Blessay 33: Breaking Points

Most readers and critics are in agreement that To Have and Have Not is not one of Ernest Hemingway’s best novels. Some have even called it his worst. The problem is its structure (originally two short stories failing to merge with novella material as a compact whole). The story’s told in a rather awkward first and third person narration. And Hemingway’s heavy employment of very incidental characters (a writer and a politician) as ‘socialist’ mouthpieces for power, greed and injustice are clumsy. Stylistically they badly clash with the taut and often brilliant dialogue of its protagonist Harry Morgan, the captain of a fishing boat to hire, desperately trying to make a decent living. Unusually for Hemingway (an assured master of the economical) that To Have and Have Not cries out for changes and deep editing (though I’m not convinced that cutting the social commentary stuff would save a flawed but intermittently powerful novel).

If To Have and Have Not isn’t great, Harry Morgan does stand out as one of Hemingway’s greatest creations. Worldly wise, tough, cynical, bitter, yet resilient and compassionate. He’s doing too much on his own (through distrust and stubborn pride) that’s very physically dangerous. His individualism has a believable integrity even when a fatalism in his character and circumstances conspires to destroy him.

“Don’t be so tough so early in the morning. I’m sure
you’ve cut plenty of people’s throats. I haven’t even
had my coffee yet.”

That’s just one of the many gloriously punchy retorts in the book’s opening pages.Harry’s approached by three ‘bums’ at the dock in Havana. They want him to do some people smuggling over to the States. Though they offer him three thousand dollars, Harry refuses and walks away. A car, with a gunman, appears and murders the ‘bums’. “The whole thing made me feel pretty bad” declares Harry. Then minutes later he’s stoically talking to Johnson, the guy who’s chartered his boat for a fishing trip. Eddy his mate, and a chronic drunk, who witnessed the shooting, joins them. It’s worth quoting some more dialogue.

“Where were you?” I asked
“On the floor.”
“Did you see it” Johnson asked him.
“Don’t talk about it, Mr. Johnson,” Eddy said to him.” It makes me sick to
even think about it.”
“You better have a drink.” Johnson told him. Then he said to me, “Well, are
going out?”
“That’s up to you.”
“What sort of day will it be?
“Just about like yesterday. Maybe better.”
“Let’s get out, then.”
“All right, as soon as the bait comes.”

Hemingway packs so much information into his dialogue. Winners, losers, realists’ manipulators, romantics and adventurers. All are on show and will be later paraded throughout the story. Today will probably been the same as yesterday. But there’s a chance of good fortune. As long as the bait (your preparedness) enables you to seize the opportunity. Fishing operates in Hemingway’s work as a real physically manly pursuit, along with big game hunting and bullfighting. Yet it’s also a metaphorical test of strength and weaknesses; the limits of the self in the face of danger: the questioning of value and purpose, all life and death issues.

There have been four film adaptations of To Have and Have Not. Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1945), Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950) Don Siegel’s The Gun Runners (1954) and Hank McCune’s Wetbacks (1956).

Hawks’s To Have and Have Not is regarded as the best of the bunch. As a Hawks film, with all of that great director’s themes, it remains central to an understanding of his oeuvre and is hugely entertaining. But as a version of Hemingway it’s very loose and carefree. The script jettisons much of the ethics, characters and the plot of the book.

In the novel Harry Morgan operates between Key West Florida and Cuba during America’s Great Depression. In the film the location is French Martinique during the early days World War 2. Hawks and his scriptwriters play down the adventure story. What they stress is comedy and romance. The “rhummy” Eddie (Walter Brennan) frequently interrupts proceedings to the point of irritation. I love Walter Brennan, as a character actor, but his performance becomes a comic turn, making Eddie one-dimensional. Whereas in the novel he’s not just a drunk, but owns his own boat and is married. Here his loss of responsibility, because of alcoholism, matters so much more.

Hawks also turns To Have and Have Not into a flirtatious romantic encounter. Yet at this point I am willing to be disarmed and forget all about any fidelity to Hemingway. For the screen chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is electrifying. They have some of the best non Hemingway, dialogue in the whole film.

(Why don’t you take this bottle and go to bed? / Here. Can you use this? / I thought you said you were broke. / You’re good. You’re awful good. / I’d walk home if it wasn’t for all that water./ Who was the girl, Steve? / The one who left you with such a high opinion of women. / She must have been quite a girl.)

Their performances sizzle so much that when they’re not on-screen together the intensity drops and the slight plot chugs functionally on. But I love it.

You could say that the author did ask for it. There’s the famous story of Hawks saying to his friend Hemingway that he would take “That god damned bunch of junk called To Have and Have Not and turn it into a picture. Yet even this Hawksian ‘transformation’ of ‘junk’ displeased Hemingway, who whilst never holding his own book in high regard, agreed to Hawks’s bet that he could pull it off.

The only virtues of Don Siegel’s The Gun Runners are the casting of Eddie Albert as the villain, its photography and some occasional fabulous editing that approximates to the terseness of Hemingway’s prose. The vices are a lightweight and miscast Audie Murphy as Harry Morgan, an awkward Everett Sloane as Eddie and a now forgotten and bland performance by Pat Owens (no substitute for Lauren Bacall). It’s neither a downright bad movie, nor a good one. No one’s heart was really in the making of it. Siegel felt it was pointless to do a remake of a remake and the film flopped.

I’ll pass over on the awful Wetbacks. It’s just a very bad rip off of the previous films,

Hemingway (who financially did very well by Hollywood) hated their adaptations of his work, with the exception of Curtiz’s The Breaking Point. He told Patricia Neal (who was in the film) that this was the best. There are changes but they do work for the better.

Curtiz’s slant on the story generally succeeds. He may have dropped Eddie the drunk but the substitute partner Wesley Park (excellently played by the black actor Juano Hernandez) brings a warmth and dignity to the role. Hemingway’s politician and writer characters are thankfully dropped. Out goes self-conscious ‘propaganda’ and in comes sharp social conscience of a different kind.

The killing of Wesley is the crucial breaking point moment for Curtiz’s film (this is a real interpretation of Hemingway and not a re-make of the Hawks). And Curtiz daringly makes racism / or race neglect a sub-plot of the film. Watch how beautifully he directs the films last ten minutes where the violence suffered by the Morgan and Park family is depicted. Harry Morgan (a brilliant performance by John Garfield) has been shot up and will die if his arm isn’t amputated. Morgan’s wife Lucy (a deeply felt performance Phyllis Thaxter) and his children are present to support him. However the wife of Wesley is only briefly glimpsed hearing the news of her husband’s death. Whilst Wesley’s puzzled young son is left isolated and alone on the deck looking round for his father. The death of a black man is uncomfortably marginalised. And Harry’s fate is left in the balance.

Flirtation is introduced in the form of Leona (Patricia Neal). Whilst a middle-man, for Harry’s running of illegal immigrants into California, is provided by the lawyer Duncan (Wallace Ford). Both actors give very good support. The pace of the film is more like a thriller combined with an acutely observed family drama. For action film-making Curtiz was a crack hand. He not only handled romance (Casablanca) but swashbucklers (The Adventures of Robin Hood) and melodrama (Mildred Pierce). And in 1950 the staging of violence, in the invented, and finely shot, race track robbery scene of The Breaking Point seems  prescient of Kubrick’s The Killing and the directorial style of the emerging Don (The Gun Runners) Siegel.

It’s the directorial authority of The Breaking Point that realises so well the spirit of Hemingway. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the voices of To Have and Have Not keep you reading on. It’s “bedroom dialogue” moments caused some countries to ban the book. Michael Curtiz’s response was to draw out moving scenes of marital tension between Harry and Lucy. The caring nature of their love for one another is shown with tenderness and lack of sentimentality. These scenes are comparable to Hemingway’s compassion. Here’s a long extract from Morgan’s wife’s’ dialogue, from the last third of the book, as she tries to come to terms with Harry’s death.

“With Harry at the end there he was just tired, the doctor said. He never woke up even. I was glad he died easy because Jesus Christ he must have suffered in that boat. I wonder if he thought about me or what he thought about. I guess like that you don’t think about anybody. I guess it must have hurt too bad. But finally he was just too tired. I wish to Christ it was me was dead. But that ain’t any good to wish. Nothing is any good to wish. I couldn’t go to the funeral. But people don’t understand that. They don’t know how you feel. Because good men are scarce. They just don’t have them. Nobody knows the way you feel, because they don’t know what it’s all about that way. I know. I know too well. And if I live now twenty years what am I going to do? Nobody’s going to tell me that and there ain’t nothing now but take it every day the way it comes and just get started doing something right away. That’s what I got to do. But Jesus Christ, what do you do How do you get through nights if you can’t sleep? I guess you find out like you find out how it feels to lose your husband. I guess you find out all right. I guess you find out everything in this goddamned life. I guess you do all right. I guess I’m probably finding out right now. You just go dead inside and everything is easy.You just get dead like most people are most of the time. I guess that’s how it is all right. I guess that’s just about what happens to you. Well, I’ve got a good start. I’ve got a good start if that’s what you have to do. I guess that’s what you have to do all right. I guess that’s it. I guess that’s what it comes to. All right. I got a good start then. I’m way ahead of everybody now.”

The novel kills off Harry Morgan. Now the Harry Morgan of The Breaking Point may or may not live – the film ends on an uncertain note. But the deep love expressed through Phyllis Thaxter’s acting of Lucy is comparable to the heart-rending poignancy of Hemingway’s monologue. If you were to imagine your own screen coda to The Breaking Point where Harry didn’t agree to the amputation of his arm and died, then Lucy might have had a scene written in where she expressed her love for Harry in a similar way and spirit. And Curtiz would have probably supplied expressive close-ups of Phyllis Thaxter.

There’s certainly a wonderful looming close-up of John Garfield’s face that conveys so much pain, conflict and uncertainly. It’s during a bedroom scene just before Harry takes a gun with him on what proves to be his worst job on the boat. We have no detailed description of what Hemingway admired so much about The Breaking Point. But I’m sure he must have appreciated this moment. For me it’s the equivalent of admitting Harry’s existential loneliness in the world. It visualizes well this sentiment.

“A man,” Harry Morgan said, looking at them both. ”No man alone now.” He stopped. “No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody fucking chance.”

All four versions of To Have and Have Not have their breaking points. For Hawks (when he’s concentrating on Hemingway) it’s the anti-fascist feeling and his own cavalier and part comic ending (when he’s once more lost his attention to Ernest). The Gun Runners breaking is the effectively filmed shoot out on the boat. Wetbacks is its very collapse once the film starts. Whilst the key breaking point is in The Breaking Point with its pointless and tragic death of Wesley. Plus all that Curtiz put into the scene’s planning, and everything before and after, in this superb, engrossing and emotionally mature film. I’m sure Hemingway understood that. He definitely got the point.

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Blessay 32: An English Dreamer 3

You cannot psych yourself up to have an ecstatic trip. Whilst no one plans to have a bad trip. Psychedelic energy is very powerful and very unpredictable. What happened to me, third and final time round, was dark and scary without ever pushing me into depression or psychosis. (My theory is that people who suffer long-term traumas from LSD already have the seeds for trauma inside them). I wasn’t unhappy, nervous, some hopeless addict wanting relief or seeking answers for my troubled state. I’d always dealt with my sense of inner darkness by writing. Yet sometimes that therapeutic discharge isn’t enough. The darkness you explore has to remind you who’s really in charge.

(It’s important to preface this account by stating that in 1980 I was an active member of CND. With many other people I went on marches to protest about the placing of American Cruise missiles on English soil. I was also a volunteer at my local anti-nuclear power group for Kilburn and West Hampstead. Those activities partly account for the dark imagery that this trip revealed).

An English Dreamer 3 (Good Friday, 1980)

Two photographs lay on the coffee table. One was The Mountains (1921) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Volcanic fiery forces. Lots of lava reds and sky blues. The other was a black & white photograph of a bombed church in Hiroshima. I’d been looking at them, for about fifteen minutes, and my eyes were hurting. I closed them and knelt on the carpet. Inwardly I started to feel enormous vibrations, comparable to an earthquake, making me breathe more rapidly and my heart beat faster.

I half-opened my eyes and brought the Hiroshima image closer to my face. My mouth opened and the most disconsolate wailing came out. John told me that my distress lasted ten minutes. Yet this deep mourning seemed like a year’s worth. I sat back on the sofa to recover. My throat was horribly sore. John brought me a glass of water. I almost spilt it from the fright of seeing a horrible face in the carpet. ‘You’re the devil, but I’m not scared.’ I said. John looked perturbed, yet I told him I could handle things. The house keys, in my jacket pocket, began to rattle. I took them out and placed them in between the two images. Some notepaper and a pen also lay on the table. I’d been working on a poem that afternoon. This was a long poem about the nuclear age called Pikadon. I began to write more lines. “I want to enter my own fire/Into what hospital have I wondered? / Who is lying on this bed? / It’s me in another. / I refuse to imagine this thing.”

John’s bed could be seen through the open door to his bedroom. From his sofa I could make out a white pillow standing against the bed’s headboard. It lay on a red blanket. and was bent like a small figure bowing. Distracted from my writing I went into John’s room. Close up to the pillow I saw that its creases had given it a Japanese face. When I glanced back at my poetry notes they’d disappeared. Instead I held, in my hand, the medical report on a survivor of a nuclear attack. I put it down and sat on the bed. John entered with a can of Coca Cola. I asked him not to sit on the bed. He sat on a chair and slurped his drink. To my left was a reproduction of Turner’s Sun setting over a Lake. I went over and kissed the Turner. “I’ve kissed the sun and it didn’t burn.”

John spoke of the sun outside the house. I ignored him and continued to praise Turner’s sun. “Here is the centre of the fire.” I took up my notepaper. The report was gone. The poetry was back. I wrote more lines “Into night and fire/a dreaming wolf will lead you/ guard against its lair/ here are weapons/lying in distrustful silence.” I asked John for more water as my throat kept drying up again. The water only partly extinguished a fire in my throat. I then told him that I’d been reading the Brothers Grimm and the story that I couldn’t get out of my head was The Story of the Youth who went forth to learn what fear was. “I should really like to know how to shudder.” I said.

Needed to get to the bathroom. Had a pee, turned to look in the mirror and saw myself wearing a wolf’s head. It snarled at me and bared its teeth. I touched the glass. The mirror bit me. Then it had all my hand in its jaws. At first I couldn’t yank it out. The wolf was hungry. The wolf wanted its food. Its food was me and I was the wolf attempting to eat my own fingers. It took a huge effort with the other hand to pull of the devourer. When I did I rushed out of the bathroom. John sat me down and examined my hand. No blood, just teeth marks. “Alan, that’s Celtic for wolf hound.” I felt pleased to acknowledge this identity. Now I was beginning to understand how to shudder.

I took down the Turner and brought it into the living room. It shot out its rays causing the white lamp shade, and its bulb, to turn red. I thought it was going to burst into flame but instead a devilish face reappeared taunting me to write, declaring its power was greater than my words could ever be. I sat near the light, now casting an eerie red glow in the living room. Picked up my pen and notepaper. ‘Not like that” said the devil. “Other tools are needed” I knew it meant a living flame. I asked John for a box of matches. He was apprehensive. I reassured him I could handle things, that I wouldn’t set the house on fire. John handed them over. I struck match after match and lay them down dead in the ashtray. In the flame of the match I saw and heard people on fire from a nuclear attack. Men, women and children flared up then turned into blackened wood stumps. As I placed them down on the ashtray they twitched and turned as if suffering from radiation exposure. And in between the striking of the matches I tried to write. “To keep the wolf from the door / I strike a match / It smells of mournful flesh / Someone’s entered the box. / Reality’s the fire you keep stepping through.” I took three of the dead matches and tried to burn them again with a fresh match. They tried to heroically ignite but couldn’t. I grew impatient and stopped.

My body and the room were so hot. I had to cool down. Needed some air. I went to the back door and opened it. It was a full moon. A nursery rhyme started to re-write on my lips. “Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle / had an empty plate and empty spoon / As the cow failed to jump over the moon.” I mimed having a spoon and taking a large delicious mouthful of nothing. Next door’s cat suddenly ran across the garden wall. On reaching the end it grew larger and darker. Turned into a wolf and jumped back next door. I’d cooled down a little. I stepped out into the garden to get a fuller view of the stars. They looked so clear against the night sky. Recalled a bit of Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy, “Those deeply untellable stars” Kept repeating the words, fully understanding (not simply feeling) what they meant.

John told me the time was ten. Time seemed so immaterial. The clocks with their minute, seconds and hours were superfluous. And as for the moment of my death, the inexorable counting had begun since birth. I went to the garden gate and looked down at the countryside just outside of Cambridge. The lights of the city turned red, going out of focus almost melting. Cambridge appeared as if it was on fire, no more like burning remains after a conflagration. Fires on the plain. I felt such indignation that we had destroyed so much. I walked into the kitchen and switched on the light. I started to accuse the house, or the social forces that had made such a house possible. I knelt down and clasped my hands in prayer. “Nuclear family. Unclear family. Just go away and blow up. We don’t need you anymore.” I prayed very hard for the house to blow up. The kitchen started to glow, red then orangery brown accompanied by a great heat, almost reaching the point of ignition like newspaper beginning to brown from the flame. “Burn or explode” I kept crying. But it did neither. Got very close but pulled back. I stopped praying. “Later…later” I whispered. I turned to go back to the garden when I saw a potted plant on the step. I picked it up and smashed it against the garden wall. “I spit on your grave.” Only in my head, was the house was blown up in the manner of the explosions at the end of Antonioni’s film Zabrieske Point, where modern architecture was destroyed and the contents of fridges, smashed TVs and furniture moved in slow-motion throughout the sky.

In the kitchen John was making a meal. Preparing fish and washing potatoes. I asked him for a potato. It was green mutant with an eye with puss. Realised that there will be no edible potatoes in fields that have been radiated. The meal took forever. Hours and hours must have elapsed since John took the pan down from the shelf. He was steaming the vegetables, at last! The steam was intense like some hot fog. I kept glancing nervously at my watch. “We must eat! We must eat! Give me mother’s broccoli!” Still constantly talking. Mainly gibberish. I never appeared to finish eating all the food. After a few mouthfuls more food kept magically appearing on my plate. I told John that this is the funniest (hah hah & peculiar) meal I’ve ever eaten in my life. I laughed out loud at my culinary comedy. On eating a boiled onion I considered all its layers. Peeling away the identities that you present to the world to leave a void at the centre. Frightened I spat my onion out onto the book on the table. It was Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Convinced that there was a reference to onions on page 237, paragraph 2. There wasn’t but discovered a haunting poem by Wordsworth called White Doe. Coleridge saw an analogy between the poem and a chapter in Bartram’s Travels in Carolina, “The soil is a deep rich dark mould, on a deep stratum of tenacious clay, and that on a foundation of rocks which often breakthrough both strata, lifting their backs above the surface…. I read page after page. John left me to it.

I returned to John’s bedroom and the bent pillow on the bed. Its ‘head’ looked more bowed in submission than I’d remembered. I pleaded with it to not keep bowing. That the Japanese have been conquered. And we had forgiven them. The photograph of the bombed Hiroshima church was by its side. I brought it up to my face to feel the full horror of the event. Almost screaming I pulled it back. Gradually my fear turned into hatred. I wanted to drop the bomb again…and again…everywhere. The wish consumed me. I threw myself to the ground. Gripping the carpet I cried out, “No! No!”

I passed out for…how long? John stood over me, asking me if I was alright. I was very thirsty again. He went to get me a drink. I sat on the bed and slowly coming round. John handed me a glass of water. After quenching my thirst what I most needed was music. John helped me up, but I was already much steadier on my feet. I made it on my own back to the living room. There I switched on the hi-fi and slotted in a cassette of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusick A moth wanted to join in with the charm of the piece. It kept hitting the window pane. I opened the window and let it in. Mozart was followed by more night music, Bartok’s Music for Stings, Percussion and Celeste. The red flickering light of the amplifier joined in the with the musical darkness. Whilst the finger, on the cassette player’s recording level, rose and fell as if registering the impact of a bomb blast. I was worn out and craved sleep. Wearily went to the bathroom. Inside the bath was a wolf. It was biting into raw onions. I brushed my teeth and had a pee. Only when I flushed the toilet did it stop eating and stare at me with a puzzled expression. I told the wolf I was going to bed, that I knew it was still inside me plotting but I’d had enough of it hanging round. Just before shutting the door it howled at me. I howled back.

John said goodnight and went to bed. I cuddled up alone in my sleeping bag that was as comforting as a protective womb.  I imagined making love to a silver-haired moon woman. Male and female forces conjoined in my body and my head. Unity and balance. I dreamt of university. That I had to sit my finals all over again. Ascending the steps of an education office to request a further grant. My parents were standing outside the entrance, passionately embracing. I heard a pack of wolves barking. I woke up. Yet soon the darkness of sleep overcame me and morning arrived.