Friday, October 11, 2013

Casablanca (Best Picture 1943)

Casablanca is probably one of the most well-known movies in film history. Who doesn't recognize that character in the fedora and trench coat as Humphrey Bogart? (Answer: people under 30, that's who, but you know what I meant) So many lines from the movie are still used in our vernacular today: "We'll always have Paris," "Round up the usual suspects," "I'm shocked to learn that gambling is going on in this establishment," "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," and even a line that was never actually said in the film, "Play it again, Sam."

Casablanca as a film was one of those happy movie accidents. If you know how the leads were not cast until the last minute and about how the script was constantly being re-written you can appreciate even more how good it turned out to be. I have read that because Ingrid Bergman did not know how the film would actually end (nobody did!), she believed her portrayal of Elsa was even stronger than it would otherwise have been: she wasn't always acting when she said things like, "What's going to happen to us?"
If you have never seen this film, you should see it. Have I said that about any film in this series that you actually did go out and see and not like? No, right? So trust me on this. The story involves a mysterious American named Rick (Bogart) who runs the most popular night-club in Casablanca. It is December 1941 and the city is abuzz with activity. Nazis are in town chasing after two different individuals: a black-marketeer with stolen travel papers (a wonderful Peter Lorre) and a refugee named Viktor Lazlo (the charismatic Paul Henreid). Lazlo and his female companion (Bergman) arrive in town, hoping for said travel documents so that they can escape from under Nazi control. Everybody believes Rick has acquired the passes, so he becomes the most important man in town. The story becomes more complicated when we learn that Rick and Elsa share a history in Paris before the Nazis stormed in. ("You wore blue, the Nazis wore gray.")
That is the plot in a nutshell. What raises the film to the level of CLASSIC comes from the script, the direction (as well as the lighting and staging), and of course, the acting. 
The script is straight-forward, but still manages to include several scenes I can recite by memory. In one wonderful scene, the visiting Nazis are in Rick's night-club and they begin singing a boisterous beer club song. All of the other customers are obviously taken aback, but too polite to do anything about it. Lazlo seizes the moment and darts to the orchestra, telling them to play the French National Anthem. At one nod from Rick, they comply, and the entire night club sings in French, drowning out the Germans. France had been invaded in June 1940, but French owned-and-operated territories such as Monaco were still nominally "free,"so this was a shrewd response to German pomposity. And visually it is a wonderful scene.
The script is not only full of wonderful scenes, but also includes dozens of wonderful characters, from the smallest supporting role up to and including the leads. There are several throw-away characters, such as Sydney Greenstreet as a rival night-club owner, and the elderly European couple who are seen practicing their English because they are on their way to America. Their English is terrible, but that is the point. And as symbols of the rise in the number of immigrants trying to escape from the Nazis, they are timely and interesting. There is also a young wife who is willing to sell her virtue in order to get an exit visa. She has gone to the police chief, a dapper Claude Rains, who offers to sign her and her husband's papers for a certain price. Although Rick seems cruel and heartless ("I stick my neck out for nobody!"), he takes pity on her and helps her husband win at roulette. Rains is shown throughout the film trying to get to know Rick, but Rick is never forthcoming about who he is and what he wants. Dewey Wilson plays a small but vital role as Sam, the piano player and Rick's only real friend. He is a black American, and he and Rick being friends represents all that is possible in the United States. And lastly there is Conrad Veidt, as the head Nazi, a pompous, egotistical, and dangerous man. In an early scene where he and Rains' character meet up with Rick, Lazlo, and Elsa, they discuss German ambitions. They chat about Rick being in Paris before the invasion, and he says, "You never thought you'd see us in Paris, did you? Can you see us in London?" Veidt delivers it with just enough threat and malice, and everyone is struck for words. It's a chilling comment, even seventy years on.
Lastly, the lighting and staging add an extra texture to the film. In the very first scene we are "walked" through Rick's Place as if we were actually touring it in person. Finally, the camera comes to rest on Humphrey Bogart's table, then on his hands, and then as he picks up a cigarette, the camera finds his face. It's a great process that makes us feel "at home" with him immediately. Later, when he and Ingrid Bergman meet up to discuss their past and the travel documents, the lighting is dark, subdued, and mysterious. It is absolutely effective, and representative of the talents involved in the making of this motion picture.
I'm not in the habit of laying out superlatives, but if I had to write up a list of the all-time greatest films ever made, I'm sure Casablanca would be on it. "Here's looking at you, kid."
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1943*
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein,
and Howard Koch
based on a play by Murray Burnett & Joan Allison
Wow, except for not calling out Claude Rains, this is a great trailer!
It makes me want to see the movie again!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
For Whom The Bells Toll
Heaven Can Wait
The Human Comedy
In Which We Serve
Madame Curie
The More The Merrier
The Ox-Bow Incident
The Song Of Bernadette
Watch On The Rhine
Believe it or not, this is another year (the first since 1935) where I have not seen *any* of the other nominees. I have heard of The Ox-Bow Incident (I read the book in high school). Of course For Whom The Bell Tolls is based on the book by Ernest Hemingway and stars Gary Cooper, but I never saw it.  Researching for this article I see that The Song Of Bernadette earned Jennifer Jones Best Actress, Watch On The Rhine won Paul Lukas Best Actor, For Whom The Bell Tolls won Katina Paxinou Best Supporting Actress, and The More The Merrier won Charles Coburn Best Supporting Actor. I also learned that Heaven Can Wait is *not* the original version of the Warren Beatty movie of the same name; that is actually a remake of an earlier film called Here Comes Mr. Jordan (which co-starred Claude Rains!).


  1. Love this movie! It is one of my all time favorites! Bogart, Raines, Bergman, Lorre....all top notch!

    On a side note, am I the only one that looks at "To Have, And To Have Not" as a pseudo sequel?

    1. I have never seen it, Tim. I'll get it from the library and then let you know.

      But it probably is only you. ;-)