Wednesday 10 February 2010

Casablanca (1942)

Michael Curtiz
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Before starting my journey through the IMDb's Top 250 list in 2004 I may only have seen two out of every five of its films but I had at least seen Casablanca, arguably the most widely beloved film in existence and one which no less a critic than Leonard Maltin called 'the greatest Hollywood movie ever made'. He has a point, because everything about it is pure undistilled Hollywood. It has all the stars, all the magic, all the illusion. It also has the best dialogue ever written, so much so that almost every line is quotable, to the degree that you might as well quit reciting them and just run through the whole script. In fact you should really give up talking entirely and put the movie on again because Bogie can recite those lines better than you or I, trust me. That's the magic that this film has: merely start thinking about it and you'll need to watch it again.

Put simply, all human life is here: from Rick Blaine, who runs the best club in Casablanca and sticks his neck out for nobody, all the way down to the pickpockets who kindly warn people about the thieves that pervade the city even while they're picking their pockets. People come because the Second World War is raging and with the Nazis all over continental Europe like a rash, the only way across the Atlantic to the New World is from Portugal. The catch is that it's rather difficult to get there. You have to find your way over the Mediterranean to north Africa, then work west across the desert to Casablanca in free French Morocco. Finally, if you have enough money to afford an exit visa, a plane will take you to Lisbon and onward to a land without Germans.

As you can imagine, most people get stuck at that tricky visa stage and most of them stay stuck there, trying in vain to win, steal or trade enough to buy one in Casablanca. The only thing in plentiful supply is hope, because that springs eternal in Casablanca, its thriving black market even more a land of opportunity than the one over the Atlantic that everyone is trying to escape to. In the meantime they hang out at Rick's Café Americain, run by Humphrey Bogart in the most iconic role of his career, Rick Blaine. Rick is someone who can always make things happen but refuses to be involved. He stays religiously neutral. He won't talk politics. He won't drink with his customers. When Maj Strasser of the Third Reich asks him his nationality, he replies simply that he's a drunkard. He's flawed, joyously flawed, but he's still someone who most men would deeply want to be because he knows every one of his flaws and embraces them.

He's tough, successful and adventurous. He's good looking, with Bogie's distinctly lived in face, and while he can say no to all the girls he chooses, he can still be brought to his knees by the right one. He's blisteringly honest but he can keep his mouth shut. He's deeply cynical but he's quick on his feet and ready with a snappy answer to every question thrown at him. He's widely respected, both by the people who work for him and the people who matter most in the town, especially Capt Renault, the prefect of police, and Signor Ferrari, 'the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca'. He's so plugged into his environment that he knows everyone and everything, whether it's already happened or not. No wonder, as the original title has it, everybody comes to Rick's.

In fact there are so many people coming to Rick's and so much happening there that we need to pay serious attention to catch it all. It's difficult to write a synopsis because there's just too much to comment on and it's more than likely that you've seen the film yourself often enough that it really doesn't matter. Just in case you haven't, perhaps I should just introduce the players to show you why you should, though to be frank Humphrey Bogart's work in this picture should be enough of a reason for anyone, even though he felt that the dialogue was ridiculous and the situations unbelievable.
Ranked first in the American Film Institute's list of the greatest screen actors, this was the point at which he really began to warrant that status. He had been slogging away for over a decade, doing good work but mostly stuck in supporting roles at Warner Brothers, being merely their fourth gangster actor after James Cagney, Edward G Robinson and George Raft. Eventually he began to benefit from roles Raft had turned down, three of them in particular. High Sierra made him a solid bankable leading man, The Maltese Falcon made him a star and Casablanca made him a legend. After this film the world was his oyster and he made the most of it, ushering in a new era by defining the leading man of the forties: tough, hard boiled and cynical.

In Casablanca Bogart ran the show above an unparalleled set of co-stars. First up is the highly distinctive Peter Lorre, who earned a mere $500 for his part in this film, even though he was an established name with two major classics behind him, M and Mad Love, along with many other memorable films including eight outings as Mr Moto. Here he's a cheap crook called Ugarte who has become perhaps a little less cheap by the time we meet him, bringing the McGuffin of the story to Rick. Two German couriers have been murdered on their train to Casablanca, couriers who carried rather unique papers, letters of transit signed by Gen de Gauelle himself which would enable anyone to go anywhere without fear of being stopped. Ugarte has these papers and he brings them to Rick because, as he knows the American despises him, he's the only man he can trust.

Everyone wants the papers, of course, though they're intended for Victor Laszlo, a major name in the underground fight against the Nazis. He's played by Paul Henreid, who was loaned to Warner Brothers against his will, believing that playing a secondary character would ruin his career as a romantic lead, even though he shared top billing. Of course Laszlo proved to be the very role that everyone remembers him for. He is nothing short of the epitome of quiet authority, utterly believable as a resistance leader throughout but especially for the scene where German soldiers at Rick's sing a patriotic song, Watch on the Rhine. Laszlo strides over to the house band and famously leads them in a rendition of La Marseillaise.

This is without a doubt the most memorable version of the French national anthem ever filmed, enough to make anyone feel patriotic whether they're French or not. The emotion in this scene is palpable but massively aided by the fact that many of the extras were refugees from Europe and were overcome with emotion themselves. In fact many of the actors playing Nazis in Casablanca were German Jews who had escaped from Nazi Germany. Amazingly only three of the credited cast were born in America, even the film's director Michael Curtiz being Hungarian. Unfortunately the patriotism Laszlo stirs up in Casablanca wasn't enough for the leaders of the Communist witchhunts of the fifties, who blacklisted the actor who played him.
Ingrid Bergman, also appearing on loan, plays Laszlo's wife and Rick's lover, Ilsa Lund. This is a rare example of a major Hollywood film produced under the Production Code in which someone's wife could embark on an affair with the leading man, but that was got round because it's revealed that she thought her husband was dead at the time she and Rick were together in Paris. The chemistry between Bergman and Bogart on screen here is legendary, though she found it difficult to play opposite him, finding him very distant, perhaps because she was an inch taller than him, thus requiring him to wear platform shoes, stand on boxes or sit on cushions to appear taller. Her inspiration was to watch The Maltese Falcon over and over to get an understanding of his style and it certainly paid off. It also seems to have inspired Bogart as the scene where Rick hits the bottle after Ilsa's unexpected return into his life contains the most heartrending emotion to be found anywhere in Bogart's career.

Claude Rains was well established by 1942 as the premier supporting actor in all of Hollywood, so capable that it usually seems like he's a lead even when he isn't. Here is a great example, as he builds so much depth into the role of Capt Renault that it's impossible to fathom whether he's really a good guy or a bad guy. Really he's both, the best description of him being his own: he describes himself as merely 'a poor corrupt official'. Every line of dialogue that passes between him and Rick is like a chess move in a game that nobody will win. In fact his role provides many of the attributes you might expect in a leading lady and of course it's Renault that Rick walks off with at the end of the picture, after the real leading lady leaves with her husband.

Amazingly that isn't even close to being it, but I have to leave some surprises. Conrad Veidt was the highest paid actor in the film, earning himself $25,000 for playing the sinister Gestapo agent, Maj Strasser, a bizarre role for a German actor who was so staunch an anti-Nazi that the real Gestapo had tried to assassinate him. A massively important German actor, especially in the silent era, he would die only a year later after only one further film. Sidney Greenstreet, who had debuted only a year earlier in The Maltese Falcon, made eight films with Peter Lorre though they never appear on screen together here. He's highly memorable in his fez as Signor Ferrari, the head of organised crime in Casablanca and Rick's chief competition as the proprietor of the Blue Parrot. No mention of the cast could be complete without Dooley Wilson, as Sam the piano player who plays much more than just As Time Goes By, and S Z Sakall as Carl the waiter, both of whom are integral parts to this story. In fact both get more screen time than either Lorre or Greenstreet.

Amazingly nobody saw anything special in Casablanca while it was being made. Adapted from an unstaged play by a number of screenwriters and released to theatres rather suddenly given that the Allies had invaded north Africa a month earlier, it was a success but initially only a modest one. Even the critics weren't effusive with their praise, though they were generally positive. Only over time did it grow, winning three Academy Awards a year later and becoming a well loved television favourite. Now, it's everywhere, on every list of greats you can find, especially from the American Film Institute, and perhaps most importantly, it's probably the most common favourite film of moviegoers anywhere. As Roger Ebert said, while Citizen Kane is greater, Casablanca is more loved. Bogart and Bergman may always have Paris, but thankfully we'll always have Casablanca.

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