Wednesday, June 30, 2010

“I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”

This one is a bit daunting because honestly, what can I possibly add that hasn’t been already said about 1942’s Casablanca, which is one of the most universally beloved films ever made? Oh well, let’s give it the ol’ college try.

WAR! It’s the early 1940s and the Third Reich is pushing its way through Europe like a hot knife goes through butter. France has fallen and a puppet government in Vichy has been established. This matters to us because in French-controlled Morocco, the authority of the Vichy government is somewhat weak and the city of Casablanca (DUN DUN DUN) has become a point of departure for countless fugitives and refugees trying to leave the horrors of the Second World War. In the middle of this tumult is an American who owns a nightclub/casino that is neutral ground for everybody. While professing not to give a damn about the war, he’s got a shadowy past that indicates otherwise. Then everything changes when an old flame of his enters his café one night looking for his help.

Rick Blaine: Humphrey Bogart plays the owner and proprietor of Rick’s Café Américain. Cool, collected and totally the king of the little world he’s made for himself, Rick is an awesome guy who’s been emotionally wounded by a lot of stuff in the past and hides it all under a tough exterior. He gets a jolt when an old lover reenters his life, looking for help with her husband in tow. So now Rick’s torn in a bunch of directions: Does he give her the brush off for leaving him all those years ago? Does he help her and her husband escape German soldiers? Does he send her hubbie up the river in and abscond to America with her? Some fantastic drama comes out of the situation and while Rick gets challenged, he never really loses his competence or badass nature.

Ilsa Lund: The beautiful Ingrid Bergman plays the old lover. She and Rick had a whirlwind romance in Paris right before the War. She fell in love with him while she believed her husband had been killed by the Germans. When she found out about his survival, she left Rick without explanation. Understandably, his feelings were hurt. Now in Casablanca, some of that old romance bubbles up and causes no end of drama.

Victor Laszlo: Paul Henreid plays a Czech resistance fighter who is like a cockroach the German’s can’t kill. He’s technically the hero of the film (and the most heroic), an idealist, but he’s also got a stick up his ass. Yes he loves Ilsa, but when you see the pain written on Rick’s face, you can’t really blame the guy for considering giving Victor over to the Germans.

Captain Louis Renault: Claude Rains (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite 30s-40s supporting actors) plays the affably corrupt chief of police. He’s a womanizer, takes bribes and is completely willing to arrest people on trumped up charges, but he’s also a pragmatic man with little love for Vichy or German interference. Renault is something of a wild card in the film, working toward his own benefit, but he also gets the lion’s share of funny dialogue, especially the banter with Rick. Captain Renault is awesome.

Major Strasser: Conrad Veidt (the sleepwalker Cesare from silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) plays the German officer who arrives in Casablanca looking for Laszlo. Tall, aristocratic and actually somewhat reasonable, he’s also unwavering in his pursuit of any kind of reason or excuse to arrest the freedom fighter and bring him back to Germany. Clearly the Villain, but nuanced enough to have a bit of sympathy.

Signor Ferrari: Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon) plays a “rival” nightclub owner who has extensive underworld connections and information. Fairly minor, but Greenstreet does a great job of it.

Ugarte: Peter Lorre (also The Maltese Falcon) essentially has one scene, but it is crucial to the plot. He’s a shady character who gets his hands on some letters of transit, a legal, valid means for anyone who has them to leave Morocco, no questions asked. He hands them over to Rick for temporary custody while he lays low, but he gets arrested soon after, so Rick just keeps them for himself. These letters become the film’s maguffin.

And then there are the tertiary characters; the staff of Rick’s Café led by Dooley Wilson as the pianist Sam. While minor, they’re all well defined and have some great scenes & dialogue.

Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood) with director of photography Arthur Edeson created one hell of a picture. You have some elements of noir in the lighting, but the atmosphere and exotic setting (through the miracle of soundstages) really give the film a completely unique feel. Masterfully done.

Based on the play Everybody Comes To Rick’s by Murray Burnett & Joan Alison and screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein & Howard Koch (and Casey Robinson uncredited). The plot, characters, dialogue and general interplay are all excellent. There’s a lot of quotability in this film and a lot of good turns and some outstanding scenes. Possibly my favorite is the one where Rick is in the bar after closing, bitter, confused and trying to drown the old wounds Ilsa just reopened. It’s powerful, and Bogart nails it with the right amount of pathos.

The original score by Max Steiner is excellent in every possible way, but a number of songs have huge parts in the success of the movie. The “theme” is “As Time Goes By” written by Herman Hupfeld for a Broadway show from the 30s and sung by Dooley Wilson, then hummed here and there and even worked into Steiner’s score. Then there’s a key character moment in Rick’s where the Germans led by Strasser sing “Die Wacht Am Rhein” and Laszlo rallies the rest of the bar to drown them out with the (Free) French anthem “La Marseillaise.” It could have easily been a cheesy scene, but here it works and is one of the classic moments of the film.

It’s Casablanca. It could have very easily been a cheap, cheesy melodrama/call to arms for the United States to get involved in WWII, but instead we get a tender, character driven Romance that uses the war as a grim backdrop that weighs heavily on every character. In blunt terms, this film is Art. Required viewing.

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