#12 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
Is this a remake of Casablanca? No, but it sure does share a whole lot with Michael Curtiz’s film. Humphrey Bogart is a cynical American in Vichy occupied territory who has to eventually take a side in the fight all around him through an unassuming French underground fighter known to the local authorities with a woman prominently involved. It even has a similar end where Bogart chooses his side, though I feel this story, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway, is more obviously political in nature. This feels more like a direct call to action to fight the Nazis. Oh, it’s also the movie where Bogart met Lauren Bacall, one of the most famous love stories in Hollywood.
Bogart plays Steve Morgan, the owner of a fishing vessel based in the Florida Keys but docked in Martinique during Vichy rule. He’s at the tail end of a two-week charter from an American businessman who’s spent over $800 trying and failing to catch any fish. The last night that this client is in town, with a promise to go to the bank for the money in the morning, Steve is approached by the owner of the hotel he is staying at, a Free French sympathizer, who tells him that some Free French operatives are doing to come to see Steve about chartering his boat. Steve wants nothing to do with it, brushing them off when the arrive. He also meets the new tenant across the hall, Lauren Bacall’s Marie whom Steve gets to calling Slim. She steals Steve’s client’s wallet, which Steve catches. He’s torn about whether to give her up considering that the wallet is filled with cash and traveler’s checks as well as a plane ticket for the next morning before the bank opens. When Steve confronts his client about it, he’s about to receive the signed over checks when the Vichy police descend on the hotel and start a shootout with the Free French representatives, leading to the client’s death before he could sign over anything, and Steve is stuck in Martinique.
My one real problem with this movie is that it becomes kind of aimless for a while here. Steve can’t get out of Martinique because he not only lost the payment but his own cash reserves to the corrupt police captain Renard. He’s got Slim hanging around with no money either, and Steve has to manage his rummy copilot Eddie. It takes a surprising amount of time for Steve to decide to do what the Free French want him to do solely for the money. Most of that time is spent on the budding relationship between Steve and Slim. The chemistry between the two is undeniable, and it’s obvious that Hawks was in a certain kind of heaven as he directed two actors who could play off of each other so well. Bogart and Bacall fell in love while making this movie and married shortly afterwards, of course, and Hawks enjoyed letting them act together in roles fit for each other. I kind of feel like it goes on for a little too long, derailing the film for a bit. Also, the focus on Bacall feels like a distraction after a while, especially when she starts singing. Her character overall has an important part to play in Steve’s life, especially as a mirror to another character later, but the focus on her and her relationship with Steve ends up feeling like indulgence rather than storytelling after a certain point.
So, Steve takes the job which is to go to another small island and pick up two passengers to bring back to Martinique. He has no idea who they are, but he has a name and that’s good enough. Eddie sneaks aboard, and Steve has no choice but to allow him to help. The man they pick up, Paul de Bursac, and his wife, Helene, offer up an interesting comparison to Steven and Slim. Paul is a freedom fighter with the mission to free some prisoners from Devil’s Island, and the Resistance sent his wife along so that she couldn’t get captured by Nazi or Vichy forces in France. She’s not there to help him materially in his mission, but she is there to help him emotionally, providing a bedrock from which Paul can operate with a clear head instead of worrying about the safety of his wife way back in France. When Paul gets injured as Steve and Eddie escape a patrol boat, shot in the shoulder, he has to convalesce under the hotel for several days until he’s healthy enough to move again. In that time Steve and Helene get to know each other.
That Steve already has a romantic interest, Slim, gives the interactions with Helene a different feel. There’s no possibility of Steve looking to swoop in and get Helene should Paul die. No, instead it’s just a hard man offering help to a softer woman there to support her husband and doing a poor job of it. The moment of rest as Paul recuperates from his injury is where Helene makes it clear that there are similarities between Steve and Paul as well as between her and Slim. Paul doesn’t think he’s up for the job assigned to him, but he’s going to do it anyway. That mirrors Steve’s insistence that the fight against Vichy and Germany isn’t his. Helene desire to stay by Paul’s side no matter what mirrors Slim’s own desire towards Steve. That Steve ends up getting involved in the end (yes, much like Rick in Casablanca) is what makes this parallel to Paul and Helene interesting.
The final act is a tense series of events as the Vichy Captain Renard tries to ply Eddie with alcohol to find out what Steve was doing on his boat the night before, only to discover that Eddie is a more put together rummy than initially thought. The police are getting in closer, and Steve has to finally make a choice and become the man of action, finding a way to gain leverage over Renard that allows them opportunity to escape.
This movie is mainly remembered for the steamy romance that developed between Bogart and Bacall, becoming some kind of Hollywood legend almost, but that’s the least interesting part of the film to me. That is spends so much time dealing with their obvious chemistry, I think, ends up being a small flaw to the film. The rest of the movie around it is entertaining and a very good wartime thriller that almost feels behind the times being released in 1944, three years after America had gotten directly involved in the fight against Naziism. Steve’s eventual decision to get involved in the fight feels political in a way, but also from a more innocent time when America wasn’t willing to be part of the fight.