Not simply recommended, but MANDATORY editions to any classic movie collector’s library are the quartet of terrific pics Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made for Warner Bros. between 1944-48. All are now available on extremely economical new Blu-Rays from the Warner Archive Collection.
Of course, this is an easy gig for me, as I don’t have to acquaint anybody born within the last seventy years or so with these classics. They redefine celebrity star power, movie-making expertise and genres (mostly, film noir); in short, veritable textbook patterns for Hollywood’s Golden Age at its most garl’dernest goldenest.
In case you’ve been in Captain America coma land, the four in question are TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE and KEY LARGO. Indeed, all have been readily available in decent DVD renditions for some time (even the old laserdiscs weren’t too shabby). So why offer ’em up again? Blu-Ray! Truth be told, folks, there’s no comparison. It’s as if the four have just blown in on freshly lensed celluloid. The clarity, the detail, the contrast, the multi-leveled texture…all of that and more brings out the superb artistry of those in front of and behind the cameras. These 35MM transfers accentuate the thesps’ histrionics, but also display first-rate cinematography, lighting, set and art direction, wardrobe and, natch, direction – each at the very essence of cinematic epoch. The crisp, clear audio ain’t chopped liver, either.
But the know-it-all in me is pushing to say at least something on these must-have titles, so here goes!
Howard Hawks was truly an American star-maker. Well, perhaps personality-maker is more accurate. When one thinks of Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Katharine (gag me) Hepburn, it’s generally the way they act and react in a Hawks movie. This holds true for Humphrey Bogart, or, to be specific, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They became (and remain) an iconic Hollywood couple. And it’s all due to Howard Hawks.
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT began, according to the often Commander McBragg part of Hawks’ “creative” revisionist brain, as part of a bet between the director and author Ernest Hemingway. “Give me your worst story, and I’ll spin it into movie gold,” Hawks told Hemingway. “That’s easy,” the writer replied. He tossed him TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, sprinkled with his own critical expletives. Again, according to Hawks.
The movie was changed from an American fisherman on the California coast to an American soldier of fortune fisherman in a Vichy-controlled French colony. Nineteen-year-old model-turned-actress Bacall, coached by Hawks’ then wife Slim (a nickname Bacall’s character is called in the movie), was unleashed on the Warner Bros. lot, and when her smoky eyes met Bogie’s bloodshot lids, the fireworks went off. It’s absolutely true that one can see the pair panting with genuine lust that evolves into everlasting love as the movie progresses. By wrap time, they were a not-so-secret item that the Warners publicity department thanked the Gods in heaven for. Coupled with some classic dialog (you know, that “whistle” line, etc.), courtesy of a rare script outing by William Faulkner (along with Hawks and von Sternberg favorite scribe Jules Furthman), plus a dynamite supporting cast (including Hawks favorite supporting actor Walter Brennan), and the pic had blockbuster written all over it.
Hawks, who was desperate to do a Southern gothic vampire horror movie (to be written by William Faulkner), was promised by Jack Warner to get the green light for Dreadful Hollow (the working title) if he delivered another Bogie-Bacall special. The director lassoed Faulkner, along with Leigh Brackett, to create one of the most intoxicating, confusing and brilliant noirs ever made, the ultimate adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP. With growing fascination about the star couple escalating even beyond the studio’s dreams, the final cut proved a bit disappointing. Although it had already gone out to our troops in the South Pacific, Warners suits, including the pic’s associate producer (J.L. himself) felt the movie lacked “…something.” That something was more Bogie-Bacall mojo (this didn’t stop our servicemen hooting and screaming in jubilant ecstasy whenever Bacall slinked upon the sheets stretched across jungle banyan trees). A year after the movie was completed, Warners put the title back in production, an unusual and expensive move that nevertheless reaped a goodly share of the 1946 box-office harvest. Key to the pic’s unprecedented success was the addition of the now-legendary sexual horse-race byplay between the Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) characters.
Hawks never got to make his Dreadful Hollow movie, nor any further Bogart-Bacall outings. The former was due to the fact that Jack L. Warner was a bigger liar than Hawks, the latter essentially an unpleasant incident at one of the director’s parties. In front of Bacall (born Betty Joan Perske), Hawks made a crude anti-Semitic remark. Bogie stepped forward, but Betty stopped him. “Let’s just leave.” They did, and never had any contact with the director again.
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP represent the pinnacle of 1940s popcorn art. They are quintessential titles for the stars, the director, the genres and the history of Warner Bros. To reiterate, I have NEVER seen these two movies looking as fantastic as they do in these new Warners blu-rays. D.P. Sid Hickox has been rewarded after years – decades, really – of marginally acceptable (and frequently downright awful) prints. Added to this is the cache of extras on each disc. TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT contains a documentary on the two leads, the 1946 Technicolor Bob Clampett Merrie Melodies WB cartoon Bacall to Arms, a Lux Radio broadcast of the piece (with Bogie and Betty) and the trailer. THE BIG SLEEP takes supplements to another level, including BOTH versions of the movie, plus an exhaustively researched documentary, hosted by Robert Gitt, that examines the two editions of the Hawks work that is fascinating to the nth degree.
1947’s DARK PASSAGE is the sick child of the quartet. By that I mean it was the least successful at the box office, and the movie that (at the time) bore the brunt of a critical backlash. I’ve always loved it. Today, it’s considered a noir masterpiece, and rightly so. It also proved to be the cornerstone of the Delmer Daves following, most deservedly due to the innovative, on-location visual storytelling. The plot, which writer/director Daves derived from a fantastic David Goodis novel, concerns a wrongly accused wife-murderer who escapes from San Quentin and hooks up with a variety of mysterious (and lethal) dames before hitting upon the answers that could likely solve the case and vindicate him. His coincidentally-on-purpose connecting with a sultry artist (and shacking up in her abode) blossoms into true lust/love, but not before he must make some difficult decisions – like using plastic surgery to change his appearance. Only in film noir can a guy on the run meet a cab driver who knows a defrocked doc who performs illegal operations at three in the morning. It’s moments like these that give me hope for our troubled world.
The accused, one Vincent Parry, is, of course, Bogie, and Irene Jansen, the amorous babe, be Bacall. The neat device of having the camera play POV Parry for the first half of the movie (where Bogart supposedly looks like character actor Frank Wilcox, shown in a newspaper photo from his trial) is what soured Jack Warner on DARK PASSAGE. He claimed not showing Bogart (although we hear him) for such a long duration is what killed the movie’s potential box-office take. The weird fact is that the identical procedure was done the same year at MGM and by star-director Robert Montgomery for his Phillip Marlowe noir Lady in the Lake (it wasn’t a big draw during its initial release either).
But DARK PASSAGE holds up way better than Lake, and is thoroughly thrilling from fade-in to fade-out. It also boasts a magnificent supporting cast, including Agnes Moorehead, in possibly her greatest screen role. Others of note are Bruce Bennett, Tom D’Andrea (as that cabbie), House Peters (as the unlicensed plastic surgeon) and, my favorite, comic Clifton Young as one of noir’s sleaziest and detestable individuals (think of a satanic hybrid of Richard Widmark and Troy Donahue). Young was the comedian/actor best-known for his multiple turns in the popular Warners Joe McDoakes shorts, starring George O’Hanlon. Sadly, he never really followed up his ace portrayal here, and, even more depressingly, died at age 33, rumored to a suicide.
DARK PASSAGE has it all: dames, tough guys, violence, sinister surgeons, wiseguy hacks and even a jazz-music subplot – all beautifully wrapped up in a mean-streets black-and-white celluloid package by the ubiquitous Hickox (the music by Franz Waxman is another plus). After THE BIG SLEEP, this is often the Bogart-Bacall title most requested by fans (especially those who lean toward noir). In short, time has aged this vintage flick quite well, joining the throngs of debut flop classics, Vertigo, Marnie, Sweet Smell of Success, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Ace in the Hole, The Red Badge of Courage and others. The Blu-Ray looks and sounds fantastic, and is appended by some neat extras, including the documentary Hold Your Breath and Cross Your Fingers and the sensational “all-star” 1947 Technicolor Warners Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies Bugs Bunny cartoon Slick Hare (featuring Bogie & Baby).
1948’s KEY LARGO has always been the most problematic Bogart-Bacall title for me. And that rested solely on the eons of lousy prints I suffered through during what are laughingly called my formative years. Agreed, this is firmly relegated to the murky, gray 16MM copies that were screened throughout the 1960s and early 1970s on WNEW-TV, here in New York. To put it mildly, the negligible visuals were a turnoff. Trust me, as much as a spectacular print can elevate a mediocre movie, a bad print can ruin a great one. KEY LARGO is a great one.
The screenplay, based on Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play, and updated to post-WWII America by director John Huston and Richard Brooks, is a tense, hellish swan dive into film noir. A disturbed ex-Army officer, Frank McCleod (Bogart), visits the title Key Largo locale, residence of a hotel, owned by the father and widow of his deceased friend who served under his command. It’s off-season, and the fishing resort is populated by a gaggle of big city lowlifes, who ostensibly are there to monopolize the wide open deep sea opportunities. Ain’t so.
The group of aliases comprise a ferocious mob, led by an illegally returned deportee, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson, in, possibly his most loathsome role – one that makes Little Caesar look like a Hugh Herbert gag reel).
The conflicts and body language that during my adolescence I viewed as “too talky” are, in actuality, lip-biting riveting. The interplay between the stellar cast is extraordinary; undeniably, LARGO easily contains the finest roster of board-trodders in any Bogart-Bacall outing. Aside from the three already mentioned, there’s a non-over-the-top Lionel Barrymore, Tomas Gomez, Marc Lawrence, Dan Seymour, John Rodney, Monte Blue, John Litel, Jay Silverheels, and, best of all, Claire Trevor, in her Oscar-winning performance as a one-time primo torch singer reduced to an alcoholic wretch by Robinson’s character. Indeed, we learn that Rocco is not only a vicious mob ruler, but a pathological liar, racist, sexual predator (the moment when he merrily whispers a personal request into Bacall’s ear is particularly stomach-turning), and, maybe even a traitor. The snarky possibility discussed during the proceedings (“Let him be President”) is thus contemporarily cringe worthy.
The inevitable showdown aboard a fog-bound boat headed toward Cuba is as suspenseful a vignette of revenge as ever captured on perforated film (it’s interesting to think of the two male adversaries in Bullets or Ballots, filmed twelve years earlier, where the good guy/bad guy roles were switched). I have never more enjoyed a cinematic instance of the tables being turned. Nevertheless there’s a sick moment where Bogart seems to relish the sadism he now issues as payback: one shot, one expression, Bogart and Huston at their best.
The mindset in McCleod’s head seems to muster up the courage to romantically pursue his friend’s widow and to reside in the remote rural spot he can comfortably call home, “home being Key Largo” as he earlier intones. As with all noir and most Huston pics, there are no guarantees. To find out if he makes it, you’ll have to take a chance on this exquisite Blu-Ray. The gorgeous contrast, 1080p crystal clarity and the pristine 35mm quality makes watching this platter (especially if one is lucky enough to do so on a big screen) replicate seeing this picture during the first week of its 1948 debut. The Blu-Ray does monumental justice to Karl Freund’s blistering black-and-white photography; the audio does likewise to Max Steiner’s excellent churning music. Ditto, the superb special effects by Robert Burks and William McGann and the haunting, eerily beautiful Florida location work. It’s a perfect finale to the Bogart-Bacall quadrumvirate.
For Warner Bros., the ocean-engulfed KEY LARGO represented a literal high-water mark for the studio. Bogart and Huston became Jack Warner’s heroes. Aside from LARGO, 1948 also produced Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It was the best year Warners had in a long time. The usually stingy with praise J.L. admittedly doled out kudos to the actor and director for just short of saving the company.
All movies are black-and-white, full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definiton] with 2.0 DTS-HD MA. SRP: @$21.99.
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT [CAT # 1000600530]
THE BIG SLEEP [CAT# 1000595077]
DARK PASSAGE [CAT# 1000574975]
KEY LARGO [CAT# 1000595079]
Available from the Warner Archive Collection: http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.