Seventy years ago, To Have and Have Not graced the silver screens of America, providing the debut of one of Hollywood’s most formidable and electrifying stars. That star was, of course, Lauren Bacall – who was only nineteen years old during the film’s production. In one of the first scenes she filmed, the secretly trembling ingénue asked if anyone had a box of matches. Humphrey Bogart threw her a box. She lit a cigarette and threw it back. And with that – the strike of a match – a flame was born; a star ignited.
However, the rolling cameras, the authoritative Howard Hawks, and the overwhelming sight of Bogart himself proved all too much to calm the nerves of this young performer. And in an attempt to mask her emotion, she inadvertently developed what would be known as her defining screen characteristic; what Bacall herself (in her autobiography By Myself) simply dubbed “The Look” – “chin down, almost to the chest, and eyes up at Bogart.”
Bacall mastered this look. After all, it was the look that made even Bogie himself buckle at the knees. No one could resist. All were powerless. The most famous scene in To Have and Have Not showcased her prowess for seduction wherein this emblematic trait was on full display: “You know how to whistle, don’t you? … You just put your lips together and blow.” Her life and career were full of wry remarks and scorching side-stares, coupled with a sly dip of the shoulder and a puff of cigarette smoke. And no one delivered innuendo quite like Lauren Bacall.
She would later star opposite Bogart again in another Howard Hawks picture: an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. This time, however, they were married – a period that Bacall said on countless occasions was the happiest of her life. The Big Sleep was full of sparkling chemistry, sizzling innuendos and fiery double-entendres between the two leads. All of which was delivered by Bacall with that smouldering look, that sultry stare and that sexy, coquettish voice. She was one of Hollywood’s greatest femme fatales: a sensual, seductive figure that needed merely to lower her lashes like a theatre curtain to have men roll over with all fours in the air. And simply raise them again slowly to watch them purr.
She also had a prolific career on stage as well as onscreen, being gifted with many awards and accolades for her theatrical performances. And yet she never won an Academy Award for Best Actress, instead having to settle for an honorary Oscar in 2009 – yet another screen icon in a long list of cinematic giants whom the Academy never recognised when it had the chance.
Bacall remained active throughout her entire life, working even into her ninetieth decade. She was adamant that one’s time here on Earth was not one to be taken casually, nor indeed wasted: “Here is a test to find out whether your mission in life is complete. If you’re alive, it isn’t.” she once said. I think it’s fair to say her colourful life has made her pass with flying colours. But she’ll always be remembered in Black and White – photographed in a chic, 1940s dress sense with a cigarette perched on the end of her lip.
The sky of Old Hollywood is significantly darker tonight. Its stars are almost all gone. Now one of its biggest and brightest has passed. But her legacy will forever remain in the cinema: The Look immortalised in those scintillating celluloid splashings that captivate us all.