Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Film #24: Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 4 or 5 (last seen about 6 months ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers):

Jaded club owner/ex-mercenary is reunited with past love, wife of underground Nazi resistance movement leader. Romance and adventure ensue.

Full Blow-by-Blow (a detailed summary, with spoilers. Fair warning):

World War II has completely erupted and the Axis is steadily marching through Europe. In the Moroccan city of Casablanca in northeast Africa, hordes of refugees are scrambling for freedom and desperately searching for ways and means to escape from the carnage. Casablanca is now a city filled with expatriates, rich and poor, and scoundrels looking to take full advantage of their desperation.

One semi-safe haven is the swinging night club Rick's Cafe Americain, run by American expatriate and former soldier-of-fortune, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Rick is a world-weary man who seeks nothing more than to operate a viable club, clearly stating that he won't "stick his neck out for nobody." Despite this callous decree, Rick is a man who has a hidden soft spot for those he sees as decent people, and who privately despises the Nazis and their fascist ideals.
The four main players, left to right: Rick, Renault, Lazlo and Ilsa

One night, local scumbag Ugarte (Peter Lorre) shows up in Rick's, asking him to stash two exit visas, exceptionally valuable commodities in Casablanca, that Ugarte has stolen from a pair of Nazi couriers whom he has killed. Rick agrees, but Ugarte is promptly seized and killed trying to escape. Overseeing the action is the local corrupt police chief, French Captain Renault (Claude Raines) and newly-arrived Nazi Major Strasse. Strasse has arrived to find and contain escaped resistance leader Victor Lazlo, a Czechoslovakian who has suffered in a concentration camp, escaped, and continued to fight for freedom from Nazi rule.

Lo and behold, Lazlo appears, and he's not alone. With him is his beautiful wife, Ilsa Lind (Ingrid Bergman). When the pair show up at Rick's, the normally stoic Rick sees Ilsa and slips into a deep, depressive reverie. After being cordial to Victor and Ilsa, we learn that, prior to arriving in Casablanca, Rick had fallen in love with Ilsa in Paris just before the Nazis rolled in and took over. Rick had planned to flee Paris with Ilsa, but was left standing at the train station with his piano-playing comrade, Sam, and an extra train ticket. Devastated, Rick flees, not knowing what became of his love.

In modern Casablanca, Rick's heart has become hard. When Ilsa and Victor ask for his help in acquiring exit visas, he refuses, despite having the visas stolen by Ugarte. Ilsa eventually reveals that, when she and Rick were together in Paris, she was still married to Victor, though she had then thought him dead. Shortly before Rick's flight from Paris, she had learned that her husband still yet lived, and she abandoned Rick to return to her husband. Even this revelation seemingly fails to move Rick.

As Major Strasse tightens the noose around Victor, he and his wife become more desperate. Rick cooks up a scheme by which he plans to use the two exit visas for himself and the now exhausted and complicit Ilsa, apparently to leave Lazlo to the mercies of the Nazis. However, when all of the different forces converge on an airstrip, Rick offers a final surprise: he gives the visas to Ilsa and Victor and gets them on a plane, granting them their freedom. To boot, he guns down Major Strasse, a terribly severe crime that is overlooked by Captain Renault, who re-embraces his own past convictions. Victor and Ilsa fly away into the night, and Rick and Renault saunter off to who-knows-where, to fight for the Allied cause in even more distant lands.

Love and ideals conquer all.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing of the film, before any research):

Citizen Kane may be the most innovative and artistic work in the history of major American films, but Casablanca is the absolute pinnacle of what mainstream Hollywood can ever achieve in terms of storytelling. I can't think of a movie that has a tighter script, more memorable classic lines, and as solid a cast as this all-timer.

At the very start, things are a touch droll. During the initial scan through the city, we are treated to various scenes that convey the sense of wonder that is the thrumming populace. For the first five minutes or so, we see people getting robbed, suspected refugees shot, and even a young woman looking up at a departing plane and, dreamy-eyed, declaring, "Do you think we'll be on that plane one day?" Such a cheese-tastic line almost had me wondering just why I like this film so much.

Then, a reverse of my The Lady Eve experience occurs.

That film had an amazingly strong beginning, then faded significantly as it went along. Casablanca just gets better and better as the story unfolds. Every major and minor character is memorable, right down to the bartender in Rick's. Every scene and line of dialogue advances the story or reveals something essential about a character. And yet, despite the film being an economical hour and forty-two minutes long, it at no time seems rushed. There are quiet, ponderous moments, just as there are moments of high intrigue and suspense. The cocktail is mixed so perfectly that you don't even realize that you're being intoxicated until you've got that stupid grin on your face.

The lines. Those who haven't seen this film may not realize just how many classic lines come from this movie. When I first watched it back when I was about 21 years old, my initial thought was, "Man, that line was another cliche." Shortly after that first notion, I realized that this movie was the source for all of the cliches:

"Play it, Sam." (there is no "again," as some may have you believe)

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."

"Here's looking at you, kid."

"Round up the usual suspects."

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

There are plenty more, including this favorite gem of mine (sorry there's no clip, just the link):

"I was misinformed." Just count how many great lines are in this 2:30 bit of the film.

In between all of these more renowned lines are tons of others. Throughout nearly the entire film, I was smirking at the clever digs and cynical observations of everyone involved. The true stars of the show, though, are Humphrey Bogart and Claude Raines, who get the best lines and deliver them masterfully.

More needs to be said of Bogart and Raines. The other actors are excellent, including Bergman, Henried, Lorre and the others. However, when Bogie shows up as Rick, he becomes the stuff of legend. His weary hangdog face, subtle gestures, one-of-a-kind voice, and effortless delivery are cinematic platinum. His sarcasm is authentic and timelessly funny, his anger is intense, his depression is heart-rending, and his compassion, though sparing, is wholly redeeming. I can't possibly imagine any person playing the role as well, and no actor has filled the slot left in Hollywood once Bogart left.

Raines is the sleeper of this one. Though not as prominent as Rick, he's the character whose scenes you're waiting for. While he's mostly comic relief, like most of the characters aside from Ilsa, Victor, and Major Strasse, Raines is far superior to them all. His officious posture and self awareness as a playfully corrupt official are as entertaining and unique as they come. He's slimy, to a degree, but one whom you know has a good heart buried under all of that manicured vice. He and Rick pairing up at the airfield and heading out to unknown horizons on the war front is arguably the greatest ending a Hollywood film has ever had.

Here's one of Renault's greatest lines:

Of course, in addition to all of this is the time when the film was released. The U.S. had just seriously committed to engagement in WWII, so the collective emotions of the nation were focused on the goings on in Europe and northern Africa. If you keep in mind the uncertainty of things in those years, the film's story of love and hope becomes far more potent. As great as it is today, I can only imagine how much better it would have been to see it back in 1942.

There it is. With Casablanca, you arguably get: the greatest tale told in film, some of the greatest characters in film, the greatest lines in film, and the greatest ending in film. These things are the reasons that people have been trying for nearly 70 years to match Casablanca in terms of smoothness, tone, characterization, dialogue, and storytelling. Long before Steven Soderberg went at it, many have tried and come close, but none have matched it, in my view.

If you haven't seen this film yet, you only have two choices: watch it immediately or renounce any claim as a movie lover.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

As with Citizen Kane and other mammoths of film history, Casablanca has been studied and critiqued endlessly, if not for exactly the same reasons. It's a fascinating film since, while it can be called "sophisticated hokum," as one of the original script readers put it, there's a timeless charm that is exceptionally rare, though not elusive.

While the casting went through many iterations, one stood out to me. The Rick Blaine character was originally to be given to...are you ready? Ronald Reagan. Oof. I really can't get my mind around that one. I know Reagan had some clout back then, but anyone who's seen this movie can see why my eyes go wide when I consider this.

Another fairly interesting fact is that World War II itself indirectly (as well as directly) contributed to the greatness of Casablanca. Many of the supporting actors were themselves real refugees who had been prominent actors in their home countries, such as Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and others. This goes a long way to explaining why even the bit parts are so well played. I was a bit surprised at how dismissive the original TIME review was in regards to Raines' Captain Renault character. Bush-league?

In learning about the story and script I picked up that, in the film (it was adapted from an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick's), Rick's background is left intentionally vague. In the play, it is revealed that in America, he was a lawyer with a wife and children. By omitting this, and only filling in the occasional detail about Rick's past fighting against fascist regimes, we're left with a more mysterious figure. To me, this is a fantastic example of skillful story editing.

Director Michael Curtiz was hailed as one of the great directors of his day. The surprising thing is that, apparently, he was not much of a "story" man. So much so that one writer explained that Curtiz didn't get along with writers and couldn't talk to them because, "He didn't know what the hell we were talking about." Rather, Curtiz was a master of scenes and working with actors. He may not have been able to create or adapt and tale, but once you gave it to him, he knew exactly how to translate it to film.

Something that I totally overlooked in my first take was the music. I think that this is because it's such a part of the fabric of the movie that I didn't give it much thought. It is excellent, and of course the song "As Time Goes By" is just as memorable as any of the classic lines of dialogue. Intriguing is the fact that the original music director didn't like the song, but wasn't able to find an alternative in time for the film's rushed release. I guess he had to eat a little crow on that one.

All of this is the slenderest tip of the iceberg of study that can be done on this movie. As opined above, Casablanca is not a masterpiece of high art or the culmination of genius. This film is not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Rather, it's more like the most superbly crafted wooden chair. All of the pieces have been carefully carved and fit together just the way that they need to. You can sit down, lean back, run your hands over the supply curved arms, relax and marvel at how such a seemingly simple thing can be so rare and enjoyable. While it's perfection may invite overanalysis, there's no real need - just enjoy it.

Greatest ending ever? If not, it's in the discussion:

That's a wrap. 24 shows down. 81 to go.

Number 3 in the 1-2-3 combo of some of my favorite films is this film noir classic. Barbara Stanwyck makes her third appearance of TIME's list, this time as a true femme fatale. I'm all geared up for another viewing of this back-stabbing, double-dealing yarn of lust and betrayal. Good, clean fun.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.