|Print | Back||May 25, 2012|
Shark Bite TheatreCasablanca: Watch It Again, Sam
by Andrew E. Lindsay
There is a percentage of the movie watching population that is only interested in seeing new movies. If it didn't come out in the past three months, well, forget it. That's their opinion, their right, but I just don't get it. I think that any movie you've never seen is essentially a new movie, at least to you.
People say that newer equals better. I'm not suggesting that you have to like anything you don't want to, but the music on the radio today wouldn't be on the radio today if it weren't for hundreds of musicians who have contributed to the collective evolution of popular music. And so it is with movies.
For me, one of the most perfect of films has always been Casablanca, and if you've never seen it, well, there's still time to make amends. This Warner Brothers' classic is celebrating its 70th anniversary, and numerous DVD and Blu-ray releases are available with loads of extras (if you're a bonus material junkie like me).
The film stars Humphrey Bogart in one of his finest and most complex roles as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate with a shadowy past who is running the most popular nightclub in Casablanca during the early days of World War II. Dooley Wilson plays his companion and piano player, Sam, who has been with Rick since his days back in Paris before the Nazi occupation.
The signature song from the movie, which almost didn't make it into the movie at all, is "As Time Goes By." That song spawned what is perhaps the most oft-misquoted line in movie history, "Play it again, Sam." Rick never said it, but Sam played it anyway.
In the film, the city of Casablanca is run by the pleasantly corrupt Captain Louis Renault, played with devilish charm by Claude Rains. Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari and Peter Lorre as Ugarte are just two of the lovable rogues who inhabit Casablanca and add a bit of spice and intrigue to Rick's life.
More spice is added when Major Heinrich Strasser of the Third Reich shows up with his band of jackboots looking for some stolen letters of transit, which magically allow the possessor to travel freely beyond the reach of the Nazis. OK, the whole concept of the letters of transit is somewhat flawed; such letters never existed, and if they had, why would the Nazis give two shakes who was in possession of them if they could detain anyone they wanted to anyway? But that's not really important.
This is an example of a device Hitchcock referred to as "the MacGuffin," an object or event that serves as the impetus for the plot to move along but doesn't necessarily matter in and of itself, or even have to make much sense.
So you've got Nazis converging on Casablanca looking for the letters of transit, the police are looking for whomever murdered the person who originally had the letters, and all of these folks are filtering through Rick's Café Americain, known for its free-flowing alcohol, lovely music, and lots of illegal gambling in the back.
Plenty of other characters make their way to Casablanca, usually running away from something and trying to get somewhere else. And then, of all the gin joints in all the world, Ilsa Lund walks into Rick's.
Ilsa, played by the radiant Ingrid Bergman, was Rick's one-time lover back in Paris, and when the Nazis came they decided to run off together, only she left Rick standing on a train platform in the rain. That's how Rick ended up in Casablanca, trying to forget all about her in the bottom of a glass.
He has just about managed to erase her memory when she walks into his bar one evening with her husband Victor Laszlo, a prominent leader of the French resistance played by Paul Henreid. Laszlo is naturally wanted by the Nazis, but they can't just grab him in Casablanca, although they assume (correctly) that he's trying to get his hands on the letters of transit.
Rick, as it turns out, is in possession of the letters, something Captain Renault suspects but can't quite prove, and something that Ilsa knows but can't quite reconcile with her rather conflicted feelings about the man she loves and the man she is married to.
At one point Ilsa comes to Rick's room late at night to plead with him to give her the letters but he refuses, which leads to her drawing a gun that she can't bring herself to use. The two of them finally conspire to use the letters themselves to run away together.
That scene of Ilsa emerging from the shadows with eyes filled but not quite overflowing with tormented tears is one of my favorites in all of moviedom. In that moment, in that light, I don't think any other woman in the long, lustrous history of women was ever more perfectly beautiful than Ingrid Bergman was in those few frames of captured cinematic consummation.
Their concocted plan also seems to be perfect, but things are rarely what they seem in Casablanca. The story that ensues is a perfect date movie, filled with anticipation and humor, bad guys with guns, good guys with sad stories, spies and secrets, and a heart-wrenching love triangle.
The film was based on the unproduced play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Director Michael Curtiz evokes top-notch performances from all his actors, and screenwriters Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch penned some of the most memorable lines ever uttered on the big screen.
Even before the script became part of the vernacular, it was venerated by the Academy with an Oscar win for Best Screenplay, along with Best Picture and Best Director. Bogart was nominated for Best Actor, and the film was also nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Score.
Awards or not, I think Casablanca is simply one of the best films ever made, bar none, for all the reasons I've mentioned. But also because it deals so deftly with such universal themes of love and betrayal and sacrifice and redemption.
So if you've never seen it, take a look. And if you have watched it, it might be time to enjoy it all over again. Here's looking at you, kid.
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