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No Bloody F*cking Chance

Hemingway-sourced films offer glimpse into Papa's heart of darkness


Ernest Hemingway was notoriously disparaging about movies, especially those adapted from his work. For instance, he famously commented to Ava Gardner, about the film version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro (in which she co-starred with Gregory Peck), that the only things he liked about it were her and the hyena.

Unlike three other great American writers of his generation (Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald), Hemingway never wrote for Hollywood big bucks. His only credited script was a collaboration with John Dos Passos for The Spanish Earth, a 1937 Spanish Civil War documentary. Three years later, he wrote one of his best novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls, on the same subject. Three more years, it was up on the big screen in a lavish production starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman with Dudley Nichols' screenplay.

Yet Hemingway was more than willing to take the money and run, perfectly willing (if not content) to let other writers have their way with his fiction. One of the most famous examples of the author's ambivalence about Hollywood adaptations of his work concerns his 1937 novel To Have and Have Not.

Director Howard Hawks suggested that he and Hemingway collaborate on a film version, but when Hemingway declined, the independent filmmaker is said to have remarked, "I'll get Faulkner to do it; he can write better than you can anyway."

Personally, I've always thought William Faulkner must have been delighted to get paid to do a number on his literary rival; along with co-writer Jules Furthman and an uncredited Hawks, he wrote a movie more reminiscent of Casablanca. It turned out to be a popular classic; its title was the only connection to Hemingway.

Curiously, six years later, the same studio—Warner Brothers—released another film version of the same novel, but under another title (The Breaking Point). This one was far more faithful to the book's plot and especially the tone. Though Hemingway reportedly said he liked it better than all of the other celluloid treatments of his work, the movie lay low for decades.

In a nutshell, To Have and Have Not is Hollywood; The Breaking Point is Hemingway.

Except for the opening sequence about fishing guide Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) and a sleazy customer, To Have and Have Not (1944) ignores the rest of Papa's novel. Harry meets Slim (19-year-old Lauren Bacall, playing a 22-year-old chanteuse), she teaches him how to whistle, he saves the anti-Nazis and Casablanca gets a happy ending.

For most of the first half of the 97-minute running time, Breaking Point (1950) runs true to its literary source. Fishing boat captain Harry (John Garfield) is fleeced by a sleazeball client, leaving him in a tight spot for money. Against his better judgment, he gets involved in a human smuggling operation; he survives only by double-crossing and killing the scheme's ruthless instigator.

His money woes continue when the Coast Guard confiscates his boat. Faithful husband to wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and devoted father to two young girls, Harry isn't tempted by blonde seductress Leona (Patricia Neal)—a character not in the book—but takes one last risky chance to keep his boat.

Things go awry, of course, as they always do for Hemingway characters. In the book, a band of Cuban revolutionaries are Harry's downfall; in the film, it's ruthless bank robbers. Harry survives in the movie, but not the book. The Breaking Point does not end happily.

The final shot, among the film's more poignant moments, shows Harry being whisked away in an ambulance, leaving a small African-American boy behind, alone on an empty dock. The child's father, Harry's friend and first mate Wesley (Juano Hernandez), was killed by the robbers, his body dumped overboard. It's a visual contrast to Harry's last words in the novel, the coda to Hemingway's declaration of human responsibility—"No matter how a man alone ain't got no bloody fucking chance."

Long unseen, due to Garfield being a Commie sympathizer during the Red Scare of the early '50s, The Breaking Point, brilliantly directed by Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame and just out on video from Criterion Collection, is ripe for discovery by film fans and Hemingway devotees.

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