Sunday, May 6, 2012

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca (1942)
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, Casey Robinson (uncredited)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson
(102 minutes, B&W)

It's the movie, the one that everybody has seen at some point or another. It's the movie that fills the heart and soul with sweeping romance and heroism. It's the ultimate American film that embodies the ideals we value in this country: freedom, loyalty, and bravery. What better way to begin a series on great movies than with Casablanca?

This movie has become a cultural icon and is firmly a part of society's consciousness. Every time we hear a line like "We'll always have Paris" or hear some variation of Le Marseillaise playing in the background of our lives, we instantly flashback to Rick's Cafe Americain, with Sam playing the piano and Ingrid Bergman passionately sharing her love with Humphrey Bogart. This is a movie that has the power to stop you in your tracks and return you, as if by force, to its colorful and memorable realm of intrigue and passion. Revisiting certain movies feels like returning home after a long trip. Casablanca is like the old jacket that always fits and always keeps you warm.

Perhaps the thing that makes Casablanca so special is that no one making it sought out to create a masterpiece. Casablanca began as, and continued to be until its release, your typical studio picture from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The talented actors, including Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Claude Rains, were seen in dozens of pictures every year. Casablanca was just another check off of their contracts. The production of the movie was incredibly rushed, so that it could be shipped to theaters just days after the Allied invasion of North Africa. The movie represented a solid, if predictable, success for Warner Brothers. Casablanca was never thought to be anything special.

So why do people respond so strongly to it? I think it must be that the movie represents pure quality in every aspect of its execution. The plot is engaging, the acting is magnificent, especially from the supporting stars, the characters are sympathetic, and the film's morals are inspiring. Casablanca makes its audience members want to be better people. It's enduring popularity and success is truly a case of lightning striking. All the elements came together perfectly, as if by chance, to form a film that would last through the ages.

The film's production was chaotic, to say the least. It's based on a play, at that time unproduced, called Everybody Comes to Rick's. The story only loosely resembles what would end up as Casablanca, but Warner Bros. producer Hal B. Wallis purchased the rights to the play for an unprecedented $20,000. The movie was re-titled to emulate the 1938 movie Algiers. Algiers was a hit, and the first Hollywood film of Hedy Lamarr. So Everyone Comes to Rick's became Casablanca. Through a long string of directors and writers, Wallis would be the chief creative influence on the movie. He especially impacted its design, and also contributed many of its famous lines of dialogue, including the immortal final line: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Writers Julius and Philip Epstein were called in to pen the script, but abandoned the project after Pearl Harbor to make a war movie that had 'better prospects' of success. Casablanca's other credited writer, Howard Koch, was called in to finish the script, but was promptly discarded when the Epsteins returned. Their combined work was finished by producer Casey Robinson with input from Wallis, who selected William Wyler as director. When Wyler was unavailable, Wallis chose his friend Michael Curtiz as a replacement. Curtiz directed on the fly, and was unintentionally kept pretty unaware of the story during shooting. The script was delivered to cast and crew scene-by-scene. The reason Casablanca was shot chronologically was not for effect or artistic impulse, but rather because the ending of the script had not been penned.

The movie's story is an unabashed myth, but a myth we all love believing in. It tells the story, in the words of a character from the film, of a man caught between love and virtue. Rick Blaine (Bogart) is an American living in Morocco, a country that functions as the intermediary station for refugees fleeing the Nazis. Refugees in Casablanca are stuck in limbo; they are safe momentarily, but cannot depart for a pre-Pearl Harbor United States or other neutral countries until they obtain an elusive exit visa. Visas are hard to come by. The black market flourishes. Rick remains neutral to all struggles or personal problems. He simply runs his nightclub, Rick's Cafe Americain, and refuses to become attached to anyone or anything. The bar is always crowded and hazy. In the dim light, black market deals transpire. Shots are downed by refugees in despair. Illicit gambling transpires. People come and go, but always return the next night. No one, including Rick, can move on.

That is, until he encounters a blast from his past. Ilsa Lund (Bergman), a woman with whom Rick has a prior relationship, mysteriously shows up in Casablanca accompanied by freedom fighter Victor Laslow (Paul Henreid). Ilsa and Rick shared a whirlwind romance in Paris, and on the day of the Nazi invasion, he arranged for their escape. She abandoned him, alone in the rain with train tickets in hand. Ilsa and Laslow arrive in Casablanca around the same time as the Nazis, who are working with the Vichy government to obtain Laslow and deliver him back to a concentration camp. Rick still has feelings for Ilsa, but their future together is in direct contrast with the survival of Laslow's Free French movement. Rick must choose whether or not he wants to break his pattern of "sticking his neck out for nobody."

Casablanca appeals to the romantic in all of us. We long to love someone as deeply as Rick loves Ilsa, but we also wish for the opportunity to sacrifice that love for the greater good. The villains in Casablanca are nefarious, and the heroes are chivalrous. Is that unrealistic? Perhaps. Life isn't always black or white, but we long for it to be, and this movie ennobles us. It tells us that heroes can come from anywhere or anyone, and that nobility is something we all can attain.

One of the many strengths of Casablanca is its glorious black and white cinematography, which utilizes noir technique and lighting in the later stages of the movie. Black and white hide and expose characters. They are symbols. One of the movie's most famous shots is when Rick first appears. He signs a check and gradually leans forward in his chair, moving slowly from the shadow so that the audience can see him fully. At another point, Rick tells Ilsa what he remembers about their final day together in Paris. "The Germans wore grey, you wore blue," he says. When the movie later flashbacks to that day, the blue the audience envisions is startlingly powerful. We don't need color flushed before our eyes on the screen. Rick says it, so we see it. That's enough. A colorized version of Casablanca was released in 1984. It was a travesty that robbed the greatest classic of its majesty and mystery. When Casablanca was in production, Ingrid Bergman was photographed with gauze filters to give the image a softening, glowing effect. Her eyes sparkle and her luscious lips are luminous. In color, she is robbed of the angelic effect. All of the creativity and unique approaches to the original B&W cinematography are gone.

The movie is seventy years old, but still feels fresh and appealing. The supporting characters are still as colorful and memorable as ever. Sydney Greenstreet is the local black market trader, who runs a rival cafe to Rick's. Peter Lorre is the sniveling but goodhearted criminal who gives Rick access to the exit visa that can be used either for profit or for the good of Laslow and his cause. Sam the piano player gives the movie what is perhaps its most famous scene: the playing of "As Time Goes By", the anthem of Rick and Ilsa's love, on the piano as Ilsa's request. Max Steiner, the movie's composer, was against the usage of a non-original song as such a large part of the film, but by the time any changes could be made, Bergman had already altered her appearance for her next film, rendering any re-shoots impossible. All of these characters are topped, however, by Claude Rains, who steals the movie as corrupt police chief Renault, a character whose charisma and intelligence make the audience overlook his character flaws and also make his final redemption inevitable.

The indomitable soul of Casablanca is evident during what many viewers describe as one of the movie's best scenes. The Nazis have commandeered the piano in Rick's Cafe and begin playing and singing "Die Wacht am Rhein", a German patriotic anthem. Everyone hushes; everyone is intimidated. They can do nothing. Rick watches as Laslow stalks up to the club band and orders them to begin playing "La Marseillaise." The band is hesitant. They look to Rick for approval. He nods. Laslow begins singing, and is gradually joined by others in the cafe. A woman sings so passionately she sobs. The French tune thunders and drowns out the Germans.

So often when people talk about film classics, they use the phrase, "they don't make 'em like this any more." Casablanca proves them right. That's not to say that Hollywood is incapable of making intelligent, soulful movies, but only that Casablanca couldn't possibly re-exist in the 21st Century. Today we'd get action and a clear-cut ending: Laslow would become the martyr of a vicious German gunfight, leaving Rick and Ilsa free and clear to board a plane together amidst a hail of gunfire and heroic music. Modern Hollywood would rob the movie of its integrity. Casablanca is not and never will be dated, but it truly is a product of its time. When we view it, we view it with nostalgia and appreciation.

When I was 11 years old, the only black and white movie I had seen was It's a Wonderful Life. I knew next to nothing about movies, only that they made me feel important and eternal. I decided that I wasn't exposing myself to the best of film, so I made a choice to take a look and see what I was missing. Casablanca was the first classic movie I watched in this endeavor, and it still is the end-all of my experiences with film. If people had to see one movie to teach them everything a film could be, I would recommend Casablanca. It's success was almost an accident, but thank God it did end up succeeding. Just think of where we would be today without it.

Casablanca was unrated by the MPAA until the 1990s when it was re-rated PG for "mild violence." Two men are shot in the movie, but it isn't graphic. It should be a fine film for kids who are interested in classics.

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