You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and..blow.
This line from the 1944 film To Have And Have Not, directed by Howard Hawks, is spoken by Marie “Slim” Browning, to Harry “Steve” Morgan. Browning was played by an unknown and Morgan by Humphrey Bogart. The unknown was 19, Bogart 44. That line changed both their lives. Last week’s post on Gene Tierney was the first of two exploring some of Hollywood’s biggest female stars. Today’s post is devoted to another, Lauren Bacall. Find the film and watch that scene. When Bacall leaves the room, watch Bogart’s face. He’s not acting, He’s utterly in love. Bacall wasn’t an unknown for long.
Her film career began in 1944 and ended in 2012. In between, she acted opposite every leading man that Hollywood had. Every a cursory glance at her career will take more than most careers last these days. When she died last month the film world lost more than an actress. It lost its soul. Bacall’s career is extraordinary, and her most famous roles are part of Hollywood legend. Her debut performance opposite Bogart launched a career that staggers in its depth, longevity and its success. It also launched a marriage that lasted until Bogart’s death in 1957.
Much has been written, and rightly so, about her since her death. The plaudits have flowed freely and if good can ever come from death, then I’d like to think that a new generation might read the plaudits and discover her work for the first time. In terms of quality she, and her work, are timeless. She is the best example of a femme fatale that I can offer. Utterly sexy and with a turn of phrase that devastates in its ability to seduce, you get the sense that there was no line she could not own, no character she couldn’t bring to life. She is the very essence of film noir and her contribution to the genre is towering. In fewer than 1000 words it is impossible to know where to begin. Of course, the best advert for her work is the work itself. It doesn’t need these pages as window dressing. What I wanted, therefore, is to use this space to outline why I think her contribution to the genre is so important.
American hardboiled detective fiction has a particular way of turning female characters into objects. Crime fiction is by its nature grotesque particularly if it relates to murder. Modern crime fiction defaults too quickly to the brutal murder of a young woman, and this tends to be against the backdrop of sexual violence. At the start of Bacall’s career Hollywood was governed by the Hays Code, and whilst I’ve devoted enough words to my views on the code, I can’t resist an opportunity to present an example of how it was completely subverted. Bacall’s line You know how to whistle, from To Have And Have Not is one, but things are taken to new levels in Howard Hawks’ 1946 film version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). Both the novel and the film divide opinion largely because neither fully explain the death of the victim. To me, this matters not. The film is iconic for several reasons. Firstly it reunited Bacall and Bogart. Second, it was Raymond Chandler’s favourite film adaptation of his own work (four of his novels were adapted during his lifetime) and Bogart was also his favourite Philip Marlowe. Finally, it contains my favourite example of how Hollywood did everything it could to ignore William Hays’ attempt to keep sex, sexual innuendo, violence and pretty much everything else off the silver screen. That example was Lauren Bacall.
Crime fiction and film noir during the 1940s are stuffed full of iconic male characters and male writers. The femme fatale character did two things. Firstly it provided balance to the genre and second, it aimed its scorn squarely at Hays. It would have been easy to present a screen siren capable of distracting Bogart, either as himself or as Philip Marlowe or Harry “Steve” Morgan. But to make him fall in love required something special. It required Lauren Bacall.
As the character Vivian Rutledge her memorable put down to Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep is So you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. If you have the film version, watch it. If you don’t, buy it, or rent it, or borrow it. Find the scene in the bar where Marlowe and Rutledge use a horse racing metaphor to describe courtship. It got past Hays and entered Hollywood legend.
Vivian Rutledge: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front-runners or come-from-behind. I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch and then come home free.”
Philip Marlowe: “You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.”
Vivian Rutledge: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
Funny, sexy, classy. Lauren Bacall. Femme fatale nonpareil.