This film gets compared a lot with Casablanca
, but I think that's a bit silly. There are similarities of setting, plot and cast, but the two films aren't in the same league, either in the scale of their stories or their impact on the audience. Mind you, that doesn't make this a bad film at all. On the contrary, I liked it a lot. However it is fairly slight, with a throwaway ending and little attempt to portray any real consequences to anything beyond our heroes' personal lives.
It's loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name and there have since been remakes: The Breaking Point (1950), Wetbacks (1956), The Gun Runners (1958) and an Iranian version set in the Persian Gulf called Captain Khorshid (1987). This is a bit weird since the novel apparently isn't Hemingway's best, the film doesn't resemble it much anyway and what makes it memorable isn't the plot but the pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Theirs is one of the great screen partnerships, in the first of their four films together, and it's going to take me a good paragraph or two to explain why.
Bacall was nineteen and making her first movie. Bogart was forty-five and on a disastrous third marriage, to a woman who was charming when sober but when drunk would become jealous, paranoid and violent. Her name was Mayo Methot and her pranks included setting their house on fire, stabbing him and slashing her wrists. Anyway, Bacall and Bogart fell for each other in a big way, got married the following year and stayed together until Bogart's death in 1957. (Bacall's still alive today, incidentally.) That's by the by, though. The important thing is that they fell in love while making this film and that chemistry is there on the screen. They're sparking off each other all the time, with certain scenes having enough sexual tension that it's surprising that their characters aren't immediately jumping into bed together.
They're great together, but crucially they're also great individually. Bogart I'd expected to be outstanding, of course. On the surface he's just playing his usual tough cynic, but yet again he's doing something I hadn't seen before, this time with mini-reactions that seem entirely spontaneous every time and give the film a little kick every time he does one. What's more, they're funny. You could almost miss them if you weren't paying attention, but I'm talking about moments like his jump when Bacall slams the door. Then you've got things like his facial expression when the bad guys reveal they've taken in his best friend. Damn, he's good.
Bacall is the real shocker, though. You'll never believe she's nineteen. Not in a million years. Personally I'd have put her at about thirty, because she's showing the kind of maturity, intelligence and confidence you'd associate with an established star, not a rookie. Even her beauty isn't that of a teenager, although you can't say she isn't gorgeous. Now in fairness Bogart was doing everything he could to help her on-set, cracking jokes to put her at her ease and even quietly coaching her, while Howard Hawks was directing her closely too. Her relationship with Bogart will also have meant that to some extent no acting was required. You couldn't ask for a better first job. Nevertheless the fact remains that Bacall's performance here is one of the all-time great movie debuts and any actress of any age would have been proud to eat up the screen the way she does here.
Incidentally Dolores Moran was originally meant to be the lead actress and Bogart's love interest, but the screenplay got rewritten in mid-shoot. Besides, most of the dialogue was apparently improvised anyway.
Apart from them, the film's nice. It's not going to shoot anyone out of the water, but I liked it. Walter Brennan's rather sweet as Bogart's alcoholic friend Eddie, with his odd little twitches. Admittedly the villain isn't particularly memorable, but it could be argued that that's a good thing given the offhand nature of the finale since otherwise we might have been annoyed not to see something more conclusive happen to him. The plot's a bit unstructured, with the first ten minutes in particular having nothing to do with anything, but I quite liked the resulting sense of unpredictability. Obviously I've got to have a go at the ending at some point, but even there I didn't mind it too much. It feels as if they've missed off the last ten minutes, that's all. The plot's building up nicely to what's looking to be a thrilling finale and then, whoops, end credits. Was that it? Yup, afraid so. However personally I'd say it's all worth it for Bacall's final smile and shimmy.
I suppose I should discuss Casablanca
. Both are films made during World War Two in which Humphrey Bogart plays a cynical American living abroad under the Vichy regime, etc. Both films even have a piano player sidekick, although this one's is far more impressive musically because it's Hoagy Carmichael. However at the end of the day, Casablanca
is a tragedy that's at once deeply personal and concerned with entire nations. This film is a bit of a runaround.
It's interesting to have Vichy villains, though. There are no Germans here at all. Instead you've simply got the French themselves merrily joining in with fascism, although they're also depicted as being well in the minority among their own people. It's refreshing, at any rate.
This film is a breath of fresh air. It's truthful enough not to be bubblegum, with for instance the stupidity of the heroic Dolores Moran and Walter Szurovy characters. However you also couldn't call it a weighty film, with the overwhelming reason to watch it being the Bogart-Bacall chemistry. They are indeed that good. Overall it's witty, it's fun and it's an easy recommendation to anyone, really.