Friday, April 25, 2014

To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not feels like the dead center of the Hawksian universe, even more than the other two films that Robin Wood bracketed with it as “the Hawks trilogy,” Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo. Uninflected by either the will to power that seizes control of the Hollywood machinery in Angels or the craftsman’s desire to regain lost prestige with the perfect object of Rio Bravo, To Have and Have Not simply is, much as Bogart simply appears, without provenance, in the film’s elegant first shot. The 1940s were Hawks’ oyster – he had eleven consecutive box-office hits from 1939 to 1951 – and To Have and Have Not was the pearl at the center, a work undertaken in and executed with as much comfort and confidence as an industry director is ever likely to muster.

Which is not to say that the film is beyond reproach. For a masterpiece, it takes an unusual amount of time to hit its stride, as if Hawks needed to put all its elements in place and bang them around a little before getting comfortable enough to use them unselfconsciously. Scavenging in both Hemingway’s source novel and Casablanca, Hawks and his writers Jules Furthman and William Faulkner are obliged to retool the bits and pieces that they salvage in order to fit them into the director’s world view. Rather characteristically for Hawks, the scene that seems most accurately drawn from Hemingway’s novel, in which Harry Morgan (Bogart) takes an unsavory paying customer, Johnson (Walter Sande), on a fishing cruise, isn’t entirely satisfactory: Johnson is too easy to dislike, Morgan gives us too much of the simple pleasure of witty contempt. In general, the film’s establishing scenes rely heavily on the wish-fulfillment of Morgan talking tough to power, with at least one important scene, the interrogation of Morgan and Slim (Lauren Bacall) by Vichy Martinique’s menacing Sûreté, distorted by giving us this pleasure. Perhaps the most interesting problem with the material is Slim’s elephant-in-the room gotta-be prostitution, which is pushed away not only because the times required it, but also because Hawks is more interested in acquiring a hot rebel girl for his band of outsiders than he is in either enforcing or undermining a social norm. On the Casablanca side, the bluntness of Morgan’s refusal to get involved in the Vichy-Free French conflict announces itself as a genre convention and evolves into a wink to the audience, without ever being taken seriously as psychology (“I don’t know…maybe because I like you, maybe because I don’t like them”). The process of adaptation for Hawks often, perhaps always, mandates a breaking-in period, with the author’s vision first imperfectly assimilated, then simply overridden. One detects here a bit of internal conflict between Hawks’ self-image as a Hollywood craftsman whose job is to put an acquired property on screen, and the innate willfulness of an unreconstructed artist.

The most fascinating ambiguity in To Have and Have Not is crystallized when Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) consoles Slim after Morgan has bid her farewell: “Maybe it's better this way, Slim...You haven't known him very long. He's a funny guy.” The statement is unusual, coming from a friend and ally. Morgan is depicted throughout the film as being outside of society’s jurisdiction, a guy who’s “handled quite a lot of gunshot wounds.” The putative central theme of commitment to The Cause is enacted by Hawks and Bogart as an issue of character extremity rather than moral exigency: a number of sympathetic characters plead with Morgan for his help and are turned away with no social accommodation for friendship, shrugging and shaking their heads. Beyond this, Morgan’s acts of aggression and rebellion against authority could easily be interpreted as a ledger of antisocial behavior, even by the individualist standards of fictional heroism. When Morgan insists that the wounded Free French emissary de Bursac (Walter Molnar) be left lying on the deck of Morgan’s boat (“I don’t want him bleeding over my cushions”), or when he threatens to shoot unarmed Sûreté men (“You’re going to get it anyway” - evoking a protest from his allies), it’s clear that, on some level, the film posits Morgan as trespassing against the inscribed audience’s moral standards.

And yet the case for Morgan as antihero is severely compromised by how consistently Hawks uses the character to fulfill his and our wishes. Morgan’s insolence and rebellion relieves our fear that power will be taken away from our identification figure; and his antisocial instincts are often expressed too wittily and with too much composure for us not to respond favorably. From the beginning, each of Morgan’s potential transgressions is integrated into his appealing sense of power and intelligence, making it difficult for us to claim any distance from him - “He’s a funny guy” may be the only moment where we are invited to contemplate Morgan’s strangeness without sharing in his authority. The inevitable result - that the film itself comes to partake of Morgan’s transgressive spirit - suits Hawks just fine. A rebellion against empathy always bubbles under the surface of his movies, and Morgan’s semi-outlaw status gives Hawks the opportunity to charge To Have and Have Not with the thrill of breaking commandments. Its electrifying climactic image, of Morgan shooting through a wooden table to kill a Sûreté agent, pays us off for the duplicity and hiding that we have had to endure throughout the film, and leads directly to Morgan’s only-theoretically uncomfortable act of torturing the remaining Sûreté men in order to reclaim hostages and gain safe passage. The film’s rush of energy at this casting off of inhibitions (“You're both going to take a beating till someone uses that phone. That means one of you is going to take a beating for nothing”) is a definitive rebuttal to the surface schema of an antisocial figure brought into line with the audience’s values.  

To Have and Have Not has no peer among Hawks’ films in the quantity of its dense, atmospheric settings. Hawks’ way with a studio set is a more diffuse application of the principle that governs his approach to acting: he starts with the attractive artifice of studio recreation, then adds detail and immediacy until the environmental load feels a notch more realistic than the setup. The first images of the film, on the docks of Fort de France, are a fine example: the effect of realism out of artifice is obtained not only with good set design, real water, and clever blocking of extras, but also with the way that Morgan materializes in mid-frame on the fade-in, too busy to give the film time to establish anything. Of course, Hawks always invests heavily in the ambiance of bars and nightclubs: here primarily the hotel club run by Morgan’s pal Frenchy (Marcel Dalio), which first becomes vivid to us as Cricket’s band, the drummer folding his newspaper just in time to come in on brushes, invites Slim to guest on vocals on “Am I Blue,” while Morgan looks on from his table behind a barricade of liquor, coffee and cigarettes. But Hawks has just as much fun with the frenetic drum-driven atmosphere of the crowded little bar where Morgan and Slim stop off to recover their composure after their close call at the hands of the Sûreté. As the plot engages, Hawks strings together imaginative artificial settings with an almost Sternbergian density: the early morning meeting with the remnants of the Free French resistance in a Creole shack, with slanting light through the shades and chickens clucking in the front yard; the tense mission to retrieve the de Bursacs, the relentless hum of the boat motor sustaining the sense of danger in Morgan’s subdued demeanor; the superb bullet-extraction scene, all high-key lighting and surgical process; the morning after the all-nighter, with Slim and Cricket holding the fort in the deserted cafe.

The film’s untrumpable trick is, of course, the legendarily effective love story between Bogart and Bacall. Identifying Slim as an adventuress rather than a prostitute removes the interesting prospect of putting the love alliance definitively outside the bounds of societal acceptance, but Hawks no doubt preferred his time-honored fallback position of erecting a wall of bad reputation between the lovers (“One look and you decided just what you wanted to think about me” - a sentiment reprised in Rio Bravo) and then bringing the wall down with raw sexual attraction. The key Morgan-Slim scenes take place in the enclosures of their shadowy hotel rooms, where even the Production Code seems unable to reach them as they perform mating rituals using a stolen wallet as prop, or linger over the sensuality of Morgan’s all-nighter beard abrading Slim’s cheek. The protracted play between the lovers stretches out the film’s structure daringly, with the two ping-ponging back and forth between rooms and conversation topics as long as they and Hawks feel like it - but Hawks will generally sacrifice a shapely narrative line for one more good scene or bit of business, and not many viewers have minded over the years.

Hoagy Carmichael, launching a nice little side career here as a supporting actor, is the first musician to take a substantial role in a Hawks film (though Gene Krupa had a memorable specialty act a few years earlier in Ball of Fire), and Hawks profits from the authentic casting, letting Carmichael illustrate the songwriting process by performing a discarded (but lovely) early draft of “How Little We Know” with completely different lyrics and mood. Lending his music to the cause of Hawks’ playful reflexivity, Cricket announces his ability to step outside the diegesis early on, scoring the discovery of Johnson’s body with ironically maudlin music: “Cut it out, Cricket,” says Morgan, trying to repress a grin. Morgan will later whistle the “How Little We Know” theme on his boat - a musical-comedy trope at the beginning of one of the film’s darkest scenes - and, when the action is over and Hawks needs an eight-bars-and-out ending, he has Cricket answer Slim’s final interrogatory line of dialogue - “What do you think?” - with a jazzed-up version of the same theme, cueing the audience to reach for their coats.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Study aid for those seeing an unsubtitled version of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Historias de la revolución

I recently went to the Havana Film Festival to see Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's 1960 Historias de la revolución (Stories of the Revolution), the director's first feature, and the first feature film released in Cuba after the revolution. My expectations were quite low, but the film is astonishingly good, maybe great. It was clearly made under the influence of Rossellini's Paisa, and the resemblance is more than skin deep: Gutiérrez Alea (who seems to be a bit of a chameleon - none of his best-known films resemble each other much) shows a Rossellinian knack for working out strong dramatic premises through an observer's view of the particulars of the place and time in which he is filming. The extraordinary action sequences, especially the recreation of the battle of Santa Clara that provides the film's climax, manage to use long-shot topography to unify cause and effect while at the same time making virtuoso use of editing to depict warfare by attrition.  Remembered primarily by Cubans as a memento of its moment in history, the film may well play better to today's film culture than it did to its contemporaries.

It's possible to see the film if it falls off the back of a truck near you, but such versions have no English subtitles at this time. Certainly one loses a great deal by not understanding what is said, but much of the film is dialogue-free, so it might be worth a go anyway. For those who wish to try, the following notes are not a synopsis, but rather a laundry list of places in the movie where understanding the dialogue is crucial.

Part One: "El herido (The Wounded Man)" 

The dialogue here is not distinctive or closely linked to style. In the first part of the story, as the revolutionaries take refuge in the couple's apartment, it's important to know that the woman revolutionary, Elena, is friends with Miriam, the woman in the apartment, who says to her husband Alberto a few times "I can't tell them to go." Alberto, on the other hand, insists repeatedly that Miriam tell the revolutionaries to leave, and leaves the apartment himself because she won't eject them. At this point in the film he seems unsympathetic.

As Alberto arrives at the hotel, something phony about his story arouses the suspicion of the hotel clerk. Then, as the police interrogate him, it's important to know that he never gives anyone away, lying repeatedly, baldly, and ineffectively. The police find his home address in his papers, and insist on taking him there, though he tells them it's an old address. As the police drive up to the apartment, one of the revolutionaries says that Alberto has given them away; Miriam insists that he wouldn't have done so. The matter is not discussed further.

At the end, Alberto asks the milkman to help him get away. The milkman's first reaction is to say that it's too risky.

Part Two: "Rebeldes (Rebels)" 

This is the segment that is most damaged by not understanding the dialogue, as the various conversations the revolutionaries have as they wait in the woods are not strongly plot-motivated: they often address themselves to the central dramatic point of the segment, but can't affect it much.

The group leader examines the wounded soldier and tells the others not to put him in the hammock that the leader had earlier instructed them to make: "It will only cause him needless suffering" to move him. Later, in conversation, one of the fighters says that the leader has had a lot of experience in such matters.

One important aspect of the dialogue is that the revolutionaries don't seem nearly as worried about the government troops as one would expect. (It's established that there are about 100 government soldiers against the six revolutionaries.) There is a streak of deadpan humor in their lack of concern: at one point a scout reports that the government soldiers are shooting at the trees, and no one reacts much. Apparently the government troops are known to be incompetent, though their eventual advance on the revolutionaries' position will still be fatal if the revolutionaries don't leave their position in time. Otherwise, there are few comments about the enemy, and politics is not much discussed.

Part Three: "Santa Clara" 

Near the beginning of the segment, Julio, the revolutionary who has returned to Santa Clara, shows a woman a photo of the woman he loves, Teresa, asking about Teresa's whereabouts. Gutiérrez Alea cuts directly to Teresa, working behind the battle lines. During the victory parade after the battle, Julio sees a friend and asks again about Teresa's whereabouts. Other than this, the action doesn't depend on dialogue much, and the voiceover merely gives us information about the battle of Santa Clara, facts we have mostly seen enacted.