I seem to remember this idea of the perfect woman being attributed to Bogart himself, or maybe Bacall in her memoirs just mentions how much his conceptions jived with those expressed in this movie, in any case I didn’t realise the story originates in this excerpt from John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning. One can imagine this being a widely shared ideal whilst still thinking, ‘yikes!’
I found it interesting that Dead Reckoning affords Lizabeth Scott a magnificent star entrance that begins with her voice. That gravelly huskyness is what rendered her unique amongst forties femme fatales. Here we hear her before we see her, and before we hear her, she’s already framed for us by Bogart’s troubled thoughts, by his dislike of the big lug calling him a friend. Then we hear her referred to as Mrs. Chandler by the barman, implicitly casting questions about why a married woman is a regular at the bar. We then see her through Bogart’s point-of-view: first the shapely gams, then a close-up on the cigarette, the jewelled evening gown, the neckline plunging into the dark fabric of the dress, then that beautiful face in profile, with cigarette as Bogart lights her up and she gives him that looks that seems a challenge born of a hurt. ‘Cinderella with a husky voice’ is how Bogart describes her to us. ‘Where have we met?’ ‘In another guy’s dreams’. A great star entrance, a great mise-en-scene of noir: darkness, desire and the unconscious beautifully twisted together to set the scene for the drama that will come.
My kingdom for a smoke.
Pauline Kael called Dark Victory a ‘kitsch classic’. It was certainly one of her most popular films and continues to be one of her most enduring. If it weren’t for her, I’d find most of it hard to bear. The script is one cliché after another. Edmund Goulding directs skillfully, but cynically — one can’t imagine him believing what he’s trying to get us to swallow. It’s got George Brent, arguably the dullest leading man in film history (though it’s a category not short of contenders), Ronald Reagan (another contender for the title: leaden, amateurish and completely unconvincing as a drunken playboy), and Humphrey Bogart as an Irish ‘stable boy’ (you’ll find it hard not to giggle at his accent).
Davis plays Judith Traherne, a rich Long Island heiress who lives for parties and horse races (‘I won’t be tamed!’). She gets headaches; she begins to see double. She doesn’t mind putting herself in danger, but when she almost kills a horse she allows her best friend Anne (Geraldine Fitzgerald) to get her to her family doctor. A younger, smarter, doctor, Dr. Steele (George Brent), finally diagnoses a fatal disease.
An operation is called for. It’s only a partial success: she’ll live normally for a few months but then one day her vision will begin to cloud and that will be a sign that she’s only got a few hours to live. Anne and Dr. Steele decide to keep the verdict from Judith, who falls in love with the doctor, finds out they’ve been hiding information from her, suspects the Doctor’s only agreed to marry her out of pity and decides to live life to the full while she can; a situation Irish Bogart threatens to take advantage of. Eventually she ‘sees sense’, marries the Doctor, and a has a few happy months until one day she imagines the sky clouding over whilst the sun is still hot on her hands, and then she and Ann, in a neat reversal, keep the good doctor from knowing she’s just about to die in order to minimise his hurt.
The only reason to see the film today is for Davis and for the celebrated final scene. In the trailer for the film, Warner Brothers promises: ‘In the career of every great actress one role lives forever as her finest creation….The most exciting star on the screen in a story that light the full fire of her genius’. Whilst Judith Traherne is far from Davis finest creation — she’s better in Jezebel and The Letter, amongst many others — she is definitely a star of fire and genius in Dark Victory. Most of the fire is misguided, the first scenes are all snap and verve, and such are the mannerisms that would be accentuated in later years by female impersonators defining her by what are essentially her worst characteristics: the bulgy eyes, the nervy arm movements, the speedy clip of a walk, the turn of the head.
She’s got some beautiful moments, the famous ending of course, but also a drunk scene with a wooden Ronald Reagan (see clip above) where she gets the band to stay after hours and play ‘Oh Give Me Time’ for her. It’s very restrained: she doesn’t overdo the drunkenness. It’s also poignant of course, because Judith has little time. It’s very-well directed (as opposed to merely ‘professional’, like the rest of the film). She’s very glamorously made up. Orry-Kelly has her in a black dress, with a fur bolero and matching hat, the hairs of which match and rhyme with the shadows cast by her eyelashes, her face framed by the fur, and a glistening diamond brooch on the black dress. It looks exquisite. She’s clearly at her peak yet soon to die. It’s beautifully done. But Davis is even better, and her acting is part of the mise-en-scène. Just look at the very last shot, where she sighs, her shoulders droop and she seems to expire before us as the scene fades to black (see image below): At her most beautiful yet soon to die. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But Davis elevates it, makes it beautiful and true. With her, it’s melodrama at its best.
Aside from Davis, I’m interested in how the story lends itself to a gay reading, not in all its aspects, more like a kaleidoscope in which only some parts glisten towards that particular audience. It’s a place I suppose where the female audience the trailer addressed might have intersected with a gay male audience (of yesterday and today). The trailer (see below) tells us Dark Victory is, ‘The story of a free soul: ‘I’ve never taken orders from anyone, as long as I live I’ll never take orders from anyone. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me’; dialogue extracts include: ‘‘What a relief to know you’re no better than I am’; ‘Are you afraid to burn Michael’? We’re told that she’s:
Dangerous (the title of the film she won her first Academy Award for; Reckless is the title of a Jean Harlow vehicle)
I’m sure many gay men felt the same way. The line, ‘She tried to give her heart honestly and completely, fighting the terrible shadow that stood between her and the man she loved’ might still have particular resonance with men with HIV.
I suppose it’s kitsch because its full of clichés we know are false, yet their particular rendering here is entertaining. We recognise them, laugh at them, enjoy them. Yet, one can’t deny there are moments when one becomes genuinely moved in spite of the kitsch. These are the moments we owe to Davis. It’s why we still continue to see these films; why these films are still worth watching.
A Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942) knock-off, with a poor imitation of an Ilsa and Victor Lazlo sub-plot that threatens to drag the film down in the last half, and still one of the most entertaining films of all time. Once, To Have and Have Not being very loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway novel with a script worked on by William Faulkner brought it a certain cachet: two Nobel-prize winners for literature on the credits of one film. It also created a certain notoriety; that Hollywood could treat such literary giants so cavalierly was proof of its philistinism. But for cinephiles, it’s Jules Furthman’s name on the screenplay that generates excitement. He wrote Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1932), Bombshell (Victor Fleming, 1933), China Seas (Tay Garnett, USA, 1935), and for Hawks alone, The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959); which is to say, he wrote some of the most memorable female characters in the history of cinema and dialogue that is still indelible today.
In To Have and Have Not we get to hear Bacall say, ‘It’s better when you help’, ‘You know how to whisle don’t you Steve: just put your lips together… and blow’, ‘this money is mine and so are my lips. What’s the difference?’, and so many other great lines. Of course, the way Bogart and Bacall says them helps. To Have and Have Not is Bacall’s first film (she was 19) and it made her one of the greatest stars of the post-war period and a cinematic immortal. In her autobiography, By Myself, she recounts how the famous ‘look,’ which she created and was to be publicised as, was simply due to nerves: She was shaking so much that she tried to hold her chin in to prevent it from showing. You can see the stiffness in the performance. But one can’t deny the power of her presence. She’s beautiful, insolent, free: like Dietrich in Shanghai Express but slangier, rangier, home-grown American. With the possible exception of The Big Sleep, also for Hawks, Bacall was never to be better on-screen.
To Have Have Not offer many pleasures. Bogart and Bacall of course; action in exotic locations; the witty way it’s imagined and executed. Some think Walter Brennan’s performance as Eddie, Harry Morgan’s (Humphrey Bogart) alcoholic sidekick, cutesy and overblown. I love it. His double-takes are still a source of wonder and enjoyment to me. I also admire how the depiction of the relationship between Eddie and Harry, which could just have remained at the level of cartoon, is lovingly built up as a loving relationship between men. The legendary Marcel Dalio also sparks up every scene he’s in as Frenchy, the nightclub owner. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s Hoagy Carmichael, one of the greatest American songwriters, playing piano for Bacall (ostensibly voiced voiced by Andy Williams though there’s some controversy about this) on some classic songs: his own (‘How Little We Know’) and those of others (‘Am I Blue?’ Music by Harry Akst and lyrics by Greg Clarke). I have a particular love for this one, which it seems to me would be better known but for its choice of language: ‘this is a story about a very unfortunate coloured man…’