Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Casablanca

"How can you close me up? On what grounds?"
"I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
"Your winnings, sir."
"[sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much. [aloud] Everybody out at once!"
--Captain Renault upon being ordered to close Rick's Café (Casablanca, 1942)
Rick and Captain Renault

It is difficult to write objectively about a film I love so much.  Every line in this film is incredible--as evidenced by the fact that they have all become famous clichés in modern popular culture.  I had a hard time picking the quote that I put above, as there are so many famous lines like "Play it, Sam." or "Here's looking at you, kid."  I couldn't choose, so I picked a less famous few lines that I’ve always loved, that are so indicative of the witty repartee of this script.
Famous still of Ilsa and Rick

With so many beloved famous films and novels, it is easy to pretend we appreciate them.  How often have you heard someone say that their favorite book is Crime and Punishment, when you know it's probably The Notebook?  I am just as guilty of that flaw, and I am more likely to attempt to like something just because it is popular.  But with Casablanca I can honestly say that I love every moment of this movie.  Every actor is superb, every line is witty and sharp.  I love this movie, but why does she have to get on the plane at the end?  Oops...did I ruin it?
Rick and his Cafe

The Plot
It's 1941, and French colonial town of Casablanca, Morocco, is filled with desperate European refugees attempting to flee World War II and the Germans.  Unfortunately, one cannot leave Casablanca without an exit visa, so a vicious black market trade for the visas thrives in the back alleys.  This reaches a head when two German couriers are killed carrying unquestionable letters of transit.  Captain Louis Renault,  the French prefecture of police, played by Claude Rains, and the newly arrived German Major Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt, are desperate to find those letters.  They are particularly desperate that these letters not reach Victor Lazlo, played by Paul Henreid, a Czech resistance leader who is rumored to be fleeing to Casablanca with a woman in tow.

Ugarte tells Rick about the letters.
Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, is an ex-patriot American misanthrope who runs a popular nightclub and gambling den called Rick's Café Americain.  Ugarte, played by Peter Lorre, a shifty dealer in exit visas, mentions to Rick that he has those visas and plans to sell them at a high price and finally leave Casablanca.  He gives them to Rick for safe keeping, and Rick agrees.  But though Rick once fought on the side of the loyalists in Spain, he has grown cynical, and when Renault tells him not to interfere with Ugarte's arrest, Rick replies "I stick my neck out for nobody."  He does, however, bet that the heroic Lazlo will somehow make it out of Casablanca and past the Germans.  Ugarte is carried away (but without the letters) and a few minutes later Lazlo walks in with his companion, Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman.

Ugarte is carried away.
While Lazlo is busy making contacts with the underground resistance, Ilsa recognizes Sam, the piano player and Rick's best friend, played by Dooley Wilson.  She insists he play the song "As Time Goes By" and reluctantly, Sam agrees.  Rick furiously emerges from his office, yelling that he told Sam never to play that song again, when he becomes poleaxed by the sight of Ilsa, who is sitting next to Sam with tears in her eyes.  Rick breaks protocol and has a drink with his customers, Ilsa and Lazlo, and Ilsa and Rick exchange guarded words.

Sam plays for Ilsa.
Later, after the café is closed, Rick gets drunk on gin and flashes back to his love affair with Ilsa in Paris: After meeting and falling in love, the Nazis invade Paris and Ilsa urges Rick to leave, worried because of his reputation as a freedom-fighter.  But Rick refuses to go without her, and insists she leave Paris with him. At the last minute, however, Ilsa abandons him with a farewell note and Sam must pulled a dazed Rick onto the train.  Rick is interrupted from his memories by Ilsa herself, who has come to explain her actions.  But Rick is drunk and offends Ilsa, who walks out without fully explaining.

"Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine."
The next day Lazlo and Ilsa learn that not only is Ugarte dead, but that those letters are their only means of leaving the city.  They also learn that popular opinion has it that Rick knows where those letters are.  Rick attempts to speak to Ilsa again, sober, and though she brushes him off, she admits that Lazlo is her husband, and was, even in Paris.  That night, Rick helps a young Bulgarian couple win enough roulette money to leave the country, thus depriving Renault of having the young woman pay for the visa another way.  Lazlo asks to buy the letters from Rick, or even just one for Ilsa, but he refuses.  When Lazlo asks his reasons, Rick tells him to ask his wife.  Rick then allows Lazlo to tell his orchestra to play "La Marseillaise," and Strasser, irritated, orders Renault to close the Café.  Though Lazlo suspects something may have occurred between Ilsa and Rick, he loves her, and tries to insist she leave Casablanca without him.  He then leaves to attend an underground resistance meeting.

Lazlo tries to reason with Rick.
Ilsa decides to go back to Rick's and hold Rick at gunpoint until he gives her the letters.  But instead she falls into his arms and confesses.  On the day Rick left Paris Ilsa learned that Lazlo, her husband, whom she had thought dead, was actually alive and in pain, having escaped a concentration camp.  But they both still love each other and Ilsa decides she cannot leave Rick again, and he must make the hard decisions for the both of them.  Later, the police break up the resistance meeting, and Lazlo hides out at Rick's.  Before the police come and arrest him, he begs Rick to use the letters to take Ilsa away from Casablanca.


Ilsa and Rick.

The next day Rick sells his Café to his competitor Ferare and tricks Renault into releasing Lazlo from prison.  Ilsa, Lazlo, Rick and Renault (who is held at gunpoint) head to the airport, but Renault has still managed to alert Strasser, who isn't far behind.  Ilsa thinks she is staying with Rick, but Rick tells her she must get on the plane with her husband, as she gives meaning to his work and Rick believes she would regret not going eventually.  He tells Lazlo that though they loved each other in Paris, Ilsa only pretended to love him now to get the letters.  Lazlo, who understands what really happened, welcomes Rick back to the fight before he and Ilsa board the plane.  Strasser arrives to stop the plane just as it is about to take off, but is shot and killed by Rick before he can stop it.  Renault calls the police, but instead of turning in Rick, he tells them to "round up the usual suspects," and the two men leave Casablanca for the Free French garrison at Brassaville.  Rick puts his arm around him as they walk off into the fog and says "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."


"We'll always have Paris."
The History  
The history of Casablanca has been researched over the years and there are several books and documentaries detailing the creation of this classic film.  But it is interesting to note that this film became what it is today almost in spite of itself.  The film was based on the then-unproduced manuscript of a play called Everybody Goes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.  Warner Bros. bought the rights for $20,000 the most anyone had spent on an unproduced manuscript.  But that didn't stop them from bringing in as many writers as they could; at least four screenwriters would adjust the script over time, although Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, would receive the actual credit.  Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis hired Michael Curtiz as director, a Hungarian Jewish émigré who had European refugee family members.  In fact, only three of the credited actors were American, and a large percentage of the extras were actual European refugees.  During the  "La Marseillaise" scene many of those actors were truly overcome with grief as they realized how many refugees were in the film.

Publicity still for Casablanca
Despite the authenticity of the actors, this film suffered from several major problems.  The script was constantly being rewritten, to the point that the movie had to be shot in sequence because only half the script was completed at the time of filming.  Neither Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman were particularly thrilled about the film, and both looked for ways to get out of a film they considered "shmaltzy."  Ingrid Bergman in particular was incensed to discover that no one could give her tips on Ilsa.  When she asked Curtiz who Ilsa was really in love with, he said, "Play it both ways," because he did not, in fact, know.  While this lends a perfect ambiguity to her character, it was understandably frustrating for the actress.  Though this would become her most iconic film, Bergman would always become embarrassed when fans commented on it, as it was not her favorite performance.  She was also taller than her leading man, a fact that forced Bogart to wear higher shoes and for her to sit in most scenes.  And despite their intense chemistry, Bogart and Bergman were little more than acquaintances throughout the film, although legend has it that he helped teach her how to play poker with the crew in between shooting.  One of the most famous lines of the film, "Here's looking at you, kid," was not in the original script, but was actually improvised by Bogart; he starting saying that to Bergman during their poker lessons and it stuck.

"Here's looking at you, kid."
The famous song of the film, "As Time Goes By," was almost taken out at the last minute, as music director Max Steiner wanted to replace it with one of his own songs.  But Ingrid Bergman had already cut her hair very short for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Steiner instead decided to design all the musical themes around "As Time Goes By," and "La Marseillaise."  At the end of the film, in order to make the fake miniature plane seem more life-like, the director hired midgets to walk around the plane like mechanics.  And the final, famous line of the film was dubbed in a month after filming by Bogart after it was suggested by producer Hal Wallis.  The title was changed to Casablanca, though some thought the new name sounded like a Mexican beer.  Luckily for them, Casablanca premiered in the same month that Eisenhower led Allied troops in an invasion of...Casablanca.  And right after the movie opened to theaters worldwide in January, Roosevelt and Churchill met in that same city to pledge to end the Nazi regime.  Suddenly this relatively unimportant city had become a household name.  And Jack Warner had another hit on his hands.

Bogart and Bergman being filmed on set.

Casablanca was nominated for eight awards, of which it won three: Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing, Original Screenplay.  When it won for Best Picture, producer Hal Wallis got up to accept his award, only to watch studio head Jack Warner beat him to the podium.  Though he would go on to win the Irving G. Thalberg award for the second time, many sited Warner's usurpation of the Oscar as Wallis's reason for leaving Warner later that year. 

Carrotblanca
While Casablanca was certainly well received and entertaining, it did not achieve its fame until the 1950s, when revivals in independent movie houses caused the "cult of Bogart" to rise again.  Citizen Kane may be considered the better film technically, Casablanca is certainly the more beloved.  In 1989, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2005 it was also named one of the 100 greatest films of the last 80 years by Time Magazine. In 2006, the Writers Guild of America voted the screenplay of Casablanca the best of all time in its list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays. The film has been recognized by the American Film Institute in eight of their lists and in AFI's 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes Casablanca has six quotes, the most number of any film by far.  There have also been numerous parodies, including several by the Marx brothers, one by the Muppets, and Carrotblanca, featuring Bugs Bunny.  The film has grown in popularity over the years, until almost despite itself, it has become one of the best films of all time.

Director Curtiz watches Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart on the opening night 1942 Warner Bros.

This year, the Academy decided to do the unthinkable: follow Betty Davis's plan from two years previous.  This year, they decreed, there would be no dinner.  Instead, the Awards would be held in a public setting: Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.  They choose to implement another one of Bette Davis's ridiculed ideas and gave free passes to two hundred members of the armed forces.  And mindful of Greer Garson's public gaff in 1943, the Academy decided to "streamline" by eradicating all "outside speeches" and requesting winners to speak for only 30 seconds.  Instead of speakers, the Academy promised a variety show of famous entertainers.  While the Awards did have a few issues (they forgot to include parking) the show was a lot more entertaining than years previous.  The Hollywood Reporter claimed that even though attendees could no longer drink through the ceremony, "All in all, it was a swell affair, finely handled and one that will now set a precedent that will most certainly eliminate the junk usually attendant at such affairs in the past."


Grauman's Chinese Theater at the 1943 Academy Awards

The Verdict?
There are so many wonderful things about this movie.  I don't watch it often, as I always feel filled with a kind of longing nostalgia when it is over.  The expressions in this movie are what I remember.  Ilsa's tearful, brave face that she turns up to Rick, as though she has finally lost the battle within herself.  When you look at her, and that scene before she sees Rick for the first time after leaving him, the internal struggle is written in her expression.  She can't see Rick, knows it will only end badly, and yet cannot seem to stop herself.  She loves him so much and hates herself for it, just as she feels guilty.

Ilsa, before she leaves Rick.
 Rick's reaction in the scene is less complex.  He looks like a man who has been kicked in the throat.  A better moment for him is when the patrons of his club begin to sign La Marseillaise in defiance to the Germans.  He looks as though he wishes to join but can't.  Just as Ilsa shakes her head in the admiration she can't help but feel for Lazlo.  Lazlo himself is the only one who never has a doubt as to his actions.



Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund
Roger Ebert says, 
"After seeing this film many times, I think I finally understand why I love it so much. It's not because of the romance, or the humor, or the intrigue, although those elements are masterful. It's because it makes me proud of the characters. These are not heroes -- not except for Paul Heinreid's resistance fighter, who in some ways is the most predictable character in the film. These are realists, pragmatists, survivors: Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine, who sticks his neck out for nobody, and Claude Rains' police inspector, who follows rules and tries to stay out of trouble. At the end of the film, when they rise to heroism, it is so moving because heroism is not in their makeup. Their better nature simply informs them what they must do."
Rick lets the Hungarian couple win at roulette.
I like his reading of the film.  These people are flawed and human.  Not even the beautiful heroine is perfect.  They are all simply muddling through, trying to make the best of their entangled lives.  I see parts of myself in Rick, in Ilsa, perhaps even in Lazlo and Renault.  This film is filled with believable humanity and the heroism that can sometimes rise from it.  It is charming, witty, and wrenching.  Rick tells Ilsa in the end that "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."  But what makes this film so lovable is our interest in these three little people.  Casablanca reminds us that the little people do matter, and that our world is filled with such little problems.  It is what makes it so easy to connect to this film even now.

Publicity still for Casablanca
Though I've seen Casablanca many times, watching it now made me realize this film is like Mrs. Miniver.  The audience did not know the ending.  "Who do you think will win the war?" Major Strasser asks Rick.  He doesn't know.  And neither did the audience.  It makes the entire tone of the film far more chilling.  Rick walks off to fight at the end, but he is walking into an unknown future.  We may be assured of his victory, but how terrifying to be in the theater and be unsure.

End of the film...but the beginning of a beautiful friendship...
P.S. Want to hear the original ceremony?  Click here!
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