Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Repeat Viewing: Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)

TSPDT placing: #20
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Murray Burnett (play), Joan Alison (play), Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, Casey Robinson (uncredited)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, Joy Page
You’re saying this only to make me go.

I’m saying it because it’s true.
Inside of us we both know you
belong with Victor. You’re part
of his work, the thing that keeps
him going. If that plane leaves
the ground and you’re not with
him, you’ll regret it.


Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow,
but soon, and for the rest of your
But what about us?
We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t
have, we’d lost it, until you came
to Casablanca. We got it back last
And I said I would never leave you.
And you never will. But I’ve got
a job to do, too. Where I’m going
you can’t follow. What I’ve got to
do you can’t be a part of. 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. Now, now…
Ilsa’s eyes well up with tears. Rick puts his hand to her chin
and raises her face to meet his own.
Here’s looking at you, kid.
Ah, Casablanca. What other film can evoke such powerful feelings of nostalgia, can exemplify so completely the golden period of Hollywood film-making? The year was 1942, and the world found itself in the midst of the bloodiest conflict in modern history. Unlike anything our generation could possibly imagine, citizens were faced with an incredible uncertainty about their future. The Nazis marched across Europe, an astonishing, seemingly-unstoppable enemy, and the United States watched with bated breath from across the Atlantic. Most Hollywood productions responded to such ambiguity with fully-fledged, unabashed patriotism, and war-time filmmakers became obsessed with validating audiences' beliefs that the Allied forces would inevitably win out against Germany, and, indeed, many often concluded their pictures with unnecessary epilogues in which we've apparently already won. Such propaganda, while no doubt ensuring commercial success from war-weary cinema-goers, has regularly tarnished and outdated even the most otherwise-impressive contemporary WWII pictures, as the directors' willingness to simulate a happy ending strikes distinctly false from an era in which the overwhelming atmosphere was that of uncertainty and insecurity {see Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943)}.

This is not to say that Casablanca (1942) is not a work of American patriotism; indeed, it might just be the greatest example. The film owes its enduring legacy to how seamlessly director Michael Curtiz, and his troupe of writers and actors, was able to encapsulate the sentiment of the time in which the picture was made. The story ends with Rick and Renault strolling resolutely into the thick mist, their futures obscured by the fog of uncertainty that hovers before their faces. What will the next few turbulent years have in store for these heroes? Will they be overwhelmed by the enemy, or continue their noble fight for freedom? Following Operation Torch, the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa, there were plans to film one of those dreaded propagandistic epilogues, showing Rick, Renault and a detachment of Free French soldiers on a ship. Owing to Claude Rains' fortuitous unavailability for filming, the original ending was left intact, and producer David O. Selznick was never more correct than when he concluded "it would be a terrible mistake to change the ending."

When Casablanca was first conceived, the filmmakers apparently had little idea they were about to produce one of cinema's best-loved pictures. A prime example of the studio-bound exotica that was popular at the time, and obviously a war-time off-shoot of Howard Hawks' Colombian aviation adventure Only Angels Have Wings (1939) – perhaps also John Cromwell's Algiers (1938), which I unfortunately haven't seen – the film reproduced the stuffy, humid climate and seedy, corrupt personalities of Morocco on the Warner Bros. sets, which ironically communicate more romantic charm than the real location could ever have provided. The film was shot by veteran cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who had previously worked on the wonderfully-atmospheric All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Frankenstein (1931) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). His perfectly-framed photography suggests a mixture of stuffy melodrama, glamorous adventure and shadowy noir, though, interestingly, he avoids the sordidness of the latter style's successors, despite the wealth of suitably-seedy characters to be found in Casablanca. Framed through Edeson's lens, it seems that even the most squalid and repulsive of personalities can take on a curious facade of nobility.

No less than six people had a hand in the film's justly-celebrated screenplay. The story was based on a then-unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, "Everybody Comes to Rick's," and was adapted for the screen by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, with uncredited input by Casey Robinson. The Epstein twins were initially keen to give the film a few comedic elements; this would, no doubt, have made for entertaining viewing, not unlike a Howard Hawks picture, but might have detracted from the story's core themes of love, loyalty, regret, moral responsibility and self-sacrifice. Koch had perhaps a clearer understanding of the director's preferences – another wonderful film from Curtiz, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), also poses a vital moral dilemma – and chose to focus largely on the politics and melodrama of Burnett and Alison's play. That so many conflicting artistic ideas somehow melded together, not only into a cohesive narrative, but also into history's greatest screenplay, is a miracle to be credited only to the cinema gods, particularly in view of the fact that Curtiz commenced filming with an incomplete script that was updated daily.

Perhaps another possible explanation for the film's unlikely legacy lies with the distinguished cast, borrowed from all over Europe. Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Joy Page were the sole American "imports," and assorted supporting talents were plundered from the United Kingdom (Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet), Sweden (Ingrid Bergman), Austria (Paul Henreid), Hungary (Peter Lorre) and even Germany (Conrad Veidt, who fled the Nazi regime in 1933 after marrying a Jewish woman). Bogart, who had been typecast throughout the 1930s as a lowlife gangster, had been given the opportunity to show some humanity in Raoul Walsh' film noir High Sierra (1941), but it was Casablanca that proved his first genuinely romantic role, and, with several notable exceptions, the remainder of his acting career would comprise of similarly-noble yet flawed heroes. Bergman, despite having a rather passive role, was never more enchanting than as Ilsa Lund, and, photographed with a softening gauze filter and catch lights, positively sparkles with gentle compassion and sadness.

Perhaps it's just the romantic in me, but Casablanca represents, without a doubt, one of Hollywood's most unforgettable accomplishments. Even as the film draws to a majestic close, and two men forge a lifelong friendship in the fog-ridden uncertainty of war, we immediately feel like asking Sam to play it again… just for old time's sake.

Currently my #1 film of 1942:
1) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2) The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
3) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)


Alex said...

So i tried to message you on IMDB but couldn't figure out how to do it. You posted an update to a question I had about a film titled "Frank Film" that I originally posted in 2004. Thank for that link, exactly what I was looking for. I saw in your profile you top 250 with the request of letting you know of any movies not on there. Go see The Fall (2006). Just saw it this weekend and was blown away.

ackatsis said...

Hi, Alex. Thanks for getting back to me. My reply might have been three years too late, but at least it got to you eventually!

For future reference, if you'd like to send a Personal Message (PM) on IMDb, you start by clicking on a user's profile. Near the bottom (just above their posting history) there are three choices:
* Ignore postings from [user]
* Add [user] to my friend list
* Send a private message to [user]
Click on the third one, and you're set to go.

You may check your own PM inbox by clicking at the top right-hand corner of the page [next to "Friends" and "Log Out"].

Also, thanks for the recommendation. I'd never heard of "The Fall," but the plot description sounds vaguely similar to "Pan's Labyrinth," which I thought was great!
It might take a while to reach Australia, though.

tosser/ressot said...

A combined response to both Casablanca and Annie Hall: eh. Neither do too much for me. They're both what I'd call "nice movies": they basically do what they want to do, which is generally lightly pleasurable. But never too much more.

Ambersons is still the ultimate movie of '42. 'Nuff said.

ackatsis said...

I'm rather lukewarm on "The Magnificent Ambersons." There's certainly some nice camerawork, and some nice acting, but it's a rather basic melodrama, and I found nothing particularly interesting about the story.

And then don't get me started on the ending. They had a perfectly bleak conclusion right there - George Minafer sitting soullessly at his bed, having finally gotten his comeuppance, and gotten it good. What happens next is unforgivable.

tosser/ressot said...

Blame the studios for the ending. Not Welles. In fact, blame them for everything.

After all, they hacked Welles' 2.5 hour Ambersons down to a 90 minute Ambersons, and added a cheesy ending. I think it's safe to blame them for everything. ;)