With the passing of Lauren Bacall at age 89 yesterday, the “they don’t make stars like that anymore”-style tributes came flooding in. But with all due respect to those sentiments, to us it seems they didn't ever make stars like Bacall. Anomalous even in her starlet days, Bacall’s appeal was based on an allure that had as much to do with an attitude as any thespian talent. In fact, compare her early roles to later roles and it seems fair to suggest that acting technique and range were things Bacall acquired over time (and she was clearly a very quick study); what she walked onto that first set with, was unalloyed charisma.
She was beautiful, certainly, but among many pretty faces that would flit across the screen and never be seen again, Bacall’s steady gaze, her graceful but slightly self-conscious style of performance early on placed her immediately apart from the crowd. In such a revealing industry, one expecting emotional and often physical nakedness from its actresses, Bacall had an almost masculine reserve, a sense that you could never really get to the bottom of her mystery. And a sense that she was always looking back out at you from behind eyes that were animated by a private intelligence that missed absolutely nothing. Bacall was sexy in an unmistakable but utterly non-bimbo-ish way. Bacall was cool.
The story of her early career is as famous for its off-screen components as her work onscreen. You probably know that she fell in love with and married Humphrey Bogart, a process you can see beginning onscreen in her first film “To Have and Have Not.” And she famously placed a whistle engraved with the words "If you need anything, just whistle" into his coffin when he died —a callback to the charged exchange their characters share in that film. And most cineastes will recognize the husky purr of her voice and associate it with “the Look," that unblinking, sly gaze up from under her eyelashes. It's almost coy, but too insolent and unwavering for that. But "the Look" was engineered too, a conscious effort to quell the nerves that showed worst in her quivering jaw by dropping her chin and forcing herself to speak slower and lower.
In recent times, Bacall had started to crop up regularly as a fine supporting player, and though there is the frustrating sense that there might still have had one great late-period grande dame lead role in her, it never came. (She herself mentioned how much she’d have liked to to have worked with someone like Pedro Almodovar in a 2000 interview with Mark Cousins--why, ye Gods, did that not happen?) But then again, how like her, and the story of her fascinating life, career and unique persona, that despite warm interviews and chatty autobiographies, Bacall always maintained a deep-buried kernel of unknowability. She left us wanting more.
“To Have and Have Not” (1944)
Howard Hawks’ delicious wartime romantic thriller resembles another Humphrey Bogart’s films in this genre, “Casablanca,” but it doesn’t hang together quite as well as Michael Curtiz’ classic as a whole. Or maybe it’s just that the spark of individual scenes tend to obliterate memories of the overall plot —something about getting a French resistance leader to Martinique. But you’ll remember Bacall, her famous whistling speech (which is utter nonsense that somehow becomes transcendently sexy and double-entendre-ish simply because of how she delivers it); her palpable chemistry with soon-to-be-husband Bogie; her spectacular tailoring. If you look really hard, you can see the faintest traces of a gawky, non- confidant manner in Bacall’s performance, traces that would vanish in a couple of years, but that here add to the charm of this performance. But you do have to look really hard; where almost every other ingenue ever filmed had a mile-wide streak of bright eyed naivete to exploit, Bacall came to the screen fully formed as a world-weary, mistrustful wiseguy who just so happens to occupy the body of a supermodel, and whose ironic, cynical defenses are so well honed as to be unbreachable. Except perhaps by Humphrey Bogart, who can even make the girl wiggle (at 36s in the clip below).
“The Big Sleep” (1946)
Having been hailed by critics as the greatest thing since sexy, sultry, seductive sliced bread for her debut “To Have and Have Not” Bacall was promptly knocked off her pedestal by those same critics who savaged her followup “Confidential Agent.” Based on the Graham Greene novel and co-starring Charles Boyer, it’s a bit dull but hardly deserves the disapprobation heaped on it. Still, Bacall and Warner Brothers went back to the original template for her third film, reteaming her with now-husband Bogart and director Howard Hawks for this adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel. But the attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle for once actually paid off, as “The Big Sleep” is arguably the best film Bacall ever starred in —famously overplotted (Chandler himself reportedly didn’t know who killed the chauffeur, which forms a major plot point), it’s really an exercise in mood and charisma as Bogart definitively portrays Philip Marlowe, and Bacall sets the template for the ambiguous femme who may or may not be fatale. It’s gorgeously photographed, immensely melodramatic and ludicrously enjoyable, and Bacall has never been more coolly alluring than here, juggling divided loyalties, false confessions and family secrets with a hair never out of place. And how much do we love the handholding/glove rebuff that happens so casually below at 45s in? A lot.
“Key Largo” (1948)
The fourth and final Bogart/Bacall onscreen collaboration (their third, “Dark Passage” isn’t bad but is definitely the least of the quartet) “Key Largo” saw Bacall work for the first time with Bogart’s favorite director and close friend John Huston —they’d just wrapped “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” together. The film is a very enjoyable slice of late '40s noir, given an unusually wet and humid vibe for the genre by being set in the Florida Keys, shot largely during a hurricane It’s also more of an ensemble piece than Bacall had experienced at the time: The film also stars Edward G Robinson as the gangster who holes up in Bacall’s hotel to wait out the storm, and Claire Trevor as his abused, alcoholic girlfriend. It’s perhaps the least developed role for Bacall of her four with Bogie (it was Trevor who got the showy part and claimed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for it), but it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine just how much poorer the film would have been with anyone else in that role. Despite being unusually relegated to the role of the good-girl love interest as the hotel owner/widow looking after her ailing father, Bacall brings an edge of ambivalence and independence to the role that makes her character much more interesting than was written, and much more a real foil for Bogart’s disillusioned soldier. An early riff on the home-invasion thriller, the film is really a crackling study in the dynamics of cabin fever, all sidelong glances and unspoken currents of tension and desire. Oh yes! And charged incidents of hair stroking.