Monday, November 26, 2012

"I'll hum it for you: Da-die da-die da dum"

Casablanca turns 70 this year, and TCM celebrated by bringing it back into commercial theaters across the country for one night in March that sold out so quickly that they brought it back for one more night in April, which I got tickets to. I am a life-long fan who never saw it on the big screen. I first saw it on a very small black & white TV set, whose small scale heightened the power of its intimacy. But it was created for the larger-than-life scale of old Hollywood, and I was thrilled to be able to experience it in its original vision.

The universe seemed to be happy about it too: I live on Humphrey Bogart Place, designated by a plaque and street sign by the city in 2006 with Lauren Bacall in attendance because he was born on my street and lived there until he was 23; and two days before the film I had a blog visitor from, well, Casablanca, Morocco.

A 2012 Audience for a 1942 Film
The theater in Manhattan was the behemoth AMC complex on 42 Street, and the particular theater itself was large and sold out. I was sitting toward the back of the stadium seating, when shortly before the TCM/Robert "making of" started, a group of 7 friends filed in next to me and in the row behind. They were college kids or just-grads, 5 guys & two girls. They were loud and boisterous, mocking lines: "I bet there's going to be something about Paris" yadda yadda yadda. I wondered, what are they doing here? Why would they bother? I guess it could be just be a big goof for them, to come and mock and talk back to the screen. Unfortunately, there was no place for me to move.

And then the TCM short started. It was talking heads about the making of, along with a lot of clips. And so we all saw Bogart for the first time. The a**holes were still fidgeting, hushed talking and giggling to each other.

Then the film started, and slowly, little by little, the gang settled down. My impression was that whatever they thought this film was--a bunch of old people and a lot of cliches---was shattered by its spell. Bogart is so cool, in every age, that he cannot be mocked, even by 21st century teenage knuckleheads. These boys think they know how to drink? It's lightweight Candyland compared to a worldly sentimentalist scotch drinker with a broken heart. They have never seen a movie couple as deeply sexy as Bogart and Bergman kissing.

Beyond the knuckleheads, I was surprised by the enormous age range of the audience. There was a 16 year old girl next to me, plugged into her ipod until the opening credits rolled, who wept during the Marseilles and at the end, who clapped at the "New York" line, and I got the impression this wasn't the first time she was seeing it. I'd say middle agers were less than 1/4 of the audience, and it was more racially balanced than many first run movies. The film has been retransferred for its birthday: the blacks and whites are piercing and there's no hint of graininess that would signal an "old" movie, which also helped today's audience connect with it.

Civil War, Jesus, Titanic. . . . and Casablanca
So much has been written about this film, it's daunting to say anything. But when you are convinced that it is the finest movie ever created, you feel compelled to try to explain why that is so, so that the unenlightened, who don't get it—poor sots that they are—have a chance to understand.

Part of its power and charm comes from it being completely un-selfconscious. Citizen Kane, to which it is often compared, is brilliant, but Orson Welles was trying to create great art, and that desire pushes against the seams of the film, like in the exaggerated camera angles. Casablanca began as run-of-the-mill Warner Bros. factory output, with not an ounce of strain toward something "artful." And of course, irony of ironies, it poignantly, intimately brings the viewer into the biggest themes possible—Man, Woman, Love, War, Peace, Sacrifice—in extremely artful ways.

Umberto Eco, the great Italian semiotician, brought his own over-desconstructed treatise to bear on the film. But he seems to have had a similar thought: "Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it."

Much is made about this being Bogart's first romantic lead, but I thought he was pretty sexy as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, which came out the year before. Still, Rick Blaine is a more compelling man than Spade: he wears a white dinner jacket with elegant ease and authority; he exerts control over everything in his saloon; and he has loved too well and lost. The club is glamorous, with an air of unpretentious sophistication that all emanates from Rick.

The plot has a beautiful economy to it and the forward motion never flags. But you do have to pay attention. It's not like it's The Big Sleep, but Ilsa's story has twists. Ingrid Bergman claimed she didn't know who she was supposed to be in love with, but there's really no question that it's Rick. Victor Laszlo was hero worship, as her character says.

Bosley Crowther, who reviewed it in 1942 for the NY Times, had trouble following the story:

"But Rick loves the girl very dearly, she is now married to this other man—and whenever his Negro pianist sits there in the dark and sings "As Time Goes By" that old, irresistible feeling consumes him in a choking, maddening wave."

I guess he didn't hear Ilsa outside of the Blue Parrot tell Rick, "Victor Laszlo's my husband, and was, even when I knew you in Paris."

But then Crowther isn't the brightest of reviewers.

That leaves us with a list of what are now cliches: the onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bergman, Claude Rains's conflicted Frenchman, Dooley Wilson's wise and cool musician, Sydney Greenstreet's black market magnate, Peter Lorre's desperate player: all part of the "happy accidents," as Eco called them, that produced a perfect film.

And then there are The Words
It's almost hard to remember that none of the dialogue of Casablanca was a cliche BEFORE the film. But so many of the lines are perfect—either in their specific context, or not—that they are part of that small club, started by the Bible and greatly amped by Shakespeare, of phrases and sentences that enter our language.

Of course delivery of a line is equally important. But I saw a Bogart/Ann Sheridan movie on TCM the next day, It All Came True, that was just awful: Bogart as a gangster hiding in a musical boarding house. He delivered many of the lines in a way similar to "Rick," but the context was so ludicrous and the specific lines so stupid, that his delivery couldn't save them.

And so we thank the brothers Epstein for this glorious list:

Rick: "There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

Rick: “Here's looking at you, kid."

Rick: "I wouldn't bring up Paris if I were you, it's poor salesmanship."

Rick: "The Germans wore grey, you wore blue"

Rick: If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?

Rick: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

Rick: 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. We'll always have Paris. We didn't have it before...we'd...we'd lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

Rick: “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.

Renault: You mustn't underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they "blundered" into Berlin in 1918

Renault: Round up the usual suspects.

Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.

Renault: 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.

Ilsa: Play it once, Sam, for old times' sake.

Rick: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."


Tim Footman said...

Eco has it right. It's the greatest film ever made because of the haphazardness, because nobody knew what they were doing, because nobody knew how it was going to end until it ended; there's nothing funny about someone deliberately and methodically stepping on a banana skin. (I honestly prefer Welles's ramshackle Shakespeare movies, when he was running round Europe trying to scrabble funding together, to the LOOK-AT-MEEEE! Kane.)

M.A.Peel said...

Tim, the way you describe it "nobody knew how it was going to end until it ended," sounds like life. Maybe that's also part of its power. The film is art that is so natural---so lacking in artifice--that it's the closest thing to "real life" that can be manufactured. That's pretty cool.