Tuesday, 12 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 26 - Casablanca

#75 - Casablanca:

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship...
I don’t know why I keep opening these entries with quotes but it’s a lot easier than thinking up a witty opening line. But choosing a quote from this film is pretty tricky, given that my 100 Greatest Movie Quotes poster has about six from Casablanca. It’s a film that tops many people’s greatest films list so I’m sure a few people will be annoyed that it isn’t higher on my list but hey this is a new generation. And, if I may quote the poster’s tagline instead of the movie itself “they had a date with fate in....”

Casablanca is a place in Morocco in late 1941 where hundreds of refugees wait, desperately seeking to flee to the United States. The place to go in Casablanca is Rick’s Cafe, an upscale nightclub and gambling den that attracts a mixed clientele. The owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a supposed neutral in matters of the war, who is aloof and cynical claiming “I stick my neck out for nobody” and behaves as such. When our film starts, a petty criminal Ugarte has murdered two German couriers and stolen two letters of transit which allow the holder to move around freely in German-controlled Europe and are therefore priceless to the refugees. Rick ends up with the letters after Ugarte is arrested and that coincides with the arrival of the infamous Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a fugitive Czech resistance leader who has escaped from a concentration camp, and his partner Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) who appears to have some history with Rick. It turns out they had a fling in Paris but Ilsa abruptly left him when they were planning to elope. Ilsa then reveals that Victor is actually her husband and she believed him dead when she was in Paris but found out he was alive just before she and Rick were meant to leave. Oh, and a Nazi official has arrived in Casablanca planning to arrest Victor.

The film has an incredibly diverse cast which is something I always love to see in loads of stories; you have quite the mix of nationalities here and there are actually only three Americans in the cast – Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson (Sam) and Joy Page (Mrs Brandel) – while you have a few Eastern Europeans and Italians among other nationalities. This film is notable as Bogie’s first romantic role (he’d been previously typecast as a gangster) and he does a bang up job with Rick’s dry wit and sarcastic comments that would put Chandler Bing to shame. Such examples include:

Ugarte: “You despise me don’t you”
Rick: “Hell if I gave you any thought, I probably would”

Rick: “I came here for the waters”
Louis: “What waters? We’re in the desert”
Rick: “I was misinformed”

Rick: “I wouldn’t bring up Paris if I were you. It’s poor salesmanship”

Another true gem in this film is Claude Rains playing the French Captain Louis Renault (not bothering to do a French accent mind you), as the womanising but sympathetic bravado...thingy. He’s brilliant in the famous scene where he is ordered to shut down Rick’s Cafe under the grounds that he’s shocked to find out that gambling is going on here...only for him to be presented with his winnings. Miss Bergman is of course especially charming with her cute accent and well written lines, and I’m sure that look was considered sexy back then. Nowadays she just looks cute. The rest of the actors do a bang up job of course but I’d like to give a bit of random trivia – the majority of actors playing the Nazis were in fact German Jews who had escaped from Nazi Germany. Also Peter Lorre who played Ugarte also fled Nazi Germany, making his arrest have a lot more meaning with that knowledge.

As mentioned above, the film’s script is its strongest point; all the lines are just brilliant to listen to and it’s rare to find a film where all the lines just flow together so easily and manage to be entertaining all the time. Well, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino that is. Rick’s and Louis’s lines are the most entertaining to listen to, especially when they’re talking to each other but the romance scenes between Rick and Ilsa and indeed Ilsa and Victor are also so naturally written, making both of them some of the best written movie couples in history. Indeed as Roger Ebert said, “no matter who she gets on the plane with at the end, she’s leaving with the wrong man”. There’s not much else to say about the script except how good it was and how the lines are a treat to listen to. Moving on.

Not counting Sin City (which is a whole different type of technology), this is actually the first of a few black and white films on my list so talking about the visuals is a different case. As a black and white film it does make use of the whole chiaroscuro thing that Caravaggio was best known for, notably a scene where Ilsa appears out of the shadows (that a coloured reprint of the film kinda ruined) as well as many dark lighting and moving shadows that is reminiscent of film noir, using the environment as a framing device. Indeed while there are elements of noir here, this film doesn’t really count as film noir – it’s a little too uplifting for that. I enjoyed it more than I did Double Indemnity or Citizen Kane though.

Of course my favourite scene in the film has got to be one of the more famous ones; Rick and Victor walk into the bar to find Major Strasser and the Nazis singing some Nazi anthems and Victor instructs the band to play “Le Marseillaise” which the whole bar joins in singing against the Nazis. True the scene is American propaganda and it is partly ruined by that ridiculous expression Yvonne has on her face in the overlong close up of her, but it is one of the most epic cinematic scenes in history. I also enjoy the Paris flashbacks between Rick and Ilsa even if I’m not a big romance guy; they’re beautifully written and wonderfully acted. And I do enjoy the famous “As Time Goes By” scene. Fun fact – the director wanted to re-shoot it with a different song in its place but Ingrid Bergman had cut her hair short for her role in For Whom The Bell Tolls so the original song was kept intact.

It’s a little strange to think that the filmmakers never thought the film would amount to much while they were making it. To quote one of the crew “we were responsible for making fifty films a year. Casablanca was just number thirty-eight” but nobody could have expected the success it would become or the lasting cultural impact it would have. I actually studied it for my comparative texts for my Leaving Cert English exam so this was the first time watching it in one go and when I wouldn’t have to analyse anything. It tops many people’s greatest films list and while it doesn’t top mine, it’s still recognised. Until tomorrow then, here’s looking at you kids.

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