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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s