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Two by Hawks

Two by Hawks

The two Humphrey Bogart movies that are most quintessentially Bogart — in
which that line between a star actor’s screen persona and a specific
character he’s playing is most thoroughly and effectively erased so that
these two become indistinguishably one — were directed and produced
back-to-back by Howard Hawks, the master of capturing a star’s most
archetypal qualities. Both pictures co-star Lauren Bacall at her
freshest, and in her most defining roles (her first and third films; the
second, Confidential Agent, without Hawks or Bogart, almost finished
her). And both movies have screenplays worked on by no less than William
Faulkner: one based (rather vaguely) on Ernest Hemingway, the other
(rather strongly) on Raymond Chandler.  The first is that sizzling 1944
World War II espionage romance, To Have and Have Not (available on DVD),
and the second, from 1946, starred Bogie as the definitive Chandler
private eye, Philip Marlowe, in the mesmerizingly entertaining The Big
(also available on DVD).

This is that crime film with the virtually indecipherable plot,
though it doesn’t really matter because the scenes, one after the other,
are so utterly compelling and enjoyable that after a while you shrug
and think, Who cares what’s going on, it’s all too much fun to worry
about details like that.  A famous anecdote:  During shooting, neither
Hawks nor Faulkner nor the other screenwriters (Hawks’s old reliables,
Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) could figure out who had killed a
certain character, so they wired Chandler this question and he wired
back a name that was conclusively wrong.

There’s a teasingly tongue-in-cheek attitude to the whole affair, a
dry, witty approach that is typically Hawksian, as one woman after
another (Dorothy Malone, Martha Vickers, etc.) make passes at Bogart’s
implacably insolent Marlowe, who has dialogue like, “She tried to sit in
my lap while I was standing up,” or “You oughta wean her, she’s old
enough,” or even “Hmm…” to which Ms. Bacall asks, “What’s that
supposed to mean?” and he answers, “Means ‘hmm.'” That’s just in the
first reel.

Chandler once said, “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to
enter it,” and Hawks takes full advantage of this truism by essentially
shaping each and every sequence in the entire movie from Bogie’s
viewpoint; he is the beginning and end of every scene, and nothing
happens without being filtered through his responses.  Of course, the
book is constructed that way, but Hawks could easily have altered this,
and he could’ve screwed up the lines, but as he wisely used to say, “When you have dialogue as good as Raymond Chandler’s, you leave it

Tense and fast-paced, the picture has a pervasive intelligence and
honesty that simply doesn’t date.  One of my personal favorites for over
half a century, The Big Sleep holds up well under repeated viewings
because the black humor and generally evil atmosphere feel continually

On an entirely different 1949 Hawks wavelength is one of his most
successful, funniest yet darkest comedies, I Was A Male War Bride
(available on DVD); starring Cary Grant in the title role as a
sophisticated French army officer in post-World War II Germany (this was
based on a true story) who falls for Ann Sheridan as a U.S. Army
officer and then has to pose as a war bride to get past the red tape
involved in emigrating with her to America.

An absolutely hilarious tour de force for Grant and Hawks, the film
was their fourth of five terrific pictures they did together; it was
also among the first Hollywood companies to shoot on real locations in
Europe after the war.  It’s certainly a different kind of war story: 
How do you get past bureaucracy so that you can go to sleep with your
wife? Indeed, the bureaucratic world has become so loony that Grant
finally has to dress in drag in order to bed Ann Sheridan.

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