Saturday, December 4, 2010

Casablanca (1942) -- Michael Curtiz

A brooding Rick asks pianist Sam to play As Time Goes By.
It is December 1941 and the German tentacles of domination have reached North Africa. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an exiled American and former freedom fighter, owns the most popular nightclub in Casablanca. On the surface Rick is as cynical as they come, saying he sticks his neck out for nobody, but at heart he is idealistic. The Moroccan city is governed by the Vichy French and is a jumping off point for refugees looking to flee Europe. The black market flourishes. Rick comes into possession of two letters of transit, tickets to America that many would die for. When Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), an important Czech Resistance leader arrives with his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), Rick must confront painful memories—he and Elsa were once lovers. She broke his heart in Paris with no explanation. Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a high-ranking Gestapo official who hopes to detain Laszlo, orders the local police to keep the man under observation, but Captain Renault (Claude Rains), an unscrupulous police captain and friend of Rick's, will go where the wind blows.

Director Curtiz fashioned a memorable and tightly plotted film. Working with brothers Julius and Philip Epstein's wonderful script, as good an ensemble cast ever gathered, and a top-notch cameraman, it's no wonder the film works so well. Each scene propels the action forward and is packed with crackling dialog. Famous quotable lines include: "Here's looking at you kid," "I think this is be the beginning of a beautiful friendship," "We'll always have Paris," and "I came to Casablanca for the waters."           

Bogart as the embittered Rick Blaine
Bogart's transformation from the thug he often played in 1930 gangster films to the cool cynic persona he's best known for today, and first displayed two years earlier in The Maltese Falcon, is complete in the character of Rick, looking great in a white tux or trench coat and fedora. It's a marvelous performance. He holds the film together. No-one ever delivered bitterness and hurt better. Ilsa's arrival opens old wounds; he says "Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Lazlo, or were there others in between or... aren't you the kind that tells?" The character is easy for anyone to relate to who has loved and lost. And that's part of the film's charm too; it sews a love story into the fabric of an adventure thriller, where a common looking man can win the beautiful girl, even if it's for but a brief period.    
[about Rick] Strasser: You give him credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he's just another blundering American.
Renault: We mustn't underestimate "American blundering". I was with them when they "blundered" into Berlin in 1918.
Rick's club is the site for most of the action, a perfect setting for intrigue, but the best scene occurs at the end at the airport, shrouded in heavy fog. The five main characters converge and it is not until the final moment that Curtiz lets the audience find out how it will turn out, and what kind of men Rick and Renault really are. Great moments at Rick's include the rousing rendition of  La Marseillaise to drown out  the German anthem, the rigged Roulette game, Renault's gambling payoff, Rick's drunken brooding, and Dooley Wilson's piano.
Bergman, convincingly conflicted, is stunningly lit in black and white, while Veidt is coldly reptilian and condescending. Rarely do you want a villain to get his just deserts more. 

The supporting  actors are all terrific, starting with Claude Rains as the shifty and amusing Renault, Rick's brother in arms. They both despise the Nazis. Always a solid performer, Rains nearly steals the show with some of the best lines. Portly Sidney Greenstreet owns the Blue Parrott, Rick's competition, and Peter Lorre is sufficiently sleazy as the parasitic Ugarte, who preys on desperate people trying to escape the city.

And it has that most romantic song, penned by Herman Hupfeld in 1931.

What Makes Casablanca Special:

At its core the film has a theme to rally around: the good guys against the evil oppressor. The Nazis, personified by the menacing Major Strasser, must be stopped, or in this case, out-foxed. This is patriotism without it being in-your-face. When Rick tells Elsa that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans, we understand and like to think that we too, possess such a noble character. It makes us feel good about ourselves and our country. That the message is delivered by such charismatic and memorable actors, is icing on the cake.      

Bogart and Bergman embrace after Ilsa tried to force him to give her the letters of transit.
There are certainly films technically superior to Casablanca, more ground-breaking, or with better acting or cinematography; but for pure entertainment, nothing tops the film. And that's what most people want out of a movie, escapism and enjoyment. On that level, it's one of the best film ever made. 

Inside Story:
Conrad Veidt was a staunch anti-Nazi who fled Germany in 1933 after Hitler came to power. He became a British citizen in 1939 and donated a portion of his film earnings to the British war effort. He died one year after making Casablanca, just fifty years old. 

Arthur Edison excelled at black and white cinematography. He handled the cameras on two other classic films, 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front, for which he received an Oscar nomination, and The Maltese Falcon.  

Round up the usual suspects.

Curtiz'sCasablanca was Yankee Doodle Dandy, another that garnered Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, and Actor. Bogart lost but James Cagney won.

The film opened in November 1942, less than a year after the United States' entrance into WWII. The timing was right. By then, Nazis were justifiably vilified everywhere outside the Axis, and any film that demonized them had a good chance of success. The New York Times was impressed. It said the film "makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap." As Time Goes By first appeared in a 1932 Broadway show, Everybody's Welcome.

Major Awards:
  • Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won for Best Picture, Best Director, and screenplay.
  • Bogart and Rains were nominated for acting, Arthur Edison for cinematography, and Max Stiener for music.
  • Selected by the National Registry in 1989 as one of 25 landmark films.
Other films by Curtiz:
  • The Sea Wolf 1947
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy 1942
  • Passage to Marseille 1945
  • Mildred Pierce 1945
  • White Christmas 1954

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