Mon 4 Mar 2013
From all accounts, Ernest Hemingway wrote To Have and Have Not (Scribner’s, 1937) in fits and starts, cobbling it together from two earlier short stories while mucking about in the Spanish Civil War. And frankly, it reads a bit sloppy and disjointed, with shifting time frames, clashing narrative modes, and here and there the terse, fascinating prose that made Hemingway a name. Reading it through, with its sudden jumps in time, location, narration and focus, one wonders if the legendary author was pointing the way for writers like Ken Kesey and Carlos Fuentes or just being lazy.
The first part deals with Harry Morgan, a charter boat skipper operating around Key West and Cuba who gets stiffed by a Mr. Johnson and helped out by Eddie, an alcoholic buddy (an important character in future incarnations of the book, but this is his only appearance here) when he’s forced to take on an illegal load of Chinese immigrants — a job that ends in gunplay and murder. This is pretty good stuff, violent and fast-moving, with Hemingway writing in the style of W.R. Burnett, with maybe a touch of James Hadley Chase.
Then we make a jump and it’s some time later, months or a year maybe, and Harry is now apparently smuggling full time and trying to make it home with a shot-up arm and a dying mate. This part is tough too, but Hemingway now spends time with a wealthy, officious politician who sees a chance to get some publicity by “capturing” Harry, who couldn’t put up much fight. Thus we get the first conflict between the “haves” and “have nots” — along with an infusion of social commentary into what had been just a tough crime novel.
Which sets the scene for part three: Harry is up against it now; his boat’s been confiscated and he has to get it back to do a job for some dangerous customers — so dangerous that murder and double-cross are taken for granted, and the crooked lawyer who sets up the deal (a violent bank robbery in Key West followed by escape to Cuba) is the first to go. In a tough, suspenseful scene that anticipates Key Largo, Harry shoots it out with his passengers and then …
And then Hemingway spends the last third of the book detailing the tribulations of a bunch of rich folks, with occasional contrasting scenes for Harry’s wife Marie. No kidding. What had been a tough crime novel on the order of Red Harvest is suddenly supposed to be Meaningful Social Drama. The idea, I suppose is to ennoble Harry Morgan and his people by showing us how effete and shallow their “betters” are, but it doesn’t come off.
Maybe I like David Goodis so much because when he writes a crime novel with a low-class working stiff or drunken stumblebum as the hero, that guy, be he ne’er so vile, is simply The Hero and ipso facto a man who gets our respect; he don’t gotta be Christ on the Cross too. When Hemingway turns Harry Morgan into the martyred representative of the Working Class, he loses me.
To Have and Have Not was filmed three times, and the first version (Warners, 1944) starred Humphrey Bogart, introduced Lauren Bacall, and was punctiliously faithful — to the title. Aside from that, it’s kind of jarring to see bits and pieces of Hemingway’s novel popping up here and there in what is essentially a Howard Hawks movie that seems to have little relationship to anything Papa wrote.
The story (written by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner) is moved up to 1940 and south to Martinique, which was at that time (like Casablanca) technically French but heavily influenced by the Third Reich. Naturally then, the would-be illegal immigrants become Free French resistance fighters, the officious politician becomes nasty Vichy cops, and Harry and his wife have now just met and call each other “Steve” and “Slim.”
In this version of the story, Mr. Johnson doesn’t get away with stiffing Harry (this is Bogart, after all) but gets inconveniently killed in a shoot-out (one of those scenes from the book that somehow make their way into the film). Eddie, the drunk in the opening of the story is here played by Walter Brennan, and he sticks around for the whole movie. He’s rather good, too. So is Hoagy Carmichael as a friendly pianist and Marcel Dalio (also from Casablanca) as a protective hotel owner — a character who would later reappear in another Hawks film, Rio Bravo.
In fact, this film is much more Hawks than Hemingway, but it’s Howard Hawks at his best, which is saying quite a lot. Not much action, but what there is comes across nicely. The characters (including Lauren Bacall in her film debut) are skillfully developed, and the whole thing has that easy, improvised look that only comes from hard work and genius — and produces a classic.
But I guess someone at Warners noticed that they’d bought this whole book and never filmed it, so in 1950 Director Michael Curtiz and writer Ranald McDougal came up with The Breaking Point, a noirish exercise with John Garfield as Harry Morgan, Phyllis Thaxter as his wife (now named Lucy!) and Patricia Neal as a gold-digger/femme fatale apparently added to throw a little glamour into the mix. Eddie is gone, replaced by Juano Hernandez as a dependable wing man, and the porcine Mr. Johnson is now Mr. Hannagan, played by Ralph Dumke.
The action is moved to Southern California, but otherwise this stays a bit closer to Hemingway and even includes the bent lawyer from the book, incarnated here by Wallace Ford looking agreeably slimy. There’s a tense race track robbery (not in the book of course) and an even more tense shoot-out on the boat as Garfield tries to thwart his would-be killers.
Unfortunately, the story spends a bit too much time with Phyllis Thaxter worrying about looking dowdy, Patricia Neal worrying about staying glamorous, and Garfield just worrying over bills and the odds against him. To Have and Have Not was a working class story, but The Breaking Point can’t decide whether to be a working class film or a caper movie in the mold of The Killers and this ultimately does it in.
Nothing daunted, Seven Arts/United Artists picked up the story again in 1958 and produced The Gun Runners, directed by Don Siegel and starring Audie Murphy as an unlikely Harry Morgan — now named Sam Martin(!) Eddie is back, this time played for seedy pathos by Everett Sloane of all people, and Patricia Owens (who that same year was the fretful wife of The Fly) is Audie’s wife Lucy.
The action is moved back to Key West and Cuba, and Mr. Johnson is now called Mr. Peterson, played with slippery relish by an actor named John Harding, who had a long career but seldom broke out of bit parts. Too bad, because he’s an all-too-brief delight here, cheerfully ruining a man out of sheer self-indulgence.
There’s a Mr. Hanagan in this version too, and he’s Eddie Albert, surprisingly nasty as the eponymous dealer in firearms who uses Audie to double-cross some very nasty customers. Albert is everything a movie bad-guy should be: smiling, generous, easy to get along with, and never losing that look behind his eye that says you mean about as much to him as a bug on his windshield, and you should expect to live about as long.
This is a pretty good movie. Siegel handles the action with his usual aplomb, Daniel Mainwaring’s script strays pretty far from Hemingway but moves things along neatly, and the playing is mostly well above average, particularly Patricia Owens, who manages to get across a very earthy lust for her husband. It’s nothing that’ll make you forget Bacall and Bogart, but it’s there and you can feel it.
My only problem with the movie is Audie Murphy at the heart of it. Like many real-life heroes (Wayne Morris comes to mind) Murphy could never convey genuine toughness on the screen, and this is a part that calls for it.
Too bad he has such a pivotal part in a film that would have been a lot better without him.