Monday, January 17, 2011



In 1943, with the war still in full swing, it was no surprise that for the second year in a row the Academy gave an unabashed propaganda film the best picture award.  But, unlike the previous year's MRS. MINIVER, which is rarely revived or remembered today, Micheal Curtiz's CASABLANCA has endured far beyond its intent as war time propaganda to become an absolute classic that still has a strong cult following today.  I would argue that it is quoted and parodied more than any other Hollywood film, except for maybe THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Unlike, say, GONE WITH THE WIND, nobody involved with the film realized just how special the film they were working on was going to be.  Its origins stretch back to 1938, when Murray Burnett visited Nazi occupied Vienna and observed an African American pianist playing jazz at a nightclub for an audience of French people, Nazis and refugees.  He later turned his diary of this trip into a play titled EVERYBODY GOES TO RICK'S, which he cowrote with Joan Alison.  The play was never produced, but it was sold to the Warner Brothers studio, where it bounced around for a while (Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan were once considered for the roles of Rick and Ilsa) before it fell into the hands of director Micheal Curtiz and his perfect cast.  After screenwriters (and brothers) Julius and Philip Epstein left the project, Howard Koch rewrote their script, which emphasized comedy, to be more melodramatic.  (Thankfully, he left in a lot of the great funny lines that have really added to the film's reputation).  Reportedly, Koch's rewrites were going on during shooting, which meant that the actors didn't know just how their characters were going to end up in the story; one big example of this is that Claude Rain's Louis Renault character, who is mostly a villain throughout the film, becomes a hero at the end, in what is probably the film's most famous scene.(It should be mentioned that there are some reports that the script of CASABLANCA is really not that different than Burnett and Alison's play; I've never had a chance to read the play myself, and its only major run was in 1991 in London.  I'd love to get a chance to see it sometime!).
The film had an initial run in 1942, but then was rereleased in 1943, when, in a felicitous bit of timing, president Franklin Roosevelt and prime minister Winston Churchill were having a summit in Casablanca itself, which Dwight Eisenhower's troops had secured for the Allies.  This bit of free publicity vaulted this modestly budgeted (about one million dollars) film into a huge success.
Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson

There is a painfully dated  moment in this film in which Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) refers to the fully grown African American pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson)  as a "boy".  There is also a flashback to Paris that opens with a unconvincing (even by 1942 standards) rear screen projection behind Ilsa and Rick (Humphrey Bogart), and Bogart's expression in this shot looks pained and oddly forced.  And I find the opening, before we get to Rick's cafe, a little slow.  OK, now that I've covered the only possible flaws I can find in this film, let me go on to praise what I love about the film: Everything else!  Yes, while it may not be as innovative as CITIZEN KANE, or have the eye popping technicolor and great songs of THE WIZARD OF OZ, nor have the epic sweep of the first two GODFATHER films, when it comes down to the fundamentals of great film making, that is, an excellent story, well acted, with good characters delivering terrific, memorable dialogue, CASABLANCA just may be the best Hollywood has ever had to offer.  It works on many levels: the romance between Ilsa and Rick is moving, and the jovial relationship between Rick and Louie is just as interesting, there's lots of humor, and many moments of tension and excitement during the story (although there is little on screen action in the film, there is a constant sense of danger running through it).  Even the music is wonderful, from Max Steiner's excellent, dramatic score, to Dooley Wilson's classic rendition of "As Time Goes By", a song originally written in 1931 by Herman Hupfeld.  And, of course, there are rousing moments of anti Nazi propaganda, my personal favorite being when French resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) has Rick's band play "La Marseillaise" to drown out the singing of the Nazis.

At first glance, Curitz may have not seemed the right director for this material, given that before this he was mostly known as an action film director (apart from this film, his most famous movie is 1938's highly enjoyable THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, with Errol Flynn), but he deftly manages to juggle the film's complicated plot(with many sub plots) and numerous characters so that the audience is never confused, even when a lot is happening.  Indeed, I think the complexities of the plot are a big part of the film's cult following; you need to see it more than once to catch everything!

I think another part of the continuing interest in this film is because of its location, specifically Rick's Cafe Americain; who wouldn't want to hang out at such an exotic place, full of romance and excitement,  (the first time we go into the cafe, Curtiz quickly gives us moments of mysterious deals being made at different tables, as if the whole place were alive with intrigue), not to mention the great music (along with "As Time Goes By", Wilson also terrifically sings "Shine" and "Knock on Wood"). 

The film is wonderfully cast down the line: Bogart as Rick was never better, as he goes from bitter cynic who "sticks his neck out for nobody" to a freedom fighter who bravely sends away the woman he loves for the good of the cause.  There a real rawness to the moment where he drunkenly curses his luck at seeing Ilsa again; he is truly hurt and vulnerable here, and Bogart brings an authenticity to this moment (and other such moments in the film)that few of his contemporaries could. (Imagine Reagan in this role!)  Love has kicked this man in the teeth, and we can feel it.   I also enjoy the fact that the first time we see Rick, he is playing chess; a nice way to foreshadow the chess like maneuvers he will make at the end of the film.   Equally wonderful in the film is Claude Rains as Louie Renault, the bribe taking ("I'm only a poor, corrupt official") captain of the guards, who subtly but significantly pushes Rick into doing the right thing before joining him in the end.  And lovely Ingrid Bergman is great as a woman torn between two men, even if the actress complained that she didn't know whom she would wind up with until the final days of shooting (who knows, that ambiguity may have even added to her performance).  In the thankless role of Victor Laszlo, Paul Heinried is suitably noble, and manages to find human shadings to his character  even as he represents the bravery of the French resistance.  (I greatly enjoy the way that he and Rick can calmly discuss the fact that they are both in love with Ilsa).  Even the minor parts are well played: Peter Lorre's Ugarte, Sydney Greenstreet's Signor Ferrari, SZ Sakall's Carl and Leonid Kinsky's Sasha are all only in a few scenes, but they are vivid and interesting characters.  And there are many other minor but striking people that liven the film.

Conrad Veidt as Maj. Strasser

And, while so much has been written about this film over the years, I don't think enough credit is given to the often unmentioned performance of Conrad Veidt as the evil Nazi, Major Strasser.  With his cold, piercing, gaze, pencil thin mustache and clipped German accent, he is a truly formidable presence and one of the great movie villains; even when sitting at a table talking calmly he seems threatening.  His every movement and word drips with the sense of infallibility that the Nazis had, and it is that sense that proves to be his downfall: even with a gun trained on him, he cannot believe that a "blundering American" like Rick would actually shoot him.  Interestingly,  the German born Veidt fled his homeland in 1933 to avoid the Nazis, and perhaps his chance to portray one of them as so evil is why he's so terrific here (he would also play Nazi villains in 1941's ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT and 1942's NAZI AGENT).


Not since 1930's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT had the Academy picked a film that stood head and shoulders above the rest; although 1942 gave us such fine films as THE MORE THE MERRIER and THE OX BOW INCIDENT, there really was no competition with CASABLANCA.