Today I turned 45. Older than Bogart when he embodied world-weariness in CASABLANCA. MUCH older than the impossibly louche Peter Lorre, the suave Paul Henreid or the perennially middle-aged John Qualen.
Re-watching CASABLANCA… reluctant to say anything about it, not so much because so much has already been written, but because I find so little of it compelling or adequate. I remember Umberto Eco making an exciting case that the film’s success lies in its resemblance to other movies, its packaging together of favourite moments and stock characters into a sort of ultimate Pizza Combo (although I don’t think he used those exact words). Which might work as a description of STAR WARS and some other films, like maybe RIO BRAVO, but doesn’t seem adequate to the defiantly non-generic CASABLANCA. Of course, it’s the film which has come to embody classic Hollywood, and it features a lot of iconic actors doing what they do. But the film works for modern kids who have barely seen any 40s cinema and who don’t know most of these actors at all, I think. Just as Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology downplays the individual details that make each story different and interesting, so Eco’s semiotics underrates the originality of the Epstein-Epstein-Koch-Burnett-Alison scenario.
And consider — CASABLANCA, a wartime-romance-thriller (with singing) was followed by quite a number of films, many with Bogie, which self-consciously tried to duplicate it’s pleasures, none of which was as good or as successful.
William Goldman proves that Nobody Knows Anything by first arguing that the first ten pages are of crucial significance in any screenplay, then alleging that CASABLANCA’s opening is hideously trite and flabby — yet we meet Peter Lorre and Bogart before those minutes are up.
Then you get Robert McKee laboriously explicating the subtext of every line, which is fine as an illustration of how good dialogue uses subtext, but only gets you so far, just as dissecting a frog does not actually enable you to make a frog of your own.
And you get all the “they were still writing it as they were shooting it” stuff, which CAN’T, surely, be true — and it’s used to try and prove that scripts don’t matter or that everything is down to luck. Of course, you can’t get by without luck, but you can’t get by without skill either, when it comes to making something as cunning as this film.
Reading Howard Koch’s memoir, As Time Goes By, gives an insight into the process. Koch joined with project after the Epsteins and kept on it after they were seconded to another job in Washington — they later came back and continued to work more or less separately. The process was somewhat chaotic, but Koch was used to collating and connecting material at speed — he had worked with Orson Welles on the radio, turning over Mercury Theater of the Air productions in a week.
There was a play, and the first half of the script existed several weeks before filming. On the one hand we’re told that nobody had decided who was getting on the plane at the end, but we also hear that George Raft turned down the lead because Rick doesn’t get the girl (Warners memos reveal that they turned him down). The ending Koch and the Epsteins settled on was, in most of its basics, already in the play.
Some of CASABLANCA’s best scenes are positively symphonic in their complexity — the long sequence in which the refugee girl Annina is saved from Captain Renault’s clutches provides not only a subplot mirroring Ingrid Bergman’s own upcoming dilemma with Bogart, it ramps up the Nazis’ pressure on her husband, it has the Franco-German singing match which first shows Bogie taking sides, it completes the character arc of Bogie’s jilted girlfriend Yvonne who rediscovers her patriotism in a tearful closeup, and provides excellent comic bits for “Cuddles” Sakall, Marcel Dalio, Dooley Wilson and many others. It’s a film full of inveterate scene-stealers adept at creating opportunities for beautiful moments, and who them play fast and sly in case the director spots them and objects.
“If someone loved you…”
Koch’s book is also a useful counter-narrative to the idea that Michael Curtiz only cared about the look of his films — in fact, Koch argued for the political elements while Curtiz favoured the romance, resulting in a fortuitous balance that Koch credits with the film’s unique success.
Random thoughts ~
There are a lot of slightly camp men in this film*. Lorre of course portrays Ugarte as masochistically in awe of Bogie’s machismo. He says “You despise me, don’t you?” with a hopeful tone, which makes it hilarious: Bogart obligingly plays the top, and responds with the perfect “If I gave you any thought I probably would.” Bogart flirts shamelessly with all the camp men, but with the casual aloofness of a sadistic tease.
The first character killed on-screen dies right in front of a big poster of Marshall Petain. Maybe one of the good things about 40s filmmaking was that, flag-waving aside, it was a period when Hollywood films could actually take a political stance and not try to bodge it by simultaneously taking the opposite stance. Here, they kill a man right in a real, living politician’s big face.
Bogie, an American in Paris, and Bergman, a chic European, embark on a “No questions” love affair where they don’t share any biographical details — was this the inspiration for LAST TANGO IN PARIS?
Curtiz to Koch: “Don’t worry what’s logical. I make it go so fast no one notices.” If you start unpicking the ending, a lot of it falls apart, but the pace and the actors’ conviction sells it.
Speed comes in handy when they pull off a great screenwriting trick — drama oscillates between the two poles of “All is lost!” and “Saved!” As a drama builds, you want the wiggly graph line that soars to hope and plunges to despair to get very jagged indeed, and at the climax you try to make a complete switcheroo from disaster to triumph (or vice versa) in as little time as possible. In this one, Bogart goes from completely screwed to hero of the day on the single line “Round up the usual suspects.”
Bogart and Bergman kiss and we cut to a searchlight. “They’ve done it,” Fiona declares. Afterwards she observes that the film is strikingly modern — in fact, could you make the film today and have the leading lady cheat on her husband, then leave with her husband, who knows about it and accepts it?
Koch quotes a young audience member in the 70s who tried to describe why the film moved him: “CASABLANCA shows you things you really long for. There are all these graspable values floating around in the film. It’s full of a lost heritage that we can’t live. Life is no longer like that.” Moral certainties, I guess — but even in the film, which Koch admits shows a kind of life that never really existed quite as we see it on screen, the characters do have to struggle to locate those graspable values and hold on to them.
*In Suspects, David Thomson humorously postulates a romance blossoming between Rick and Renault after film’s end. It would make sense of Renault’s change of heart, and Claude Rains is certainly very ooh-la-la in the role. Meanwhile, Greenstreet pouts and puckers constantly (far more than in MALTESE FALCON where he’s coded gay), Lorre and Dalio are both craven puppies fawning on Bogie, and Conrad Veidt’s Major Strasser really really wants to get his hands on Victor Laszlo.
How long since YOU watched CASABLANCA?
Written with a nod to the Self-Styled Siren, who writes about classic movies from the heart.