There's a world war going on, but to boat captain Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) that is just an inconvenience he does not wish to get more involved in than he really has to. He lives on the French Caribbean island of Martinique where he makes his money taking American tourists who also have no interest in the conflict on fishing trips, and his sidekick Eddie (Walter Brennan) may have been left rather simple thanks to his alcoholism, but Morgan could not wish for a more loyal friend. When they are out on the ocean with one Mr Johnson (Walter Sande), Morgan is irritated by the man's inability to land one of the marlins which leap from the waves, and even more so when he manages to lose his rod in the process. Little does he know this is the start of something...
It's safe to say there would be no To Have and Have Not if there had been no Casablanca: one look at the basic outline of the story and the similarities were too blatant to dismiss, whether you accounted for Bogart's presence or not. Almost every character had their equivalent in the earlier classic which had been such a success that imitations were inevitable, though there was one role which was unique to this, and that was Slim, named after the director Howard Hawks' nickname for his wife. She was played by an actress making her debut after being literally picked out of a catalogue where she had appeared as a model, and she was Lauren Bacall. There are few more electrifying debuts.
If she had simply appeared in this film alone and never made any others she would still have achieved a legendary status, not least because she and Bogart embarked on an affair which eventually saw them married; they were the love of each other's lives, and their relationship lasted until his death in 1957, though you could argue it never really waned since part of that Bacall legend was inextricably linked to her first husband. Although coached by Hawks and his wife to be as sultry and self-aware as possible on the screen, she was often heard to explain it was really her nerves on the set which fed into her persona, in her first few films at any rate, so you could thank the director for creating a new star who endured longer than anyone expected, with a career prospering well into the twenty-first century.
Bacall's character here appeared to have essentially been told her dialogue was all verbal foreplay, and Bogart was the target, with famous lines such as the whistle one, or the "hard to get" observation making the movie memorable as one of the most suggestive of all Golden Age efforts: no matter how mundane the dialogue, Bacall loaded it with sexual innuendo. It was no coincidence that her next Hawks and Bogart collaboration, The Big Sleep, went about as far as the censors would allow since it was plain to see this made them a major hit with audiences who were fascinated by the Bogart/Bacall romance in real life. In fact, so potent was their combination that it overpowered what was really a pale shadow of Casablanca as far as everything else went.
Hawks had offered Ernest Hemingway a wager that he could make a film out of his worst book, and on receiving the challenge to adapt To Have and Have Not he promptly kept the title and a few characters then threw the rest out of the window. Like the 1942 favourite, there are songs (some sung by Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, others by Bacall), a Resistance leader on the run, his partner (Dolores Moran) who Morgan might have a chance with, evil Nazis threatening all and sundry... if Warner Bros hadn't made them both they could have an excellent case for plagiarism. Brennan provided mild comic relief though Eddie is more pitiable than amusing, and Dan Seymour was a mixture of Sydney Greenstreet and Conrad Veidt if you can imagine such a thing. And yet, all that taken into consideration it didn't really matter so much when Hawks had given us something novel where it counted, his leads whose chemistry smouldered on the screen. Who cares if the thrills didn't so much race to a climax as peter out, the production attained a status of Hollywood folklore, and that did matter. Masses of smoking, too.