Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood
Who the Devil Made It
Howard Hawks American Artist
“You looked good,” Humphrey Bogart says to Lauren Bacall toward the end of Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946). “Awful good.” He’s right, of course. She looks great throughout the film, even if her clothes and manner do turn suggestiveness into a form of overstatement. But that is not what he means. In spite of his phrasing, Bogart is not at this moment talking about Bacall’s looks in the expected sense. She has just distracted a killer’s attention so that Bogart can shoot the man instead of getting shot. She was able to think fast in spite of her fear, she seemed cool although she didn’t feel it. Looking good is a way of being good; in this context the only way. You keep your wits when most people would lose them, and you are seen to keep them; presence of mind is a kind of performance. Style is not just style here, but there is no efficacy without it.
When Bogart and Bacall first meet on screen, in Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944), no one’s life is being threatened, but style already looks like a mode of action. Bogart is in his room in a Martinique hotel, talking to a friend. A woman’s voice calls from off screen: “Anybody got a match?” The voice belongs, we now see, to Bacall, slouching against the doorpost of the room. Bogart doesn’t speak, goes to his desk, rummages for a box of matches, tosses it to her across a distance of some twelve or thirteen feet. She catches it, of course, and if she didn’t the scene would be reshot until she did. It was reshot, or at least extensively rehearsed, according to Hawks’s biographer Todd McCarthy, since Bacall “was beside herself with nerves, trembling so much she couldn’t even catch the matchbox.” But that is not the way things look in the film, and the trick is in how Bacall takes the catch. She doesn’t stop leaning on the doorpost, she doesn’t get ready, or hold her arm out. She doesn’t really move, except to flick her hand like a paw, taking the matches overhand, as if she was simply picking them up out of the air. We could overread this beautifully relaxed scene; nothing easier. But it surely is astonishing how much these few seconds have told us about these people, and how much they already know about each other, how deep they already are into their relationship. The setup is then confirmed by a series of quick images: medium shot of Bogart; medium shot of Bacall; close-up of him; close-up of her; a shot of Bogart’s friend looking first at one of them, then the other. This is, among other things, how you tell stories in the movies—or rather how you allow the audience to feel that a story has already been told, that it knows the story it has …