Thursday, April 30, 2009
THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER MADE
" . . . the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world . . . "
CASABLANCA (1942) is Stormbringer’s personal choice for Greatest Film of All-Time if for no other reason it takes place my old stomping grounds, French North Africa, and mirrors to an incredible degree a memorable life-imitates-art episode of my unusual career.
A remarkable piece of Allied wartime propaganda, Casablanca takes place in unoccupied French Morocco during the early years of World War II. The film won three Academy Awards; Best Picture, Best Director, and Writing Adapted Screenplay.
Humphrey Bogart plays American soldier-of-fortune Rick Blaine. His nightclub, "Rick's Café Américain", is infested with intrigue. This was back in the day when people actually dressed in style; Rick holds court and holds his own amongst a collection of desperadoes, ne’er-do-wells and outright criminals, decades before James Bond adopted the dinner-jacket as a personal trademark.
A complex character, Rick carries himself as a hardened, embittered cynic (“I stick my neck out for nobody.”) Rick is a man’s man, but his outer shell masks an inner human spirit revealed by a recitation of his credentials – he ran guns to the Ethiopians in their struggle against Mussolini’s forces, he fought the fascists in Spain.
Corrupt leader of the local French gendarmerie, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) nearly steals the show. The following dialogue suggests Captain Renault’s tolerance and admiration for Rick as a kind of romantic adventurer:
Renault: I've often speculated why you don't return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator's wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It's the romantic in me.
Rick: It's a combination of all three.
Renault: And what in Heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Captain Renault utters several of the film’s many signature lines:
“I'm only a poor corrupt official.”
“I'm making out the report now. We haven't quite decided whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”
And this sublime classic:
Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
(A croupier hands Renault a pile of money): Your winnings, sir.
Renault: Oh, thank you very much.
The film features a classic 1940s lineup of high-profile characters; Peter Lorre is Ugarte, a petty criminal, ("... somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.") Sydney Greenstreet plays Signor Ferrari, a major figure in the criminal underworld and Rick's business rival (“As the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am an influential and respected man.”) Conrad Veidt portrays the film’s obligatory Hollywood Nazi, Major Strasser.
The well-known main plotline involves Rick’s former lover Ilsa, Swedish hottie Ingrid Bergman, who arrives in Casablanca (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”) with husband (and third wheel) Czech resistance fighter Victor Lazlo, played by Paul Henreid.
And of course there is Dooley Wilson as Rick’s sidekick, Sam, one of the few American members of the cast. Wilson enshrines himself into Hollywood immortality in less than a dozen lines and a stanza of song:
Ilsa: Play it once, Sam, for old times' sake.
Sam: I don't know what you mean, Miss Ilsa.
Ilsa: [whispered] Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By.
Sam: Why, I can't remember it, Miss Ilsa. I'm a little rusty on it.
Ilsa: I'll hum it for you. [Ilsa hums two bars. Sam starts to play] Sing it, Sam.
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by . . .
The action is at a realistic pace; irony, intrigue and sub-plots abound, gunfire is infrequent but 100% lethal; and sex is obliquely referred to (not vividly portrayed as it is nowadays to the point of distraction). Annina, a young Bulgarian refugee (played by Joy Page) offers her body to Rick in exchange for visas out of Casablanca - the premise for the film’s intrigue – for herself and her husband:
Annina: Oh, monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?
Rick: Nobody ever loved me that much.
Annina: And he never knew, and the girl kept this bad thing locked in her heart? That would be all right, wouldn't it?
In a rare glimpse of his inner human side, Rick declines the offer:
Rick: You want my advice?
Annina: Oh, yes, please.
Rick: Go back to Bulgaria.
In a gesture of class that is his personal style, Rick squares away the couple with visas, gratis. The indirect manner this sexual proposition is suggested – as with heroine Ilsa’s nocturnal rendezvous with Rick later in the plotline – is typical of the 1940s film noire genre.
Discussion of the love affair between Rick and Ilsa requires analysis worthy of a term-paper; their incredible parting scene makes the film and is iconic in Hollywood lore:
Rick: Last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I've done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you're getting on that plane with Victor where you belong.
Ilsa: But, Richard, no, I... I...
Rick: Now, you've got to listen to me! You have any idea what you'd have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten, we'd both wind up in a concentration camp. Isn't that true, Louie?
Captain Renault: I'm afraid Major Strasser would insist.
Ilsa: You're saying this only to make me go.
Rick: I'm saying it because it's true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
Rick: And you never will. But I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now... Here's looking at you kid.
Rick’s status as a cold-as-ice tough guy is confirmed in the film’s final confrontation, with Nazi Major Strasser:
Rick: Get away from that phone.
Major Strasser: I would advise you not to interfere.
Rick: I was willing to shoot Captain Renault, and I’m willing to shoot you.
There is an exchange of gunfire; the German officer’s shot goes wide, Rick’s M1911 Colt .45 (Stormbringer’s personal sidearm of choice) barks once and Major Strasser crumples to the ground.
As the gendarmes arrive on the scene, Captain Renault – who witnessed the shooting - handles the situation with typical Gallic pragmatism:
Renault: Major Strasser’s been shot! Round up the usual suspects.
The film closes with a remarkable camera angle as Rick and Captain Renault march away in step, in near-military style. A final exchange dialogue that punctuates the understated brilliance of the screenplay’s dialogue:
Renault: It might be a good idea for you to disappear from Casablanca for awhile. There’s a Free French garrison over at Brazzaville. I could be induced to arrange a passage.
Rick: My letter of transit? But it doesn’t make any difference about our bet. You still owe me ten thousand francs.
Renault: And that ten thousand francs should pay our expenses.
Rick: Our expenses?
Rick: Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Fade out – The End.