Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Casablanca (1942)

Michael Curtiz
1942 • 102 Minutes • 1.37:1 • United States
Black & White • English • Warner Bros.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch based on Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson

Awards & Honors

Academy Awards
Winner: Best Picture
Winner: Best Director - Michael Curtiz
Winner: Best Writing, Screenplay - Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Nominee: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Humphrey Bogart
Nominee: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Claude Rains
Nominee: Best Cinematography, Black & White - Arthur Edeson
Nominee: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Max Steiner
Nominee: Best Film Editing - Owen Marks

The Essential Films
#1 - 100 Greatest Films of All Time
#8 - 100 Greatest Movie Heroes: Rick Blaine
#1 - 100 Greatest Movie Love Stories
The 50 Best "Best Picture" Winners

National Film Preservation Board
Included in National Film Registry in 1989

Here's looking at you, kid.


Casablanca is the greatest film of all time. End of argument.  End of article.

Oh, you want more? OK, fine...

It's hard to believe that the film many consider to be the best of all time (with apologies to Citizen Kane and The Godfather) started with the humblest of beginnings. Originally, the film was a play. An unproduced play at that, titled Everybody Comes to Rick's.  The rights to the play were bought by Hal Wallis at Warner Bros. and filming began in May of 1942, using standard Warner Bros. contract players. No one, including the actors, ever thought the film would amount to much.  The film's script wasn't even ready when production began, forcing the film to be shot in sequence.

The plot follows Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an exiled American, who runs a seedy nightclub in World War II-era Casablanca in Morocco.  All he cares about is booze and money and he "sticks his neck out for no one."  When Nazi officials arrive at his casino, they want his cooperation in capturing a freedom fighter that escaped one of their concentration camps.  Blaine has no plans on interfering, but when the escapee enters the bar on one fateful night, he is shocked to see his old lover enter as well… a woman that left him years ago as the Nazis occupied Paris.  Of all the gin joints in all the world… why’d she have to walk into his?

If you’re a movie aficionado, then they don’t get much better than Casablanca. On the top of many “All Time” movie lists, in this writer’s opinion this is the greatest film ever made.  You owe to yourself to watch this film as it is an American and cinematic classic.

Rick is one of the coolest characters ever written.  The man was James Bond before there was a James Bond.  He is certainly the template for every leading man ever since and he was played with such excellent ability by the late, great Humphrey Bogart… one of the coolest actor’s ever.  Blaine can smooth talk his way out of any situation, he can charm any woman he wants and he can take care of business when it needs taken care of.  He looks cool no matter what he wears… whether it’s a tuxedo or a trenchcoat, Bogart/Blaine wear it with style.  He is one of the quintessential male icons.  Blaine's story arc is brilliant. He must choose between love and virtue: his love for the woman who broke his heart or helping her husband escape the Nazis and continue the fight against the spreading evil of the Third Reich.  Blaine's character goes through a series of emotions throughout the film, from the cool and detached club owner to the bitter and heartbroken man who is confronted with the woman who broke his heart and finally to one of the more selfless heroes in screen history. His last  act (and final speech!) in the film absolves his sins, gives him closure and he becomes a hero.

Ingrid Bergman is second-billed as Ilsa Lund, Blaine's former lover and Lazlo's wife.  Never has a woman looked so beautiful and desirable on-screen before or since.  While Arthur Edeson's
camerawork is gorgeous, it doesn't take a master to make Bergman look as good as she does in this film.  Bergman is more than just looks, though. Her performance as Ilsa is brilliant.  It's difficult to play a character like Ilsa who is a montage of conflicting emotions. At first the audience is meant to sympathize with Rick, after all Ilsa left him standing in the rain with a funny look on his face.  But on the surface you understand why Rick fell in love with her, her beauty is unparalleled.  However, as the story is revealed the audience starts to understand why Ilsa left Rick and she pulls at your heartstrings. She truly is in love with both of these men. Torn between the love of her life and the man who helped her forget that man when she thought he was dead.  Her eyes practically swim with tears when she listens to Sam play "As Time Goes By."  Her desperation and frustration with Rick in later scenes when he refuses to help her are also brilliantly played. She is finally forced to sleep with Rick (well, it was 1942, so it wasn't explicity shown... but that's what was clearly implied) so that she can save Victor, and the audience can forgive her. She is doing it out love... for both men.

Paul Henreid's supporting turn as Victor Lazlo is a difficult role and unfortunately often ignored or underrated.  After all, the audience has been won over by the wonderful portrayal of Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, how can anyone measure up.  Even when we first meet him onscreen, he seems ordinary. Handsome, sure, but seemingly unremarkable.  Later in the film, when Ilsa describes how she fell in love with him, it helps his image, but it's not until he defiantly leads the house band at the club in a stirring rendition of "La Marseillaise" in a room full of Nazis that you finally see it. THAT's why she loves him. This man is a leader. This man is a hero.  That's the man she fell in love with. And suddenly, you understand Ilsa's conflict.

The other major role in the film belongs to Claude Rains as the scheming Captain Renault.  Renault is a weasel, brown-nosing the invading Nazis even though he happens to be in neutral territory.  Renault wins money at Rick's casino without gambling, spends his evenings drinking and arranges exit visas for young women in exchange for (implied) sexual favors.  Rains as an actor is clearly enjoying portraying this man with seemingly little morality, but in the final moments he chooses heroism over cowardice. In a movie that has so many beautiful story arcs, it still manages to find time to give Renault a satisfying arc for the audience.

As mentioned above, the film is filled with contemporary Warner Bros. contract players. Sidney Greenstreet appears in a smaller role as the owner of a rival club to Rick's Cafe Americain, while Peter Lorre brings his nervous twitchiness to the sniveling stooge known as Ugarte.  Veteran German actor Conrad Veidt brings his understated villainy to the film's main antagonist, Major Strasser. And of course Dooley Wilson (who eagle-eyed viewers may notice can not play the piano to save his life) shines as Sam, Rick's closest companion and club singer. Wilson's rendition of "As Time Goes By" will go down as one of the most famous musical moments in film history.

The Epsteins wrote the majority of the screenplay but were called away to work on the Why We Fight  series after the  Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Howard Koch took up the reins and worked on the script until they returned.  Despite this, the screenplay is one of the most perfect pieces of cinematic writing ever produced. Even if you never seen this film, you KNOW all the lines.  ”Here’s looking at you kid;” “We’ll always have Paris.”  ”This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Plus many others.  This is one of the most quotable movies ever made.  And forget the dialogue for a minute (as amazing as it is.)  This is also one of the most perfectly structured stories ever written.  Blaine appears to be hard and cold, but the rejection of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) all those years ago leaves him a broken and emotionally scared man.  Ilsa is the gorgeous but mysterious ex-lover that has come back into Rick’s life, what is her ultimate agenda?  Victor Laszlo escaped a concentration camp and is leading a resistance against the Nazis… a true hero, but do you want him to end up with Ilsa or do you want it to be Rick?  Everything comes to a head in the climax and it’s one of the most memorable scenes in film history.

Despite it being adapted from an unproduced screenplay, the fact that screenplay was still not ready in time for production, production delays, the stars not believing the film to be anything extraordinary, Humphrey Bogart attempting his first romantic lead and solid (but unremarkable) box office business, Casablanca went on to win 3 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), top "Best Film" lists even 70 years later, was responsible one of the most memorable movie songs ever and featured some of the most quoatable movie dialogue of all time delivered by some of the greatest actors of all time... Casablanca exceeded every expectation.

When it comes down to it, if you claim to love movies and you’ve never seen Casablanca… well, you’re just cheating yourself.

Play it, Sam.