Lauren Bacall (1924–2014)

by Andrew Stuttaford

The Breaking Bad marathon (episode 25 and counting) will have to be put on hold for a little while. It’s time to turn to the DVD collection and watch (yet again) To Have and Have Not and (yet again) The Big Sleep, the two films that were Bacall. And then I’ll watch them again.

Vivian: You go too far, Marlowe.

Marlowe: Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.

I don’t remember when or where I first saw those two movies — in the 1970s, I think, maybe on the telly or maybe, quite possibly, at Oxford’s Penultimate Picture Palace, a wonderful cinema that was unafraid (unusual then) of showing movies three or more decades old — but I have never forgotten the impression they made. Bogart? Bacall? Who were these people, what was this world, and how could I get there?

Vivian: So you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?

And then there’s the discussion about, uh, horses, but this is a family website.

There’s not much to say that has not already been said. Of the two, I prefer The Big Sleep, its labyrinth the point, and Bacall, well . . .

The Economist:

Prior to “To Have And Have Not”, she had had little acting experience: she was a Bronx fashion model who had changed her name from Betty Joan Perske and had made only brief appearances on Broadway. But in Howard Hawks’s French Resistance thriller, there’s not a trace of girlish insecurity about her. Her strong-jawed beauty and immaculate styling help, of course, but it’s her insouciance that’s remarkable.

Watch the scene in which she asks Humphrey Bogart for a match in her deep drawl, glances at him with quiet amusement and lights her cigarette with maddening slowness before strolling out of his room. It’s easy to imagine that it’s Ms Bacall who is the sophisticated, seen-it-all veteran, while the 44-year-old Bogie is the nervous newcomer. Even as a teenager, she seemed to be older and classier than anyone else in the room—and she maintained that aura as the decades passed. She was just two years older than Marilyn Monroe when they traded banter in “How To Marry A Millionaire” in 1953, but her jaded poise contrasts so strikingly with Ms Monroe’s frothy clowning that, again, it seemed as if Ms Bacall came from an earlier, more dignified generation.

And a long and measured assessment in the Guardian that ends thus:

Lunching with her was an audience with the last empress of Byzantium, imperiousness interspersed with a really dirty laugh, perhaps the sound of her true self. Every online search sends you back to a picture of her at 19 giving The Look: “You know, Steve, you don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to whistle.”

A year or so back, the daughter of some friends back in England came to stay for a while and, intrigued by the idea of watching a black and white movie that was not one of her dad’s war movies, asked me to choose an old film. I picked out The Big Sleep. At the end she just said, “I had no idea.” To Have and Have Not was in the DVD player within minutes. At the end of her stay, she gave me a copy of Key Largo. It was, she noted disapprovingly, missing from my collection.

Lauren Bacall, Slim, Vivian, and, yes, the last empress of Byzantium, thank you. R.I.P.

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