Monday, September 14, 2009

#1: Casablanca (1942)

Welcome to “How In God’s Name Have You Not Seen This Movie?” Week here at Man Vs Ebert, a blog where I take on each movie featured in Roger Ebert’s first volume of Great Movies. We begin our journey with one of the most revered movies of all time and perhaps one of the most glaring gaps in my film education, Casablanca.

(Ebert’s Great Movies write-up can be found here.)


The Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, and Peter Lorre. Lorre, who I had never seen in a movie until now, pops up as a sleazy visa trafficker. Now I know where the mad scientist from all those Looney Toons cartoons came from.

In a Nutshell: When suave club owner Rick Blaine (Bogart) encounters long-lost love Ilsa Lund (Bergman) on the arm of concentration camp escapee/Nazi resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Henreid) and the Nazis hot on the couple's trail in Morocco, he's forced to decide if he should let The One Who Got Away get away all over again.

Prior Knowledge: Even if you haven’t seen Casablanca, chances are you know half the dialogue by way of other movies and television shows referencing it or riffing on its style. Oft-quoted decades before my generation appropriated the pop culture catchphrase as the highest form of expression, it was impossible to be raised in America after World War II without hearing “Here’s looking at you, kid,” or, “We’ll always have Paris.” And if you’re anything like me, you’re a bit surprised on your first viewing that “Play it again, Sam,” ostensibly the most memorable line from the movie, is never spoken.

Misconceptions: The quote thing mentioned above. Also, I thought Lauren Bacall was Bogey’s opposite number in this one, not Ingrid Bergman, because I know nothing about film history and everything I once thought true about myself is now laid bare as the sordid lie I have often suspected it to be in the dead of many a sleepless night. I guess we’ll be visiting The Big Sleep further on down the pike to further add salt to the wound.


First Impression: I actually watched this film twice before posting, so already the fledgling format of the blog is already being torn asunder. The second viewing was mandatory, I felt, not only to insert a bunch a nifty screen captures that would have been impossible if I were to sustain the uninterrupted illusion an informative viewing requires, but because in his take, Roger Ebert says Casablanca demands multiple viewings to truly understand the tragedy of Rick and Ilsa “because the first time you see the movie you don't yet know the story of Rick and Ilsa in Paris; indeed, the more you see it the more the whole film gains resonance.”

(On the off-chance I was not the last person on Earth who had yet to see this movie, I’ll let you know spoilers abound from here on out.)

Rick and Ilsa’s romance is indeed one for the ages. Any man seeing Rick walk, talk, and smoke in this movie who does not immediately want to don a fedora and become Rick Blaine, even to the point of making movies about said desire, is not like any man I’ve ever met. All clenched teeth and jaded bravado,  Rick commands the screen at every close-up, only to be outdone by the gentle caress Ilsa’s face receives every time the camera glides her way. It’s hard to overstate the chemistry the two have, as it has been memorialized in tribute after tribute, but the futility of their love at the grinding feet of history make their connection all the more profound. Futile, you say? But why? Enter Ilsa’s actual husband Laszlo, fresh from escaping the friendly neighborhood concentration camp, a man that Ilsa had suspected to be dead when she fell in love with Rick.

It would have been all too easy to have made Laszlo’s character a milquetoast without a claim to Ilsa’s heart. The true tragedy, ironically, is that he is a strong, noble  man, the very figurehead of resistance against unspeakable evil. This makes him not only Rick’s equal but very much his superior. And Laszlo will treat Ilsa well, no doubt. As reluctant as I am to think of Ilsa as a possession to be traded, Rick’s sacrifice wouldn’t make him the hero he were if were he give Ilsa up to a man he didn’t think deserved her.

It really does all come down to that scene. You know, that one.

imageYeah, Rick may own the coolest club in Casablanca, fire scathing repartee off his tongue at a second’s notice, and outdraw a distracted Nazi attempting to dial a phone, but as we see in the moment of Rick and Ilsa’s parting, he’s just like us. There’s that momentary look of terror in Rick’s eyes the same second Ilsa turns away that exposes a vulnerability I had never seen in a Bogart performance.

Then, literally minutes after Rick’s heart is wrenched as Ilsa leaves with Laszlo on a plane to Lisbon, the pursuing Nazi Major Strasser rides up to receive a verbal beatdown and a bullet from Rick, whereupon the slippery police chief Renault (Rains) aligns himself with the hero, and the two trade witticisms as they walk off into the night. In the span of ten minutes, you’ve just experienced the best romance, action, suspense, and humor Hollywood has ever had to offer without a single seam showing. I’m no screenwriter, but if I were, Casablanca would be my first textbook.

The One Big Surprise: Just how benignly the Nazis are portrayed. Don’t get me wrong: they are definitely the villains in this one. It’s just that--well, maybe it was the aftertaste of the monstrosities on display in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but these guys just kind of glowered and bribed their way around Morocco. Granted, the country wasn’t under German jurisdiction, and even the requisite WWII propaganda of the day couldn’t anticipate what we would discover about the Nazis a few years later. But still, I mean, couldn’t they just have kidnapped Laszlo and tortured him till he gave him the names of the resistance leaders? I mean, these are Nazis.

Regardless of his bureaucratic impotence, by the time the menacing Major Stasser eats the bullet Rick Blaine serves up, few Nazis get their comeuppance in a more satisfying way this side of Basterds. And who should that Nazi be?

Hey, that’s Conrad Veidt, the actror who played the visual inspiration for the Joker in The Man Who Laughs!

(See, I do know something German Expressionistic cinema, even if it is only by way of comic books.)

Also interesting that Laszlo is a concentration camp escapee. I have to say this was the first debonair Holocaust survivor I’ve encountered in a film. Not a history buff, but I wonder how the story would have differed were it to be set in the same time period, only produced after the discovery of the horrors that went on inside the camps. To cavalierly drop a concentration camp into such a dashing character’s backstory is odd in the context of history that had yet to occur, but it does ramp up the dramatic stakes.

Redux: This film pretty much exemplifies what you think of when you’re sitting down to watch a movie labeled “classic.” While it was difficult to ignore all the cultural baggage my lifetime as a consumer of media had saddled me with, it’s impossible not to admire the film for the myriad of tonally disparate notes it effortlessly weaves together, often in a single line of dialogue.

Rewatch? Definitely. The movie can only get better from here now that I've seen the real deal with my own eyes.

Next up: “How In God’s Name Have You Not Seen This Movie?” Week continues Thursday with Taxi Driver (1976). Don’t miss it.

taxi driver

1 comment:

  1. I saw Casablanca one time about ten years ago. I think I would appreciate it much more now. In fact, reading this, I know I would.

    Taxi Driver I'm much more familiar with. Look forward to reading your thoughts about it.


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