Skip to main content

You mustn’t underestimate American blundering.

Casablanca
(1942)

(SPOILERS) I’m not sure, way back when, that I went away from Casablanca on first viewing recognising it as the all-time classic for which it is so acclaimed. Perhaps it was just too hallowed to be viewed with unprejudiced eyes. I enjoyed it well enough, but my reaction wasn’t comparable to first sight of the similarly lauded Citizen Kane. And as Humphrey Bogart movies went, I was much more persuaded by The Maltese Falcon. Nevertheless, subsequent visits have served only to elevate its status and confirm the hype was right. You can see very clearly that Casablanca was just another studio picture that somehow separated itself from the pack to earn a status for the ages. But you can also see just how and why it deserved such singling out.

One thing that always impresses me is that Casablanca was made mid-World War II – well okay, only a year in if you were America – because it has in its bearing such an air of confidence and knowledge of continuance, in spite of the threats both existential and physical impinging on the titular city and its inhabitants. It thus occupies a unique space, a timeless pocket or bubble. Which is to state the obvious, that it is, after all, a studio picture and a fantasy, yet it also managed to ride a wave of positive publicity on the back of Operation Torch’s success, in which the allies took the city (Western forces landed in Morocco in early November 1942, and the picture scrambled for release at the end of the same month).

Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz reputedly invested his own knowledge of desperate refugees haggling to escape oppression for similar sequences pocking the picture. But as much as everything stops in its tracks for a clash of national pride – as the Germans sing Die Wacht am Rhein only to be drowned out by a rendition of La Marseillaise – and even though it is undoubtedly positioned as one, Casablanca never feels didactic in its function as a wartime propaganda picture. I suspect that’s partly because it’s so knowing, even if its Germans are two-dimensional, but also because the war is very much the backdrop; much as it fuels and infuses each character’s actions, it is not the essence of the story.

Curtiz, for whom prolific was an understatement, had already overseen two pictures that year including Yankee Doodle Dandy. That film received eight nods including Best Picture at the fifteenth Academy Awards; Casablanca (which was properly released in 1943) received eight nominations including Best Picture at the sixteenth. It isn’t for nothing that he’s acclaimed as “Hollywood’s greatest director you’ve never heard of” (as one of the Blu-ray release extras informs you). Curtiz’ career took in more than 150 films between 1912 and 1961, and if Casablanca is obviously his best known, other still-feted offerings include The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Mildred Pierce (1945) and We’re No Angels (1955).

Of course, were more of a light shone on his career, it might come up that Curtiz seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed drowning extras on Noah’s Ark (1928). It’s well known he rubbed just about everyone he worked with up the wrong way, but he clearly got results and then some, and that’s generally what counts in Hollywood (until you get caught and from there publicly sacrificed). If he worked with what were frequently four-square studio system storylines – he was said to be entirely lacking when it came to plot savvy, relying on wife Bess Meredyth – there was no doubting his visual virtuosity. Indeed, probably his greatest skill was ensuring you don’t really notice his direction, even though, when you do examine it, his expertise is readily apparent. You do notice the compositions, though, and Casablanca, in collaboration with director of photography Arthur Edeson, is an incredibly beautiful film (Edeson worked on the previous year’s The Maltese Falcon, which also featured Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre).

While Bogart had graduated to leading man status over the course of 1941, this was the first time he ascended to romantic partner, shorn of gangster trappings. Sure, Bogart’s still a tough guy, but Rick Blaine leads with his brains and only goes in for some shooting – a Nazi dog who deserves it!; see Michael Powell’s very good The Spy in Black for a less black-and-white Conrad Veidt German – at the very end.

The love triangle here makes for the perfect heroic loner figure, as Woody Allen recognised in Play it Again, Sam. There’s Blaine. There’s Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman, who apparently had been doing not very much at all when she got the call). And there’s Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid didn’t think much of Bogie’s acting chops, but then, that’s probably why the latter was a star and the former wasn’t so much). There’s a perfect balance of polite tension between them, and if the nature of Ilsa’s dilemma is an inevitably upstanding one – under the auspices of the Hayes Code, it couldn’t be otherwise – the unfolding is no less compelling for her implied behaviour. Laszlo is impossibly decent of course, but Blaine wins our respect for being equally honourable underneath it all and having attitude with it; echoes of this could be found later in the Luke-Leia-Han of Star Wars. Only with added incest.

While Rick’s dilemma and noble sacrifice – and the way he speechifies it – is everything to the enduring status of Casablanca, it isn’t actually the part I get the biggest kick from. Indeed, one of the few elements of the picture I think is possibly inessential – diehards will doubtless denounce such an idea vigorously, particularly as it underlines they’ll always have it – is the flashback sequence of Rick and Ilsa together in Paris. I’d argue it’s possibly more evocative left to the imagination.

No, the best part of the picture is the Epstein brothers’ dialogue, whereby every line is a gem. And most particularly, the dialogue given to Claude Rains’ Louis Renault, the equal and opposite, or not so much, force to Rick. It’s entirely appropriate that “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship” ends the movie when Louis has earlier professed “If I were a woman… I would be in love with Rick”. The great thing about coming to realise how marvellous Claude Rains performances are is that he was in a lot of films – eleven with Curtiz alone – so even when you’ve seen a lot, there are a lot more to enjoy. For me, Louis is the most relishable part of Casablanca, an irrepressible flow of upbeat amusement, no matter who he is with, be it Germans – “You repeat Third Reich as if you expected there to be others” he is told – or Bogie: “That is my least vulnerable spot” Louis replies when Rick informs him a gun is pointed at his heart.

Pauline Kael predictable struck a contrary note in her review – “It’s far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism” – and started at it by attesting Bergman became a popular favourite when Rick “treated her like a whore”. Which I suppose he did, but she can’t have it both ways when she also admits “you’re never really pressed to take its melodramatic twists and turns seriously”. The ending apparently caused much stress it terms of just how it would play out; that it was decided on the fly makes its extraordinary elegance all the more impressive (Selznick ultimately nixed plans for a further scene with Rick and Louis acknowledging the Allied invasion of North Africa).

The ending itself offers comfort amidst danger, so reflecting that Casablanca takes place in a cocooned world, safe beneath its noirish hues and battles of wits; the war can only intrude so much. Even as they have ended their stay there, it’s crucial that Rick and Louis will always remain, part of this beguiling moment in time. Such filmic artifice is absolutely the key to its enduring appeal. William Friedkin called it “The most iconic American film ever”, and if Kael is right, in as much as it isn’t deep and its themes of honour and sacrifice are at best clunky, Casablanca defies such limitations; Curtiz fashioned a contender for the most perfectly pitched melodrama ever. So no, there's absolutely no need to seek out a version in full colour, with a happier ending.






Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.