy government in the south. The book’s Captain Morgan worked out of the Florida Keys and the film was set in Vichy-held colonial Martinique. So no question political intrigue away from the metropolitan center was in the air, an ingredient missing in the decidedly non-political book Captain’s case.
Further the book’s Captain Morgan was married, presumably happily, happily in bed anyway, happy as a soured man who was always scrounging for something, for some dough, to quell the family wanting habits could be, to an ex-hooker who had not by independent sources aged gracefully and had had three young daughters with her from who his was distant. The film’s Captain Morgan, a freebooter, had a vaguer romantic past although as Marie guessed he had had an unhappy love affair sometime in the past and that had soured him to woman. That is before Marie walked, no, sauntered through his door asking for a match with a decidedly come hither look. There was nothing to hold him to Martinique or anywhere else except he needed to be by water to make a living, to use his fishing boat in some capacity.
But the biggest differences between the two lie in the story lines although they start out similarly with each catering to a sport fisherman who stiffs them both after chartering their boats for several days. In Hemingway’s book and in the film Captain Harry and Captain Steve are just scratching out a living as charter for sport fishermen and in Harry’s case after the lucrative illegal Prohibition transportation of un-bonded whiskies dried up with the repeal. That is where the split comes. Harry with that big-hearted wife to satisfy and those three hungry girls to feed needs to keep moving, keep hustling to make ends meet and so after being stiffed by that sport fisherman he grabs anything that will bring dough. First bringing in illegals, illegal Chinese, from Cuba which ends with him killing the transporter and abandoning the illegals on some shoal and then transporting some cutthroat revolutionaries to Cuba who mean him no good once he gets them to Cuba and whom he had to kill or be killed.
The film Captain though gets a new lease on life as Marie comes sauntering into his room looking for that fatal match (fatal for Steve’s independence once she gets under his skin, which took about fourteen minutes, although Josh said he was hooked the minute she came the door with that come hither look and that coy hair flipped over one side looking very, well, never mind but looking, okay) while he is trying to tell some Free French partisans (DeGaulle’s boys) partisans he was not sucker enough to take the job they offered to help a resistance fighter get off of Devil’s Island (no mean task ever) and risk losing his boat. Then the dance starts, Marie “from hunger” as she works her way back home picks up a guy, Steve gets sore, she gets sore that he gets sore and then you know they will be hooked together though thick and thin. She seals that understanding with a whistle, one of the classic lines in cinematic history, and a kiss (okay look above at the film clip to see what I mean).
Of course Captain Steve is a standup guy, stands up for his old rummy friend, Eddie, who think he is looking out for Steve, when the gendarmes grab him and try to “cold turkey” him to find out where the Free French agents are, stands up for Marie went she gets a grilling by those same gendarmes, stands up for Marie again when he takes that previously refused job for the Free French agent to get her off the island, and get himself off as well. Oh yeah stands up, sure, stands up to that come hither look that Marie throws his way when she is singing (versatile girl) with Cricket on piano (played by the legendary Hoagy Carmichael) How Little We Know which if did not seal his fate came close.
Here are Marie’s choices. Old craggy Captain Harry seen it all, drunk it all, slept with every whore from Havana to Miami in his time and then went out and married some two-bit whore who was looking for love in all the wrong places. And Captain Harry had to keep on his toes with that wench and the kids weighing him down. What does him in is a serious bit of nasty business out of Cuba. He needs dough no question need to get out from under from the “feds” and so goes for a deal which under ordinary circumstances he would pass on, and rightly so. See some bad customer Cuban revolutionaries, very loosely called such, those were the days when one group was trying to overthrow the other just to get their hands on the gringo dough, the gambling dough which made Havana an open city. Maybe grab some sugar dough from United Fruit too. Easy street. Fidel, Raul, Che and the boys and girls of their guerilla army were of a different order, whatever happened later, wanted to hire Harry boat for a big bank stick up in (funds for the revolution of course) and then flee to Estados Unidos. Well they got the dough, and got away okay. But this band of cutthroat revolutionaries wanted no untidy witnesses who could identify them or maybe they just wanted the boat Harry had hired from Freddie, of Freddie’s Bar in Key West for the caper. So Harry at least nobody’s fool decided if he was figuring to live long enough to see those damn daughters out of his house he had to make his move. Well he does, does rip up those bad hombres, but he did not figure right, right all around as usual, when he did not check to see if he finished off all of them and so he takes a few slugs in the gut from a half-dead one and was left alone to drift at sea. Well old Harry cashed his ticket, cashed it hard in the dying but everybody had to admit old Harry died better than he lived, no question.
That’s the book possibilities. Or Marie of the film could have craggy old Captain Steve (called craggily handsome in some quarters although he certainly needed a shave, maybe two a day if he was going to rub against that fair skin of Marie’s) who besides looking like a safe harbor has some decent instincts about not taking guff from the bad guys (those Vichy-loving local official who climbed on the winner’s bandwagon when France went down to Hitler’s troops). Decent instinct number one was after their mating dance around each other was to see that Marie got back home. And decent instinct number two was when the deal went down to pick sides with the Free French and try to get their guy out of Devils’ Island. Captain Steve moreover was not afraid to mix it up with those Vichy-lovers when they tried to crowd Marie, his buddy Eddie, or those freedom fighters the first time they tried to get off of Martinique. Although it was not shown you know, at least you know enough to make a sporting bet on, that Marie will get back home and that come hell or high water that guy on Devil’s Island has a good shot at getting off the damn place.
So where is there a place for Captain Harry in young Marie’s dreams? Despite her momentary “from hunger” situation she would not be found in Freddie’s dead-end bar in Key West (dead-end America literally too) unlike some down at the heels writers and their wives in that joint where Harry hangs out looking for connections, legal or illegal. She certainly was not going to go crazy over a grizzly one-armed seafaring man (short arm courtesy of a stray bullet when he was running liquor and which he let go unattended too long since he was trying to save his boat from being impounded by the “feds”). Yeah old Harry was not built any longer for fast young women but for ex-whores and fly-by-night romances, paid stuff really. Marie was built for the stuff that dreams are made of. So this really is a tale of two stories. If you don’t believe me rent the film and read the book. Case closed.