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Lauren Bacall And The 'Sex? What Sex?' Kind Of Movie Sex

Lauren Bacall in a 1944 photo.
Lauren Bacall in a 1944 photo.

It's almost unreal how impeccable Lauren Bacall was in her first couple of scenes in her screen debut, To Have and Have Not. Not just beautiful; impeccable. She is slouched in a doorway, asking for a match, held at a distance from the camera. Humphrey Bogart throws her a pack of matches; we move a little closer to see her suit, her hair. Back to him in close-up as he luxuriates in the experience of looking her over — skip-skip-skip go his eyes down to her feet, skip-skip-skip they go back up.

The minute he's had a look at her, the match goes up, making an almost comical flare as we see her even closer up. Marcel Dalio looks back and forth between them, suddenly wondering whether he should be watching. She tosses the match over her shoulder without taking her eyes off Bogart, turns to reveal all the planes of her fascinating face, and throws him the pack. And then she's gone in an actual, literal, no-fooling puff of smoke.

What just happened? Well, nothing just happened, exactly, but cinematically, that's a clinch. The camera gets them closer and closer, then there's a flame, then there's an exit as someone enjoys a cigarette. It's a clinch without kissing, without contact, with the principals maybe ten feet apart.

She's next seen in a bar where Hoagy Carmichael is singing "Am I Blue?" and a man is trying to fondle her sleeved arm. With the liquidity of all her movement, she removes his hand and steps — flows — to the piano, where she starts to sing. Her singing voice is not delicate; it's like leather. And she looks pointedly back over her shoulder at the boozing Humphrey Bogart.

At the time of To Have and Have Not in 1944, Hollywood operated under the so-called Hays Code, its system of rules that governed film's treatment of nudity and explicit sex and other perceived threats to the morality of the populace. It's something of a cliché to note that at times, it's sexier to conceal than to reveal and that nothing is more alluring than what's not seen, but that can come off like a salute to subtlety and coy flirtation.

There is nothing coy about Lauren Bacall in this sequence. This is not really flirtation as we commonly would talk about it. There is a frank eyeball conversation going on from the minute she and Bogart's Steve — who will soon nickname her character "Slim" — encounter each other as she stands in that doorway. And despite the fact that he also suspects her of lifting a wallet, it is largely a frank eyeball conversation about whether and when they are going to have sex. (And maybe how, although the implied answer seems to be "pretty well.") At the same time, if asked to defend it against charges that he was selling lust, director Howard Hawks could very easily have simply said, "I have no idea what you're talking about. I just had a girl light a match. Why, do you think it's sexy?" It underscores the fact that the feeling that a scene is sexy comes from the viewer, from her natural ability to infer. To accuse it of being arousing is to acknowledge being aroused, because it's not on the screen; it's all happening in your naturally dirty mind.

It's true that the "put your lips together and blow" business that comes later is much better known and even more mischievously on the nose, but by then, it's capping a series of conversations and shots that have already placed those two people in that room and have allowed them the space to seem surprised themselves by the energy that has sprung up between them. They've already gone back and forth across the same hallway, from a simple conversation in his office to one across the hall where he almost kisses her and back to her at his door in a robe where she finally kisses him. And how was it? "It's even better when you help," she says.

In a 2011 Vanity Fair profile, Bacall talked decades later about how petrified she was doing the early scenes and how much she felt pressured to alter herself and be shaped by Hawks. Ironic, then, that what comes through in her performance, given when she was 19 opposite the already very famous, 44-year-old Bogart, is a lived-in gorgeousness and an owned sexuality. Bacall may not have felt like she was running her own show, but in the film, Slim is utterly self-possessed, utterly capable of choosing whose hand may be on her arm and for what purpose — as in one sequence where she smolders a young soldier into buying her booze she can take back to Steve's office to share. She didn't remove the hand from her arm earlier as an offended "well, I never!"; she did it because she didn't choose that hand at that time, and if she wanted that hand on her arm, she'd have asked for it. Similarly, when she finally kisses Steve and he asks her why, she tells what appears to be the truth: "Been wondering whether I'd like it."

Bacall is not the only actress who was threading the needle at this tricky point in the Hays Code era: Barbara Stanwyck did a number on Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity the same year. And as with Bacall, there's a delicious reveling in the unsaid in many parts of that film. What is less present — unsurprisingly, given the turns that Double Indemnity will take — is the playfulness of the Bacall version of sex that isn't sex. There are moments in To Have and Have Not when Slim seems almost amused at the proprieties she's expected to observe, and if you squint, you can see Bacall almost amused at the Code-approved approach to sexuality that she's executing. Both the character and the actress seem a little impressed with what they're getting away with when they finally do say, "Put your lips together and ... blow."

The danger of reminiscing about Code-era sexuality in film is that it can seem nostalgic for censorship that, among other things, chose winners and losers in the great game of whose life could be represented within the bounds of "morality." (Among the things prohibited under the original version of the Code: miscegenation and "sex perversion.") The ability of filmmakers to present sex with as much or as little explicitness as they find necessary for the piece is nothing to shrug off; there are very sexy scenes that are very explicit and very sexy scenes that aren't.

But it's lovely to look back at the winking that was a hallmark of some of the luscious work of the '40s in particular and see how people like Lauren Bacall — and many others — managed to communicate lust in ways that left their hands deliciously, comically clean.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.