Monday, October 29, 2012

Movie – Casablanca (1942)

Look at pretty much any movie-related person’s or publication’s list of the greatest films of all time and you will find Casablanca at or near the top.  It is considered one of the all time classic films by both critics and viewers alike.  And considering that this movie partially owes its existence to a quick attempt to cash in on the popularity of The Maltese Falcon, as well as the U.S.’ entry into World War II, that’s pretty damn good.

Nowadays we’re used to top tier movies having months, or even years, of pre-production with every single element carefully planned out.  Casablanca is an example of almost nothing being planned and serendipity providing all the right elements.

First, the studios wanted to put Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre together again after their star making turns the year before in The Maltese Falcon.  The latter two were added into Bogart’s movie, as you can see by them having smaller roles than other major characters in the film.  Second, the screenplay wasn’t even completed when filming started.  In fact, it was weeks into filming before they had even decided which man Ilsa would end up with.  Bogart was even brought back to dub the classic last line of the film after the entire movie had been assembled.

Third, almost all of the sets were re-used from other movies, and the now-classic song ‘As Time Goes By’ had been in circulation for quite a few years.  Fourth, the biggest reason we see Ingrid Bergman onscreen is that she was less expensive than some other actresses who were considered for the role.  Fifth, both Bogart and Bergman felt that the script (which was still being written) was too unrealistic and they had a lunch to discuss how they could get out of the movie.  In fact, in the 1980s someone sent the script for Casablanca around to all the major studios, under a different title, to see what their reactions would be.  While some recognized it, those who didn’t know it rejected it for having too much dialogue and not enough sex.

The story involves Rick (Bogart), an American who owns a bar in Casablanca on the eve of the German’s invasion of North Africa.  Many refugees from the war in Europe come through the city and one of them turns out to be Ilsa (Bergman), a former love of Rick’s.  The two had a whirlwind romance in Paris before the Nazis invaded.  She was married, but her husband was missing and presumed dead.  Just as she and Rick were getting ready to leave Paris together, she abandoned Rick with no explanation to him.  Unfortunately for Rick, her husband – Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid) – is very much alive and shows up in Casablanca with Ilsa.  In fact, he is fleeing the Nazis and needs Rick’s help to secure some papers that will allow him to travel to safety.

Once they see each other again, Rick’s and Ilsa’s old feelings come back.  Will Rick help Ilsa and her husband escape, or will he try to win Ilsa back for himself?  And does Ilsa even want to go with Victor or stay with Rick?

Complicating Rick’s life are an assortment of characters.  Chief among them is Captain Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt police officer who almost seems to live at Rick’s Café Americain.  Even though they do not run the country yet, the Nazis are there and involved in everything.  They are led by Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt – who was actually the highest paid performer in the movie).  Two others involved in some illegal activities in Casablanca are Signor Ferrari (Greenstreet) and Ugarte (Lorre).

Finally, Dooley Wilson became a star for a time for his portrayal of Sam, the piano player in the film that became forever associated with Rick’s and Ilsa’s song ‘As Time Goes By’.  Not bad for a man who couldn’t play the piano.  He was a drummer by trade and he mimed the playing along to the pre-recorded track.

It’s his character that is the “Sam” that is involved in one of the most misquoted quotes in cinema history.  Many people say “Play it again Sam” when referring to this movie.  While the film had many famous quotes – “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”, “Here’s looking at you kid” (which was improvised by Bogart), “Round up the usual suspects”, and many more, the words “play it again Sam” are never spoken.  At one point Ilsa says, “Play it Sam.  Play ‘As Time Goes By’” and later in the film Rick says, “You played it for her.  You can play it for me”, then “If she can stand it, I can.  Play it!”

I realize there are some people who haven’t seen this film, so I will not be spoiling the ending of it by mentioning a couple of the classic quotes, nor writing about the much discussed decision that Ilsa makes, and whether it is the right or wrong one.  I will say that there are a couple of great scenes in When Harry Met Sally where the two are talking about the ending and Sally has two completely different takes on it when she is younger and then when she is a little older and more experienced in love.

The onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bergman is legendary.  While filming was going on Bogart’s wife even accused him of having an affair with Bergman.  According to people who were on set, though, the two almost never interacted with each other when cameras were not rolling.  And for a reason that escapes me, but must have made sense to studios, the two were never again paired together in a movie.  This is the one and only time they played opposite each other.

Casablanca went on to win Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, but surprisingly neither Bogart nor Rains won for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor.  They lost out to Paul Lukas from Watch on the Rhine and Charles Coburn from The More the Merrier, respectively.  And Ingrid Bergman was nominated for Best Actress, but for the movie For Whom the Bell Tolls, not for Casablanca.  She lost to Jennifer Jones from The Song of Bernadette anyway.

I have met one person who I could not convince to watch this movie because it was black and white and she refused to watch anything that wasn’t in color.  I’m serious.  Even if you feel the same as she does, this is one of the movies that you really must see in your lifetime, even if it’s not the kind of film you usually watch.  I give it my highest recommendation.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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  1. why didnt i like it that much !
    might be because we have seen the plot develop innumerable times and tirelessly in any which way possible since then
    oh and yes the actress, i still recall her as the "moisty-eyes" from casablanca :P

    1. The great thing about movies is that they can generate different reactions in different people. It sounds like this movie didn't work for you, but I am sure there are many others that you have loved.

  2. As silly as this may sound, I knew at a fairly early age that Casablanca was something special. My parents were watching it; I must have been in sixth or seventh grade - a challenging time to impress any child. I was surprised - I sat down, and got drawn it! This movie entertained an adolescent child!

    This was probably the black and white film that I ever saw. It's so damn entertaining.

    I love Claude Rains. "I am shocked, SHOCKED, to find that gambling is going on in here!" "Your winnings, sir."

    Nice write up! This is a special movie indeed.

    1. Thanks for sharing that memory. I honestly don't know when I first saw it, but I am pretty sure I was an adult. I do remember my sister and brother-in-law watching it being broadcast when I was a kid and not understanding then why they were watching it if they had seen it as many times as my sister said.

  3. I am sorry, Chip, I actually have not read your review at all. I simply do not want to read any reviews of movies before I have seen/revisited movies I myself have to review and Casablanca is coming up fairly shortly. Then I will read your review.
    Just to say for now, that I had a friend at campus who was so into Casablanca that he dressed like Humphrey Bogard, quoted the entire movie and saw it at least once a month. While he was a character it does say something of the power of this movie. Of all the bars...

    1. That's okay. I often do the same thing since I hate spoilers and sometimes I can't remember who gives good spoiler warnings and who does not. For the record, I do give big warnings if I am going to discuss the ending. I've only done it a few times in reviews.

      Thanks for sharing the story about your friend.

  4. I didn't comment on this one yet? My favorite movie of all time. One of the movies I'll watch anytime, anywhere, with anyone. So many great lines, and I'd have loved to have seen more of Greenstreet and Lorre.

  5. "I'd have loved to have seen more of Greenstreet and Lorre."

    I agree.

    Thanks for sharing your love for this film. Some time I am going to do a category of those movies that I will stop and watch on TV every time I see them, even though I own them on DVD and could watch them any time I wanted.

  6. I don't have much to add to what you wrote. It is a wonderful film, all the more so because it was meant to just be another piece of product churned out by the Warner production machine and through serendipity it melded into much more.

    One thing that you noted, the seemingly odd decision to never reteam Bogart and Bergman I think actually helps the film retain its unique lustre. Sometimes when the pairing is so simpatico and the results so special it's better that the bringing together of the same pairing is not attempted again. The same holds true for Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. What property could possibly have been found to match GWTW, and what characters could they have been given to compare to Rhett and Scarlett? The same holds true for Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund.

    1. I hadn't considered that, but I think you're right. Having this be the only film they were in together does raise it even more as an experience.