6.24.2010

Working Through the Stack, Part One

Not long ago, I announced my intention to work my way through the forgotten and mislaid stretches of my DVD collection. Having set this goal for myself, I went ahead and started off with the Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall collection that Warner Brothers put out in 2005 as part of their Signature Collection series of releases.Bogie and Bacall  CoverWhat follows will be a series of short reviews; mostly comments and basic thoughts, with little technical bits here and there. So let’s begin:

To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not

In a collection of movies that chronicles and glorifies Bogart and Bacall’s performances together, To Have and Have Not is fairly important. Released in 1945, the Howard Hawks directed production marks not just the two performers’ first on-screen encounter, but also Bacall’s first time in front of the camera. The film is fairly straightforward: Bogart is a charter-boat captain in French Martinique, Bacall is an (obviously) attractive young woman—seemingly on the run and short on money and luck—and together they get caught up in a the smuggling of Resistance leaders out of occupied France. Upon comparison, the story has more in common with Casablanca than the Ernest Hemmingway book upon which it is based, but it ultimately holds up well enough on its own.

It’s one of Hawk’s more simple and straight-forward films (at least in the context of those that I’ve seen) but I think that in the long run it is stronger for that. The simplicity and spare cast of characters works well in the film’s favor, and mostly an Bacall’s behalf. She’s extremely green in this one and, despite her natural charms and talent, it shows through in places. She seems nervous or a bit jittery in some scenes but is fine in others, and in more still she’s laying on the smokiness and the sultriness awfully thick. It makes for a fairly inconsistent performance layered on top of a character that is pretty shallow to begin with. To their credit, Bogart and Hawks seem to have intentionally slowed things down for her. William Faulkner’s script keeps the banter to a less-than-breakneck speed so that Bacall can hold her own with more experienced costars Bogart and Walter Brennan, and the more leisurely pace of the film lets her natural chemistry with Bogart really show through.

Cleanly shot and also willing to take it’s time, the movie is ultimately a little slow for the lack of banter and never manages to not be as good as either the source material or the film to which it is inevitably compared. It has its high points and its place in history and its very own famous quotation, but it never works up the steam to really be anything special. To Have and Have Not is basically satisfying but ultimately underdeveloped.

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

One of my all time favorite films. I’m a great fan of Raymond Chandler, and his novel of the same name remains one of my favorites as well. This isn’t the straightest adaptation ever, losing some of Chandler’s original edge and altering the ending in favor of a cleaner close that fits more with the film version’s playing up of the relationship between Marlowe (Bogart), and Vivian Sternwood (Bacall). As far as these things go though, it’s a hell of a lot closer to the source material than To Have and Have Not. So it has that going for it at the very least.

For those unfamiliar, The Big Sleep is another Howard Hawks production, this one from 1946. It follows a Los Angeles private detective hired on by a wealthy invalid to put to rest the blackmailing of his youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Along the way, Marlowe encounters Bacall’s elder Sternwood daughter and the two get caught up together in an ever-expanding ring of gamblers, pornographers, thugs and gangsters. With a clean shooting style, a large and well-defined cast, and some utterly fantastic, banter-rife dialogue, the film comes together as a sharp and quick example of early film-noir.

Regrettably, the film isn’t as coherent as it could be. The source novel is quite complex, and the film sticks pretty closely to that. However, as a consequence of the script’s need to put Bogart and Bacall in a closer, more romantically driven relationship and the censoring of the time, the film does have a tendency to glaze over plot points that were more thoroughly developed in the novel.

On the subject of Bogart and Bacall’s relationship though, things flow a lot better this time around. The pair’s natural chemistry shows through a lot more this time around, and works as an exceptional counterpoint to the antagonistic nature of their relationship in the film. Bacall is much improved too, displaying a level of acting talent far beyond what she seemed capable of only a year before. She also takes a lot of the smoke and force out of her singing voice for her sole number here, blowing her super-throaty performances in To Have and Have Not completely out of my mind. The supporting cast is quite good as well, with notable standouts such as Louis Jean Heydt (as Joe Brody) and the previously mentioned Martha Vickers (playing a pitch perfect Carmen Sternwood).

So ultimately, this is a much better film than To Have and Have Not, showcasing a lot more acting talent and a more complex story on a larger budget. The plot can become overly convoluted at times, but never to the point of being incomprehensible, and it almost always moves along quickly enough to stay interesting and satisfying. Also, for a more hard edged and modern take on Chandler’s story, you might want to check out Made in England, the first (and currently only) volume of Warren Ellis and J.H. Williams’ ongoing comic series, Desolation Jones.

Dark Passage

Dark Passage

Moving along we come to the Delmer Daves directed Dark Passage, from the David Goodis novel of the same name. Released in 1947, it is a fairly early example of what many viewers would consider to be proper film noir, and when viewed in that mindset it is really remarkably good.

While I cannot speak to the source material, the film stands as a solid and very stylish work of noir. It is dark and dour in the way of that genre, moving at a pace that is at once tensely rapid yet satisfyingly leisurely. The story, that of an accused murderer (Bogart) who escapes from San Quentin Prison and into San Francisco with the aid of some unlikely helpers, is pretty conventional, as is the cinematography. Where Dark Passage really stands out, is in the way that it deal with Bogart’s character in the early parts of the film:

As an escaped convict, Vincent Parry’s worst enemy is himself and the risk that an identifiable face presents, and, given that, the he very quickly goes in for some back-alley plastic surgery. So, working on the basis that Bogart has to provide Parry’s voice but must look like himself after the alteration, the film presents nearly its entire first half from a forced first-person perspective. The technique works surprisingly well given the ungainly nature of the equipment used, and there are some really very clever tricks and transitions hidden throughout the sequence. It’s all very well executed and is extremely satisfying to watch, not just on its technical merits, but in the larger context of the film.

So how does Dark Passage hold up in relation to the previous two films? The story is much cleaner and more compact than The Big Sleep while staying well above the overly simple To Have and Have Not. The interplay between Bogart and Bacall is also much more refined here than in either of the previous films, developing much more deliberately and solidly than in the THaHN and building beyond the interesting but simply aggressive animal magnetism that we saw in The Big Sleep. The two of them feel like a real couple here, coming together over a reasonable span of time and displaying a more realistic pattern of interaction. Maybe it comes from the fact that Bogart and Bacall had been married for a couple of years by this point, but the two feel much more reasonable and mature around one another.

So, on the whole, Dark Passage is a very strong work of noir, displaying several very interesting and unusual flourishes while never becoming tired. It also heaps some love on the lavish and beautiful art-deco architecture that was prevalent in the San Francisco of that day. Look at Bacall’s apartment building in particular for this, as well as the attention paid to the city’s skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Key Largo

The last film in this collection, John Huston’s 1948 production of Key Largo, is also the final film that Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart appeared in together. This is somewhat regrettable, not just because it marks the end of a generally terrific on-screen pairing, but because the film isn’t really all that good.

This isn’t anyone’s fault in particular, the movie is just uneven; constantly trying to balance out tense, highly dramatic scenes with quiet introspection and character building. Normally I would applaud this kind of balancing act, but the setting and the limited timeframe of the plot don’t give any real room for the kind of transitions that are needed. As a result, the film feels bipolar, often jumping from quiet and sweet to loud and cruel with little warning. Bogart’s character is also one of those annoying, male leads who is just too much of a Jack-of-All-Trades. In the beginning he’s just a soldier out to call on the widow and father of a dead comrade, but by the end he’s also an accomplished boater, a skilled con, an expert on organized crime, a coward, a hero, and some kind of pioneer of psychological warfare. As a performer he’s spinning a hell of a lot of plates, and spinning them well, but as a character he’s almost like a cartoon.

I don’t want to make it seem like there’s nothing to like here. Most of the performances are really very good, and when the movie gets tense it gets really tense. Bogart and Bacall work very well together once again, but the characters are working in just too short of a time frame for things to be believable, and their emotions for one another have to flip on and off as quickly as the movie’s high-notes do. Maybe if Huston had set a more deliberate tone for the film and worked on the pacing more I would be saying otherwise, but—as a whole—Key Largo feels rushed, and is too uneven to be really enjoyable.

Key Largo

So, there we are. The first go around of this continuing series done and out of the way. As I move forward with this, any input that you may have on either the format or the reviews will be more than welcome. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the article, and if you have I hope that you’ll stick around for more in the coming weeks.

-Sean

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