Some links before I get started today. Norma has been posting romantic passages from her books in recent days; you can find them here, here, and here. Parsnip had a Square Dog Friday. Eve had some Valentine's free verse. Krisztina had a style guide for guys. And look here for what Ivy did to her husband's blog. If you haven't seen it, also check my photoblog, where at the moment I am featuring ice carvings at Winterlude.
Now then, today is Valentine's Day, and so I thought I would review a very appropriate movie for the occasion...
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” ~ Rick Blaine
“I can’t fight it anymore. I ran away from you once. I can’t do it again. Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer. You have to think for both of us. For all of us.” ~ Ilsa Lund
“I’ve often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.” ~ Captain Renault
“Might as well be frank, monsieur. It would take a miracle to get you out of Casablanca, and the Germans have outlawed miracles.” ~ Ferrari
“You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting, the world will die.” ~ Victor Lazlo
“Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” ~ Rick Blaine
The 1942 classic Casablanca has a well deserved place as one of the greatest films of all time. A wartime romantic drama, the film deals with themes of love, courage, heartbreak, idealism, sacrifice, intrigue, and more in the North African city, and boasts one of the finest casts ever assembled for a movie. Based on an unproduced play, it was directed by Michael Curtiz (Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce)The film won Oscars, and has cemented its status as a favourite film for many critics and filmgoers ever since.
The film opens on an ominous note, reflecting the history of the time- Nazi Germany having had overrun most of Europe, a flood of refugees seeking escape by whatever route possible. For the sake of the movie, some have come a roundabout way to Casablanca in Morocco, under the control of Vichy France. There they wait for exit visas to safer shores, in a den of corruption and despair, not knowing when they might leave. Two couriers have been murdered, with letters of transit stolen from them, letters that could be priceless to refugees seeking a way out. Authorities are busy looking for the killer, or killers, and the letters of transit.
Many of the city’s inhabitants come to Rick’s, a nightclub and gambling den run by an American expatriate, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). It’s a popular place, made more so by the band and the pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson), and Rick has a friendly rivalry with Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), a nightclub owner who runs several illegal enterprises on the side. Rick himself seems something of an isolated loner, cynical and bitter at the world, thoughtless where women in his life are concerned. He never drinks with customers, and seems to have withdrawn from the world. A criminal by the name of Ugarte (Peter Lorre) turns up with the letters, asking Rick to hide them for him for a couple of hours. Others arrive as well; Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), head of the local police, is escorting a German officer, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), who’s suspicious of pretty much everyone, and Renault is looking for the letters. Ugarte is arrested as a display of Vichy competency, dying in police custody- Renault goes on to note that they’re not quite sure whether or not to chalk it up to a suicide.
Another complication has entered the picture: Victor Lazlo (Paul Heinreid), a Czech resistance leader wanted by the Nazis, has arrived in Casablanca, along with his wife Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), seeking a way out of the country. The Germans are determined not to let him slip through their fingers. Captain Renault is obliged to follow their wishes. And as it turns out, Ilsa has a romantic history with Rick.... and is the reason for his bitterness.
The Warner studio producer Hal Wallis acquired the rights for the play Everybody Comes To Rick’s after it had been recommended, a late 30s response by American travellers Murray Burnett and Joan Alison to the rise of Nazi Germany. Four different writers were attached at various points to the project to turn it into a screenplay, and indeed when filming had begun, the screenplay wasn’t actually finished yet. Two brothers, Julius and Philip Epstein, are given the lion’s share of credit for the screenplay, with separate work done by Howard Koch and an uncredited Casey Robinson). Despite the multitude of writers and competing visions, the script as a whole has a refreshing unity to it. Curtiz was brought in by Wallis to direct when the original studio choice William Wyler was unavailable. Much of the filming was done in the studio, and the set crews evoked the busy atmosphere of a North African city and the tone of a nightclub with great detail. Curtiz had his cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, shoot the film with expressionist light and shadow, a standard in his films, and paid particular attention to the way Bergman was portrayed- she preferred her left side, so many of her scenes are shot from that angle.
The cast is outstanding, in every respect. Conrad Veidt was in fact a refugee from Europe, a German actor who had left Germany in 1933 when the Nazis came to power, and yet ended up playing Nazi officers in a number of films. He plays Strasser with arrogance and condescension, a jackbooted thug eager to do his part for the Fatherland. Strasser seems suspicious of everyone, lacks a sense of humour, and reminds one of a viper. Dooley Wilson, playing Sam, has a good part. The character has accompanied Rick from France in the wake of the fall of Paris. He’s worked for Rick for years, considers him a friend, worries about him, and is loyal to him. It feels like Sam is the only one Rick can be himself around- when he’s drinking, miserable, and alone at his worst late at night, the rest of the staff is gone, but there’s Sam, the one person who understands. It’s interesting to note that while Wilson was a musician, he wasn’t actually a piano player, so the piano in the movie is the sound of another player. The voice, however, is his, and that rendition of ‘You Must Remember This’ is entirely his, and arguably the definitive take on the song.
Peter Lorre was another refugee from Europe who had left when the Nazis came into power, and was used to parts as criminals, eccentric loons, and oddballs. He had worked opposite Bogart before, in The Maltese Falcon, for instance. He plays the part of Ugarte memorably. The character is an opportunistic crook, a weasel you wouldn’t trust for a moment. It’s an oddball performance, but one that stands as a memorable character for Lorre. Sydney Greenstreet, who had spent most of his career on the stage before turning up on screen in The Maltese Falcon some years earlier, plays Ferrari. His character is a less sleazy version of Ugarte- he’s inclined to do some black market things from time to time, but he’s a crook who leaves the dirty work to others. There’s an amiable relationship with Rick- the two own rival nightclubs, but seem to get along well enough. Ferrari seems content to make a living in Casablanca, yet also seems to yearn to get his hands on the popular nightclub, leaving one to think of him as eternally greedy. Still, as was so often the case with a Greenstreet performance, he’s compelling to watch on screen.
Claude Rains gets one of the best roles, if not the best, of his career as Captain Louis Renault. The Frenchman is a womanizing, corrupt, and bemused official, seemingly laughing at the world. He’s charming where women are concerned and diplomatic where others are concerned, particularly with German guests. There’s a cynicism to the character too, concealing a well-guarded idealism and patriotism that we don’t see until very late in the game. You might not trust Renault- certainly not with your wife or daughter- until late in the film, but he’d be a tremendous fellow to sit down and have a drink with. The friendship he has with Rick, weaving back and forth as the plot unfolds, gives him warmth too, even as he finds his romantic plans with a desperate wife derailed by Rick’s re-emerging idealism. It’s such a compelling character, and Rains makes it that way.
One might think that Lazlo is something of a stiff, that he’s gotten a bad rap. The audience invests themselves in Rick and Ilsa, while Victor seems a bit on the outside. He might come across looking at him like that as the man more invested in his place in history, the resistance hero with much work to do, and a reputation to uphold- how much attention does he really pay to his wife? On the other hand, he wants his wife to get to freedom, is willing to return to concentration camps if it’ll ensure her safety. He does love her, and Rick knows it- just as he knows that Victor has been fighting the right cause while he’s withdrawn from the world. Paul Heinreid plays these aspects of the character in a multitude of ways, both in what he says and in how he acts. My favourite moment for the character is probably everyone’s favourite moment for the character: when he insists the band drown out the sound of the German officers singing by playing La Marsellaise. The music stirs every French citizen in the café in a display of defiance, and Victor is right there at the heart of it, leading them on. You can see, in that moment, why people would follow this man.
Ingrid Bergman, in a career of great roles, had her absolute best role with the poignant, bittersweet Ilsa. She finds herself torn between two men she loves, the husband she thought she lost and the man who healed her heart for a time in Paris- until her world was thrown up into upheaval. She’s a woman who keeps much to herself, but is wounded by Rick’s bitterness. It’s a bitterness that seems well warranted, and it cuts deep for her. It even fuels her desperation on the night she comes to Rick’s apartment for the letters of transit- is she there to shoot him or seduce him? I leave it to you to decide if they slept together that night (personally, I think they were). She has great chemistry with Bogart, and we can also see why her character would make a life with Lazlo. Bergman expresses so much with her eyes in this film-love, sadness, tenderness, regret- and ultimately the character finds herself sacrificing one love for another, and for the right cause.
When you look at Humphrey Bogart, the man had a career of great performances that really took off in the late Thirties and never looked back. Rick Blaine is his masterpiece performance. We find him a bitter, deeply cynical man when we first meet him, totally withdrawn from the world. He’s thoughtless where women are concerned, and at first glance, he seems to be harbouring a deep pain. The audience warms up to him during the flashback sequences in France, where we see a kinder man falling in love with Ilsa, and we feel his heartbreak when things go wrong. We can understand that kind of broken heart, so we can relate to him, and that makes the character so compelling. From there, then, the character re-emerges into the world, finding his idealism again, and Bogart plays that very carefully. One of my favourite sequences in the film has Rick helping a young couple to win big at roulette after the wife’s pleading, thus preserving her virtue and giving them a way out of the country. Rick might be losing money, but he’s doing the right thing, and it’s a moment that makes you feel proud of the character; it's his first awakening back to idealism. Ultimately, as his idealism reasserts itself, and he launches on his own plan, he realizes that being worthy of Ilsa’s love means he has to let her go. He knows her life must be with Victor, while his life is going to involve getting back to fighting for a good cause, and doing the right thing means giving up the woman he loves.
Casablanca is a masterpiece, a grand story that mixes together romance, drama, a hint of comedy, intrigue, suspense, and lots of subtext. There is much left to personal interpretation, and even the small moments between minor characters are filled with complexity. It is a film that never gets old, that is timeless and a true classic. It gives us love, sacrifice, honour, loyalty, and fighting for the right cause. To say it’s the best film ever made… is an understatement.