Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) Of all the films in all the film-houses in all the world...I've never written a review of Casablanca.

At least, I've seen it (only about a million times). A recent story on NPR's "Weekend Edition" had host Scott Simon interviewing a fellow who'd just gotten around to seeing the 1942 film for the first time (evidently that's what constitutes "news" these days). It reminded me of the time, my buddy-in-Bond, Frank, proudly announced that he had finally watched Casablanca (was it at the premiere of Skyfall or Spectre?) I think I asked him what he thought of it after congratulating him and I recall he said "Great!" (or something like that). 

It did, after all, win The Best Picture Oscar of 1944.

I've never written a review of Casablanca—not here or on any previous movie blog. Oh, there was the five-part series of "Don't Make a Scene" entries centered around what other character's think of Humphrey Bogart's character (under the collective title of "Deconstructing Rick") and that said a lot. There's no formal review of the film Casablanca, however, anywhere. It doesn't even show up as one of my "Anytime Movies"—those that I can watch anytime and have the power to keep me to the end, fascinated, over and over. Again, that series is most interesting to me for what's NOT on it than for what's on it.

And Casablanca isn't there.

Casablanca is legendary, because it should NOT have "worked." Production was a mess. Bogart got the role because George Raft and Ronald Reagan didn't play it. Ingrid Bergman was an unknown. Paul Heinreid had more audience appeal. The actors frequently didn't know "why" they were playing the scenes they were playing and were not sure how it would "end" (it's a rather brilliant strategy to not have the actors betray any fore-knowledge lest the audience catch on, but...really, they were still working on the script). It is not a movie of strong "auteur" sensibilities—but its Hungarian director, Michael Curtiz, manages to fill every frame to bursting and his filming strategies have been copied in the decades since, probably as much for nostalgic recognition factor as for the fact that the strategies are so...apt. It was based on a play that flopped, but it was cobbled together by two twin-brother writers and the estimable Howard Koch into a crazy quilt of conflicts and various sides.
Director Michael Curtiz told Bogart to nod, but didn't tell him what he was nodding for or at.
It's to cue the band to play "La Marsellies," an emotional high-point in the film,
and the first instance of Bogart resisting his urge to "stick my neck out for nobody."

And great lines. Quotable lines. Lines so memorable that they're mis-remembered:  "Play it, Sam." (NOT "play it again, Sam") "Here's looking at you, kid." "I am shocked, SHOCKED to find out that GAMBLING is going on in this facility." "I don't mind a parasite, I object to a cut-rate one." "I was misinformed." "Be careful! There are vultures, VULTURES everywhere." "I remember every detail—the Germans wore gray. You wore blue." "I'm going to die in Casablanca, it's a good spot for it." "We mustn't underestimate 'American blundering.' I was with them when they 'blundered' into Berlin in 1918." "I stick my neck out for nobody." "It would take a miracle to get you out of Casablanca and the Germans have outlawed miracles." "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." "Go ahead and shoot. You'll be doing me a favor." "Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try and invade." "And remember this gun is pointed right at your heart"--"That's my least vulnerable spot." "You'll get along beautifully in America." "Well, that's the way it goes—one in and one out." "Of all the gin-joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." "I'm no good at being noble." "The problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." "We'll always have Paris." And the line that the Epstein brothers realized simultaneously in the middle of L.A. traffic would solve all their script problems: "Round up the usual suspects."
It's a film that exudes the exotic even though it was filmed in Burbank, on Warners stages combined with matte shots (like the one above--see any waves in that ocean?) filling in the details. Other legerdemain done on the cheap complete the picture; the scene below has the actors performing in front of a screen back-projected with model airplanes to improve the scope. It's something they did in the finale at an airport, where to give the proper distance they had model planes attended to by "little people," and lots of fog to increase the illusion.

They could get away with it because Curtiz directed and edited fast and the audience was concentrating on a convoluted plot with equal parts conflicted romance and cloak-and-luger politics played out by a terrific cast of Warners contract players and a new fresh-faced import from Sweden named Ingrid Bergman. Everything resonated. Women liked it...even though Bogart was hardly considered a romantic lead...until then. Men liked it...even if things didn't turn out by the dictates of billing.

And, it's hardly a glamorous story: an ex-pat American, Richard Blaine, is running a saloon in Casablanca where booze flows freely, the gambling is questionable and all the authorities are paid off; Rick's Cafe Americain is a going concern because it is a black market hide-out in a desperate city and its owner, Richard—call him "Rick"—keeps a surly dispassionate view on things.  But, don't approach him unless you're working for him. He doesn't drink with the guests, he doesn't fraternize, he sits in lordly isolation in a table against the wall playing chess against himself and keeping an eye out for the glance directed his way by an employee looking for direction. Then, he simply nods and that's the last word. He doesn't get involved in the deals, in the tables, nothing. He keeps things orderly, but for the under-the-table dealings going on in the saloon he has one comeback: "I stick my neck out for nobody." 

On this particular day, there are rumors and desperation flying around: two German couriers who have "letters of transit" out of Morocco to Lisbon, gateway "to the Americas," have been found murdered, their much-sought-after documents missing. They mean freedom for anyone seeking asylum, but the police are stymied, doing what they normally do when they have no other option—"round up the usual suspects." Roust some people to intimidate and see what you can scare out of them. Under pressure from the Nazi's, their interest is in both the murderer and in the papers; but, the letters are in safe-keeping in the one place they don't suspect—hidden in the piano at the Cafe American, hiding in plain sight, Rick's non-commitment being their best camouflage.

But, even a Rick Blaine has his limits. As the original play-title says "Everybody Comes to Rick's" and that includes one particularly prominent (too prominent) Czech partisan named Victor Laszlo (Heinreid). Rick would only have a dispassionate on-looker's interest in Laszlo's struggles to evade Nazi capture, if not for one key element, one a burden that he will not neglect: he has a wife Ilsa Lund (a radiant Bergman).

Both Laszlo and Lund are unfamiliar travelers to Casablanca, but it is Ilsa who arrives at Rick's with extra baggage. She recognizes Sam (Dooley Wilson)—whom she refers to as as "the boy," the only hint of racial inequity in the film—the piano player, and where Sam is, Tick can't be too far away.  It's obvious that Ilsa and Rick (and Sam) have a shared past, and he is determined to keep Rick from Ilsa. But, a song request brings on Rick, charging on Sam like a bull, with an accusation of...well, betrayal. But, that protest is cut short when a larger betrayal is brought to mind when he notices Ilsa, and he realizes he was pulled by a siren somg, whose first line ("You must remember this...") is both a promise and a curse.

For probably his first time in Casablanca, things get personal for him, and he is pulled into a series of complex triangulations that he is uncomfortable with—triangulations of loyalty and partisanship that he has avoided since coming to the Moroccan city at the edge of freedom and despair. He finds himself just another fish in a small pond.

Rick recovers well, but he spends that eventful evening in an indulgent, sodden reverie (which we see, conveniently, in flashback) over a bottle (or five) in which he reaches the depths of his own personal despair, and for the rest of the movie, he conducts an inner battle with himself and his character, walking the maze of morality while trying to betray...nothing.

The character of Rick is a cypher—to the audience as well as the characters surrounding him in the movie, whether strangers or intimates. He is the big mystery in Casablanca, a man with no past (and professing no future), who must deal when confronted with it, and whose best weapon is his own veneer of inscrutability, walking among the powerful and the weak, with equal contempt showing for both. He is the puzzle at the center of Casablanca, the mystery that cannot be solved...except by himself.

So, why has Casablanca lasted so long? It has been 75 years.

Perhaps it has survived because it lays out a  landscape familiar to us as we shuffle through life—a morally indifferent cesspool where "life is cheap" and everything is expensively out of reach. The only thing worth less is one's word—loyalties are betrayed, women are not only not respected but treated like disposable playthings, authority is corrupt (quite happily and never apologetically), and where even a high-roller like Richard Blaine can stare at the business end of a gun and come to say "Go ahead and shoot, you'll be doing me a favor," but it's the best that one can do when one has been pushed to the water's edge by the Nazi's, and who do all of these things and worse, and have all the charm of a rubber stamp...and all of the conscience.

In such an atmosphere, an air of nihilism abides, irony substitutes for humor, sarcasm for philosophy, cynicism instead of the naive impulse of positivism or faith. All of that abounds in the film, which exudes sophistication and entertainment value with vast displays of all of it in witty, pointed  rejoinders...but no one laughs. No one dares to. It's a comedy for people with withered hearts.

So, that takes care of the sophisticates (poor, wretched souls!). But, where does that leave the rest of us? Why does Casablanca survive in our minds...and in our hearts?

I would contend that it presents us a fable, a choice that we can live with and hope with. It is because, despite desperation, despite the hopelessness, it shows us, in the most romantic of terms, that—even in that landscape—an instance of nobility—of conscience—is a candle in the darkness and that is heartening (whether it's in the middle of WWII or the Trump Administration). Cities may crumble, all may seem lost, but one act by one lone angel of mercy can dissipate the fog and make it clear again. It may take generosity, it may take courage, it may take inspiration or love, but, whatever it takes, the noble effort is still the best way to fight the ordinary tendency of sloth or indifference. March on. You must remember this.

So, it has been 75 years. We will always have Casablanca. The fundamental things still do apply...as time has gone by.

The last of the Casablanca principles to pass on:
Madelein Lebeau, who played Yvonne ("Because, 'Ewonne'...I luff you")
the saloon girl of divided loyalties, who also has her own reckoning.
I've always loved the sauciness of Captain Renault's rude
remark of her: "In her own way, she may constitute a third front!"
She died May of last year at the age of 92. Vive la France!

Casablanca through the years

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