Viewer Guide: To Have and Have Not and Redbelt with Richard Peña

September 4, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

 REEL 13 CLASSIC | TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT

This week’s classic is To Have and Have Not, the tongue-in-cheek romantic-drama from 1944 adapted from the novel by Ernest Hemingway and directed by Howard Hawks.

The movie version of To Have and Have Not originates from one of Ernest Hemingway’s fishing expeditions with Howard Hawks, during which Hawks attempted to lure Hemingway to Hollywood and try his hand at screenwriting. When Hemingway refused to take the bait, Hawks supposedly boasted he could make a great movie out of Hemingway’s “worst book,” which in Hawk’s opinion was To Have and Have Not. And with that, the wager was on. But instead of Hemingway, Hawks enlisted another literary lion—and Hemingway rival—to work on the script, William Faulkner.

Released two years after Casablanca, To Have and Have Not once again finds Humphrey Bogart as an American ex-pat far from home in World War II. This time around, Bogart plays Harry Morgan, captain of a fishing boat for hire in the French colony of Martinique, an island south of Puerto Rico now under the control of France’s Nazi-run Vichy government.

Taking tourists out on fishing trips with his longtime but increasingly alcoholic sidekick Eddie, played by Walter Brennan, Harry has resisted various appeals to help the French Resistance by smuggling passengers out of Martinique on his boat. But Harry’s determination not to get involved in wartime politics begins to change when he meets an alluring wanderer named Marie Browning, played by Lauren Bacall in what is without doubt one of the sultriest of film debuts in movie history. Nicknaming her “Slim,” Harry soon finds himself warily negotiating another cat and mouse game in the midst of the steadily increasing wartime intrigue, yet this time of the romantic variety. But despite the growing tensions, there’s still time for a song or two, with the added attraction of legendary songwriter Hoagy Carmichael in his second movie appearance.

Even though some critics noted the film’s rather obvious similarity to Casablanca, To Have and Have Not was nevertheless well received and a box office success, not least due to the crackling screen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. But director Howard Hawks and screenwriter William Faulkner were forced into making many changes from Hemingway’s original plot about corruption and rum-running in Cuba—not simply because of trying to cash in on Casablanca’s success, but due to the Roosevelt administration’s wartime “Good Neighbor” policy, which attempted to maintain positive media depictions of the nations of the Americas as a show of solidarity against Nazi Germany. Faulkner reportedly solved the problem by looking further south on the map to the French island of Martinique as a new locale that would not only be exempt from FDR’s PR requirements but also fit more easily into the general wartime boosterism that marked so much of Hollywood production.

After an early career as a model and only 19 at the start of production, Lauren Bacall had been spotted by Howard Hawks’ wife Nancy—the original “Slim”—on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Following up on his wife’s suggestion, Hawks’ cast Bacall in To Have and Have Not, and soon the inexperienced and terrified young starlet would be receiving a crash course in movie acting—not only from Hawks, but from her leading man, Humphrey Bogart. Twenty five years Bacall’s senior and in the midst of a failing marriage, Bogart’s mentoring soon evolved into an off-camera romance. Upon discovering the unexpected development, a furious Hawks demanded that the couple break it off, claiming it could end Bacall’s career before it even started. Bogart and Bacall did their best to keep a lid on things, but could not hide their romance from Hawks any further by the time the three reunited later in the year to film The Big Sleep. Hawks would never work with the pair again, but Bogart and Bacall married soon after his divorce in 1945.

And despite the popular story that a teenaged Andy Williams ghost sang Bacall’s songs as a suitable vocal match for the husky-voiced star, Hawks ultimately confirmed that while Williams did record the songs, he ultimately felt Bacall’s voice was just fine and left her singing in place.

REEL 13 INDIE | REDBELT

This week’s indie is Redbelt, a 2008 drama written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet.

Redbelt takes us into the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a mixed martial arts combat sport infused with a “power of positive thinking” psychology with sometimes mystical overtones. The film opens in the ramshackle Los Angeles studio of Jiu-Jitsu instructor Mike Terry, played Chiwetel Ejiofor, where we get a potent introduction to the sport’s adrenaline pumping intensity during Mike’s coaching session with an off duty police officer. Listening to Mike’s instructions, we quickly get a sense of the Jiu-Jitsu philosophy that with the proper training a weaker opponent can overtake a stronger one, and that there is “always an escape” if you “insist on the move.” But outside of the ring, the “escapes” available to Mike are far less clear. Struggling to make ends meet, Mike’s studio is only able to survive with financial help from his Brazilian wife Sondra, an aspiring fashion designer played by Alice Braga. While generous with his expertise as a teacher, the prodigiously talented Mike refuses to prostitute his gifts in the high stakes world of professional Jiu-Jitsu, where Sondra’s brother Ricardo is a highly paid star fighter.

But Mike’s situation takes an unexpected turn with the sudden arrival of Laura, a distraught lawyer who literally bursts into the studio on a dark and rainy night. As played by Emily Mortimer, Laura has her reasons for seeking Jiu-Jitsu training, but a freak accident sets in motion a cascading series of events that will eventually put Mike’s high-minded principles about his sport to the ultimate test, and force him to be a reluctant competitor for the “red belt,” the highest rank and greatest honor for a Jiu-Jitsu fighter. Tim Allen gives a fine turn as an aging Hollywood action star, and what kind of Mamet film would this be if it didn’t require the always welcome services of his regulars Joe Mantegna, here as a crooked movie producer and the wonderful Ricky Jay as a sleazy fight promoter.

At times Redbelt recalls the classic film noir films of the 1940s, putting a tough but morally upstanding hero in the midst of an ever widening web of corruption, creating a sort of “sunshine noir” that’s similarly laden with a claustrophobic sense of foreboding. Despite Mike’s high mindedness and true devotion to his art, we know that the eventual moment will come when he’ll be forced to make some kind of compromise—after all, this takes place in Los Angeles, doesn’t it? David Mamet reportedly chose Chiwetel Ejiofor to star after being impressed with the actor’s remarkable range as evidenced in such distinctly different works as Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots. In order to be a convincing Jiu-Jitsu instructor, Ejiofor threw himself into a crash course of training several hours a day. An enthusiastic practitioner of Jiu-Jitsu himself, Mamet tried to create an authentic atmosphere for his constructed fight world by casting Mixed Martial Arts stars Randy Couture, Enson Inoue and John Machado in small acting roles.

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