“With fingernails that shine like justice
And a voice that is dark like tinted glass
She is fast and thorough
And sharp as a tack...”
-Cake, Short Skirt, Long Jacket
This post is for the Lauren Bacall Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood click here to see all of the other posts celebrating the life and work of this stunning actress.
“You know how to whistle. You just put your lips together and blow.” A famous line from a film. How famous and what film, I didn’t know when I first heard it. The film I was watching when I heard that line was Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989). At the time I thought it was a pretty good line. Good dialogue is good dialogue. But how, by whom and when it is said can change it. Which begs the question, how much of the value of dialogue lies in the delivery of it? A question that came to mind when watching To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Could anyone else have said that dialogue as good as Lauren Bacall? Maybe, but I am glad we didn’t have to find out.
I didn’t know who Lauren Bacall was when I was 11 years old watching the adventures of shrunken kids, but I knew her counterpart Bogie. He was the guy from The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), two of my favorite movies at the time. The guy who made the 11 year old me think “man, smoking is so cool”, and wonder if my grandparents had time to do anything besides drink scotch and roll cigarettes. Oh, and fight Nazis.
I eventually learned that Bogie had a better half, Bacall. They’re names roll off your tongue, as if they were meant to be said together. This kismet is felt by not only Bogie and Bacall but by everyone else who sees them together on the screen. But given that this is a post about Bacall, I should probably focus more on her. I chose To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) because they have two important people who played a role the work of Lauren Bacall, Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart.
Howard Hawks directed both To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, seemingly one right on top of the other. However, the studio held back on the release of The Big Sleep, and some changes were made to the original film. Changes that were good for Lauren Bacall, but perhaps bad for the confusing plot line of the film. What stands out for me in both films is the use of dialogue. That Hawks knew how to use dialogue is apparent in both films. The quintessential example of Hawks' mastery of this is His Girl Friday (1940). It is one of the greatest dialogue-driven films ever made. The dialogue existed on the page, but it was Hawks who insisted on overlapping it. This gave a realism to the way the characters spoke. This realism is something that can be seen in To Have and Have Not. This is in part from the delivery of dialogue by the two main characters, but also by chemistry between them that is visible on the screen.
Bogart was already famous when he started working on To Have and Have Not. He took newbie Bacall under his wing, eventually he was taken under her spell. In the film it all starts with a light.
“Anybody got a match?”
A line delivered in Bacall’s rasp, but more is said in the silence before and after the match strike than any one line. Harry the character, Bogie the actor, as well as the audience are hooked. Later over another cigarette, this time lite by Harry, the two share a moment. Before being interrupted. Events from this interruption lead to the need for a drink. The drink that never happens brings the characters together further. The drink itself, a bottle, is passed from one room to the other lending itself to Slim’s backstory and ultimately Harry’s agreement to help the free French. The sexual tension is building, bottled up just like the liquor. Until Slim plops herself down in Harry’s lap.
“Sometimes I know exactly what you’re going to say. The other times, you’re just a stinker.”
(She kisses him)
“What’d you do that for?”
“Wondering if I’d like it.”
“What’s the decision?”
“I don’t know yet.” (They kiss a second time) ”It’s even better when you help.”
Bacall lets the lines come out of her mouth with a trail at the end, almost as if to let them linger in the air for a moment. After kissing him, she gets up and makes her way towards the door. Slim seems to always be leaving Harry right when things are about the get good, and it’s as if she does this intentionally. He won’t take her money, but he will take her lips. Something far more valuable. Then comes the most famous set of dialogue in the film:
“You know you don’t have to act with me Steve. You don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything. Oh, except maybe just whistle.”
“You do know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Bacall again let’s the last words linger in the air as she shuts the door on Bogie, who in turn gives a slow whistle.
It is obvious that Bacall has been given the best lines in the film. That scene sets up the relationship dynamic between Steve and Slim for the rest of the film and in a way determines how we view Bogie and Bacall's relationship, both on screen and in real life. Something that can't be matched in any other film they did together after that.
In an attempt to capture “lightning in a bottle”, as they say, again on the screen Bogie and Bacall were paired up in The Big Sleep (1946). The title sequence tells everyone exactly what the studio was selling, not a Raymond Chandler novel, but a Hollywood romance. What I love about the title sequence and the end credits is the use of the cigarettes pairing together. It is almost as if they want us to remember To Have and Have Not by placing a visual cue reminding us of it, and the actors first scene on screen together. Or maybe I am just reading too much into a cigarette. But unfortunately the film doesn't work as well as the first one.
Firstly, Bacall is not given the best dialogue in this film, Bogie is. Second, the relationship dynamic in the film is not the same as To Have and Have Not. Although it was shot almost immediately after To Have and Have Not in 1944, release of the film was held off until 1946. This gave time for Hawks to re-shoot some scenes with Bacall and Bogie that were not as good as they could be. While this helped ultimately with Bacall's appearance on screen, some of the plot of the film was lost.
Though she doesn't have the lines she had in To Have and Have Not, Bacall is still able to hold her own in scenes with him. There is still some air of chemistry between the two present on the screen.
"How'd you happen to pick out this place?"
"Maybe I wanted to hold your hand"
"Oh, that can be arranged."
Again the tension is high. Both characters don't seem to like each other but can't help the fact that maybe they are falling for each other.
Driving back from Eddie Mars' casino.
"Remember I told you I was beginning to like another one of the Sternwoods?"
"I wish you'd show it."
"That should be awful easy." (He kisses her)
"I liked that. I'd like more. (They kiss a second time) That's even better."
"All right, now that's settled. What's Eddie Mars got on you?"
"So that's the way..."
This dialogue mimics the kissing scene in To Have and Have Not down to Bacall's assessment of the second kiss. Much like that of the first scene, her words linger in an exhalation of approval. Unlike the previous film, it is Marlowe who puts an end to the fun and games.
In both To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep Lauren Bacall gives us enduring lines of dialogue delivered to us in a way no other actress could have done.
The Distracted Blogger
I watch movies. I write about them here. I watch more movies. I get nothing else done.
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