Sunday, April 10, 2011

Stubs - Casablanca

CASABLANCA (1942) Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre. Directed by Michael Curtiz, Produced by Hal Wallis, Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Based on the unproduced play: Everyone Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Run Time: 102. Black and White. USA, Drama/Romance

Having CASABLANCA on a top ten list is nothing new. It has been hailed by many to one of the best movies ever made. But there is no shame in jumping on the bandwagon where this movie is concerned. Set against one of the biggest events of all time, World War II, CASABLANCA plays out as a film about relationships in one small, yet important, corner of the world. After the German occupation of France, the French Sahara was considered part of Free France. But Casablanca, like Paris, was really run by the Nazis. People fled to Casablanca in hopes of getting out of town and out from under Nazi Europe. Many of the hopefuls came to Rick’s CafĂ© American, a night club run by the mysterious Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, to drink and to gamble before fleeing.

There is so much to enjoy about this movie, starting with the cast.

Humphrey Bogart, who plays Rick, is considered by many to be one of the greatest stars from the Hollywood system. His films are talked about now as much or more than other stars of the time, with perhaps the exception of Cary Grant. When is the last time anyone talked about the films of Clark Gable, with the exception of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)? And when is the last time anyone talked about GONE WITH THE WIND except in comparison of box-office with AVATAR? Bogart had been in films since the 30’s and on the Broadway stage before that. On film, while he played a lot of gangsters like Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest (1936), Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941) and George Hally in The Roaring Twenties (1939), to name but a few. He played Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade in the 1941 Maltese Falcon. The list of characters goes on and on, but the one Bogart had never been asked to play before was a romantic lead.

Rick’s romantic interest is Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman. The Swedish-born actress was not only one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, she was also gorgeous. One look and you could see how Rick would fall in love with her. Bergman had only been making films in Hollywood since 1939, uses her European allure to great effect. The fact that she was European brings a certain authenticity to the part that an American actress could have only hoped to mimic. She conveys the turmoil of being in love with one man, but married to another. You know in the end that she has made her choice, but she doesn’t get her way.

Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid, is the third point in the romantic triangle and also the object of the Nazis. Victor is an anti-Nazi leader who, the story tells us, could help the cause by getting to America. The Nazis while they don’t have the power to arrest him in Casablanca, can at least, they think, keep him from escaping, marginalizing him. Victor is in many ways the antithesis of Rick. Straight, where Rick is shifty, Laszlo has a cause to die for. He loves Ilsa, but she is not the love of his life; the cause is.

Claude Rains portrays Captain Louis Renault, the chief of police. Not adverse to bribes and kickbacks, Rains has a pretty sweet gig going for himself. That is until events bring Major Heinrich Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt to Casablanca. And then like his home country, Renault has to kowtow to his Nazi superior.

Veidt’s career dates back to before the silent German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), in which he played the somnambulist [sleepwalker] Cesare. Veidt had fled Nazi Germany and became a British citizen, funneling part of his pay, including playing Nazis, to the war effort against them. While he had played Nazis in previous films, his part in CASABLANCA, his penultimate film, is perhaps how he is best remembered.

Sydney Greenstreet, the rotund actor, plays Signor Ferrari, the owner of the Blue Parrot, a rival nightclub, and a big man in the underworld of the city. Greenstreet was great at playing sinister characters. Something on display in other films, one of which will be reviewed later, The Maltese Falcon.

Peter Lorre, the Hungarian born actor, and another cast member from The Maltese Falcon, plays Ugarte, a criminal who has stolen transit papers from a German courier that would allow anyone to leave Casablanca. It’s finding and using these papers that become the plot of the film. Who will be the one to use these magic tickets to freedom? Lorre, who was born to play shifty, pleads for Rick to help him, but to no avail.

Rounding out the cast of characters: Carl played by S.K. Sakall, a waiter at Rick’s, who one supposes came to Casablanca to escape, but couldn’t. Yvonne, Madeleine LeBeau, a French beauty and former acquaintance of Rick’s, who’s loyalty seems to be bought for a few drinks. And Sascha, Leonid Kinskey, a Russian who has found his way to Casablanca only to end up a bartender at the night club.

Tom Dooley needs to get a special mention. He plays Sam, the one constant in Rick’s life, at least before the war. Sam is the piano player at the nightclub, the one people come to see and who Signor Ferran wants to hire away.

With a cast like this, the plot would almost seem secondary, but thankfully it is not. Ugarte steals two letters of transit from German couriers and heads to Rick for help. But Rick will only put his neck out for Rick and while he hides the passes, he lets the police arrest Ugarte. At about the same time, Ilsa and her husband arrive in Casablanca and, of course, end up at Rick’s. Now the question becomes who will use the passes to get out? Only Rick really knows for sure and maybe he doesn’t really know until the last moments out on the tarmac.

It is that uncertainty that drives the film. Ilsa means a lot to both Rick and to Victor, but the audience is kept in suspense as to whom she loves. She does what every wife should do and asks Rick for the letters of transit for her husband, even going so far as pulling a gun on him. But she loves Rick, even more than she apparently loves her husband, and too much to kill him. Now she wants only Rick to let her husband go, so that he can go on with his work and she can remain in Casablanca with him. She leaves it up to Rick to make the decisions and Rick knows best.

CASABLANCA does not reveal its outcome to the viewer until the very end and it is a powerful ending. I won’t reveal it, for those who may never have seen the film, but even knowing the end does not ruin it. The writing is so good that it is the journey through the story that is the most interesting part. This is a movie that can be watched over and over again and one that I watch every time it is on TCM. Even if the movie is half way over, half of CASABLANCA is better than most films in their entirety.

Casablanca can be purchased from the WB Shop:

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