To Have and Have Not: Atmosphere

This is a continuation of my post about Only Angels Have Wings and the rich atmosphere set up in the first 10 minutes.

Now in To Have and Have Not, another Hawks movie, we’re in Martinique. The hotel, the bars, the streets, the casinos in Martinique … it’s the same old Warner Brother’s “tropical” set you’ve seen in a million different movies. There are a couple of shots (where the shootout happens in the bar) where you could swear you were watching Casablanca, especially because there’s Humphrey Bogart and Marcel Dalio (who played the croupier in Casablanca) – and while there is no Sydney Greenstreet, you still watch thinking: hmmm. This looks AWFULLY familiar. It even starts with the image of a map – although there are no trailing lines of refugees like in Casablanca. But still. Same opening device. Same bar with stairway up the side like at Rick’s, same upstairs hallway, same columned foyers where shootouts happen. Same bullshit ceiling fans, random “natives”, swaggering sailors, Venetian blinds … and it’s fake fake fake. It’s delightful! True make-believe. These guys, these directors, were masters. They were all directing films using the same damn sets … and you even recognize some of the extras … but it’s the atmosphere created that is distinct. They just knew how to set up scenes and moments … so that the entire place breathes to life. We KNOW we are not looking at Martinique, but who the hell cares about Martinique? It’s not a documentary. Howard Hawks always filled his screen with action … the random woman dancing by herself in the crowded bar, the drummer sitting back and then deciding he wants to join in the music, the people standing bellyup to the bar … it doesn’t matter that it was the same bar in a million other movies. Because it’s the story that is paramount. Story story story. Who cares if you have a custom-made bar, or who cares if you travel to Martinique to film on location if the movie itself is shit? I don’t mean to set this up as an either/or kind of conversation, because “either/or” usually isn’t my game. It’s just that when I look at To Have and Have Not, and I watch the same fake bunches of bananas go by that I saw in a million other movies, when I see that there is barely a pretense of making the bars look any different from the bar in Casablanca … and when I realize that it doesn’t matter … I am a happy happy viewer. Keep it simple. Keep it simple. Hawks knew how to do that like nobody’s business.


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9 Responses to To Have and Have Not: Atmosphere

  1. Stevie says:

    Yes, yes, yes! You’re so right, Sheila. I think that sense of familiarity, at an unconscious level, of seeing the same damned bunch of bananas being hefted by the same damned worker in burlap pants, plays into the giddy expectation of fun that pervades these great studio/backlot movies of the 30’s and 40’s. I mean, what’s more comforting than having Walter Brennan come hopping in? You’re revisiting a world you’ve been to before, and this time around, in an atmosphere of familiarity – BAM! – there’s this new woman/panther slinking and smoking in the corner. You’re like a tourist who loves Paris and returns again and again to discover what was missed the times before.

    xxx Stevie

  2. george says:

    Well said Stevie. Also, no studio got more bang for the buck than Warner Brothers. The people running that studio were either cold-blooded accountants or geniuses. As Sheila frowns upon “either/or” then they must have been both.

  3. Jess says:

    Haha, you’re so right — I’ve seen all these things a million times before, I know they are fake — but I just can’t be annoyed by any of that. I love it all so much.

    By the way, I finally got around to watching Only Angels Have Wings. I loved it and so did my family. Now I’m wondering why I haven’t spent my whole summer watching Cary Grant movies, ha. Thanks for the recommendation :)

  4. red says:

    George – I didn’t say I “frowned upon” such conversations … it’s that I don’t find either/or particularly interesting or relevant (to me or to conversations about art, in general). I’m not prepared to say that The French Connection, for example, is LESS of a movie because it was filmed entirely on location. I’m talking about the studio sensibility – and how much those directors were able to do (and better than anyone!) with the same sets, same cast, etc. etc. That’s what I meant.

    And it’s so true what you (and Stevie) say about Warner Brothers. Man, they churned them out. Some of my favorites are from Warner Brothers … a notoriously stingy and pared-down studio … but the focus on story and character can’t be beat.

  5. red says:

    Jess – so psyched you saw Only Angels Have Wings!! Wonderful, right?

  6. Carrie says:

    Just wondering what it would be like to be the actors…say having just finished filming Casablanca, to turn up the next day on set for their next film, and, oh, look, it’s the same bar, different banana leaves. Talk about the daily grind of work – like coming into the same office everyday but a different project on your desk. How do you make it happen, that is the key.

  7. Eric the...bald says:

    My second favorite movie ever…right behind The Big Sleep, another movie with great atmosphere.

  8. Jess says:

    Yes — it was so wonderful! The day after, my mother and I would randomly say things like, ‘Cary Grant is so gorgeous,’ ‘Cary Grant is so amazing,’ ‘Cary Grant’s voice…’ to each other throughout the day. Apparently he was the favorite movie star of my great-aunt, too.

  9. The faces of Angel Heart

    Risa Bramon was the casting director for Angel Heart. She also cast Something Wild, Jacob’s Ladder, True Romance, all of Oliver Stone’s pictures, Flirting With Disaster (if there was an Academy Award for “casting”, she should have won it…

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