No question

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 that writing 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 its 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 the 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 Marshal 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.

37 Responses to “No question”

  1. Happy birthday, David!

  2. Colin McLaren Says:

    Happy birthday. I see you share your date with Dorothy Lamour, Daniel Massey & Benson Fong. Surely a limerick waiting to happen.

  3. Happy birthday. I wish I was 45.

  4. Happy birthday. And what a lovely, clever, inspiring way to celebrate it.
    It’s been a long time since I watched Casablanca. And you give me a good reason to revisit Ric’s Café (this time with my children). :-)

  5. Happy Birthday — from someone 20 years older.

    Goldman proves that HE doesn’t know anything if he thinks the opening of Casblanca is trite and flabby. Every damned moment in the movie is utterly marvelous and throughly entertaining. Eco is right. It’s a grand compendum of everything the movies can do. More than that Casablanca is metaphorical Gold Mine. For instance —

  6. To be fair to Goldman, although the opening of the film is GREAT, and sets up all sorts of minor characters and creates the mood of intrigue and danger, it is slightly LESS fabulous than every other ten minutes in the film.

    Watching Captain Renault again I got a whole extra laugh from the way Dalio backs away to the side, eyes raised to heaven.

  7. Happy birthday!

    I last watched the film on the big screen a year or two back, and it was interesting to hear the audience, which clearly wasn’t that familiar with classic Hollywood films, react to the camp or potentially camp elements. Of course, that may have been a reflection of the audience’s interests — most of them had come because of a promo by a local love advice column.

    I read those scene-stealing “beautiful moments” a little differently — for me, they came across as Curtiz in indulgent mood, allowing for constant asides without ever losing sight of his primary narrative, and indeed realizing the value of those asides in creating the desired cosmopolitan, cheek-by-jowl atmosphere of the titular locale. Naturally, however you read them they are wonderful!

  8. happy birthday!
    you say “If you start unpicking the ending, a lot of it falls apart, but the pace and the actors’ conviction sells it.” Exactly! The emotional response is what makes a movie great, otherwise it’s a procedural.

  9. Happy birthday also! The first time I was 45 was around three years before I first read Shadowplay, and two years before your started it.

    I saw Casablanca the last time TCM ran it. Which, as you might guess, wasn’t long ago at all.

  10. Towards the end of his brief but startlingly eventful life Rainer Werner Fassbinder began to turn his attention from Sirk to Curtiz. Alas he didn’t get a chance to write very much, but he saluted Curtiz as an “anarchist.” And Casablanca shows why.

  11. Could be why he was so at home at Warners, where they certainly liked stories a bit more anti-authority than at, say, MGM.

  12. Curtiz may have been anti-authority but certainly not in solidarity with anyone else except in the most extreme abstract. The Noah’s Ark story hasn’t any verification and may have been told against him simply due to his noted habit of being a horrible slave driver on set, not even allowing breaks for the cast and crew to eat. Roy Del Ruth could have been equally bad, but on a Del Ruth film, an actor knew the long hours would certainly be over in fewer days than a Curtiz.

  13. Yeah, he was obviously a bully and a son of a bitch — and like many bullies, warmed to people who stood up to him, mercilessly persecuting those who didn’t.

    I hadn’t heard anything about Del Ruth’s temperament. I love his films, but he doesn’t strike me as having the artistic ambition that ought to go with the screaming sadism…

  14. monoceros4 Says:

    I hope I can be forgiven a brief sneer in Goldman’s direction. A few scripts for mostly second-rate movies, as well as one poorly written, self-regarding novel (which, fortunately, Rob Reiner forced him to cut the fat from when it came to filming it), and he’s an expert on screenwriting? He’s not exactly Ben Hecht.

    There’s one thing I love about Casablanca and that it’s all about who can hold their own in conversations with one another. Rains and Bogie can go toe-to-toe with one another although Bogie has the slight edge because of Rains’s shaky position as an official of Vichy France. (“Germany–ah–Vichy would be very grateful,” is practically Rains’s only verbal slip.) All the same Rains keeps his conversational cool even with a gun on him. Everyone else, sadly, just can’t hold their own. Bogie easily out-converses Conrad Veidt (“Are my eyes really brown?”) Veidt easily out-converses Paul Henreid (“This is hardly the time or the place!” “Then we shall state another time and another place!”) Needless to say Henreid stands no chance against Bogie (“It seems that destiny has taken a hand.”) And Ingrid Bergman? Poor Ingrid, she loses every conversation, even with Henreid (she tries to work her way up to another “wherever they put you”-style betrayal with her husband but he shuts her down immediately with, “You don’t even have to say it.”)

  15. La Faustin Says:

    Joyeux Anniversaire! I think you and Fiona should rock a white dinner jacket / wide-brimmed hat look in honor of this lovely post — you could definitely pull it off.

    Is it true that Lena Horne was considered for the role of the singing, piano-playing sidekick? It would have cast a much less heroic light on Rick’s renunciation (“Two little people, hill of beans … just get out of here, you big Swede … you were saying, Samantha?”).

  16. Happy Birthday Mr. Cairns.

    I’ve got to say that CASABLANCA never moved me as much as TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, which is much more fun and a better take on the “cynical aloof Bogie finds cause worth fighting for” shtick that he did at the time. And as for wartime romances, I’d take THAT HAMILTON WOMAN any day over it. It’s a film that says monogamy doesn’t amount to a hill of beans during wartime, vis-a-vis Nelson and Emma, or Olivier and Leigh, living together against public opinion.

    Still, it’s a film that’s very well made and you are right about wartime Hollywood being upfront in their politics. I watched Raoul Walsh’s UNCERTAIN GLORY a while back and it’s remarkable in how it looks at France during Occupation, it takes the usual Javert-Valjean story and places it in that period and it has a proto-Melvillian quality, at a time when the real man was fighting the resistance himself.

  17. True about Curtiz, but he did take advantage of the sweatshop Warner was in the early ’30s (Warner wasn’t even the worst, just the worst at the time. I shudder to think what Curtiz would have done at Tiffany-Stahl in the late ’20s). Also, never more so true about Del Ruth than when he was left for MGM. Whatever bit of ambition he had seemed to wither away post-Warner.

  18. I have some sneaking respect for Goldman for his evisceration of Saving Private Ryan, and I do love The Princess Bride. Reiner may have pushed for script improvements, and he cast it superbly, but he did a pretty poor job with the visuals.

    Del Ruth’s last stuff, like The Alligator People, is very odd — I like it, and I’m genuinely unsure how ridiculous he intended it to be.

    Hal Wallis did indeed consider casting Lena Horne as Sam. He considered Dooley Wilson’s screen test only “pretty good,” adding “if we get stuck and can’t do any better I suppose he could play it.” (from Rudy Behlmer’s Inside Warner Brothers)

  19. Happy birthday, David. The surface business of being alive and entertaining, the many supporting players taking a turn, having a moment, Casablanca does this as well as any film. It’s one of those films I watched over and over on television when I was young, but I don’t think I’ve analyzed it. It just is.

  20. It was fascinating to look at it with Koch’s account in mind. You can see how it starts off very methodically worked out, apart from the fantasy of the letters of transit. By the end, we have unlikely character volte-faces, errors of narrative continuity (can Rick return to America or not?) and a scrabble of hurried movement as the poor writer desperately tries to get himself out of trouble. And, aided by Curtiz’s pace, he succeeds.

    Incidentally, Curtiz’s prominent use of close-ups in key scenes may partly explain why the movie has done so well on TV.

  21. On Del Ruth, I haven’t seen his last films, just an episode of Richard Diamond, Private Detective he directed.

  22. Happy birthday, David! What, no mention of Barb Wire?

  23. What most stands out for me re Goldman is his book “The Season” in which he attended a season’s worth of Broadway theater and wrote about everything he saw. Among those offerings was Judy at the Palace, and it’s the second most revoltingly homophobic screed by a supposedly serious writer I’ve ever read.

    Here’s my take on the MOST homophobic.

  24. Happy birthday, David. Casablanca on Shadowplay is a nice present for us all.

    I last saw it a few months ago on an IMAX screen — the TCM-sponsored digital broadcast. In that format, what surprised me most was actually how dynamic and exciting those first few minutes were, all crowds and action until “Vultures, vultures everywhere.”

    Of course, I love it in part because it’s the apotheosis of the refugee film. It’s surely the only Hollywood movie that boasts TWO actors who were also in Caligari.

  25. David C happy birthday! I now want to rewatch Casablanca
    David E thanks for a link its good to be reminded of recent history

  26. Happy birthday, David!

    Always such a pleasure to think again about Casablanca (almost as much fun as watching it again). One of the things I find I really enjoy about it on rewatching is how well-realized Rick’s is: by the end of the film, you know exactly how it’s laid out, could walk in the door and go anywhere, from the bandstand to the gambling room to the bar to Rick’s office and suite. It feels fully real in a way that so few sets do.

  27. Hope you’ll be doing something very self-indulgent for the big day! Enjoy it.

  28. Goldman is also down on “retards.”

    Barb Wire had the wit to borrow Casablanca’s most unconvincing element, the MacGuffin.

    I have no sense of direction so I couldn’t map out Rick’s for you. I got that there was an upstairs, and that it was above the other bit. The way the camera glides through the wall of Rick’s office does help you visualize the layout, though, even as it suggests the absence of a solid wall…

    Katya, you had me rushing to the IMDb. Twardowski!

  29. The moments that truly move me in Casablanca are the most outrageously corny, cheesy ones.

    When Ingrid’s eyes mist over with tears as hubby leads a crowd of refugees in singing La Marseillaise…sorry, but mine do, as well! I know I’m being manipulated but I just can’t resist. Perhaps it’s the all-time great ‘not very good’ movie?

  30. Oh, it’s VERY good. It’s just shameless with it. The close-up that gets me in that sequence is the equally tearful Yvonne, Bogie’s jilted floozy, who rediscovers her patriotism. It’s a generous character arc for such a minor character. And the stuff with the Bulgarian refugee girl and Bogie… “Nobody ever loved me that much.” Gorgeous.

  31. Yvonne later turns up in this little potboiler (She’s the one speaking to Guido in French)

  32. Wow! She’s working her way through all the Axis powers…

  33. Best regards on the anniversary of your entrance into the world! I rewatched Casablanca last year because it hadn’t been in my sight since I was 12 or so and was stunned by the film’s frankness about sex, not just in the “they’ve done it” moment between Bogie and Ingrid or the implications of “Paris”, but all the business with Major Renault, who’s clearly the Jimmy Savile of immigration, and the clear suggestion that Bogie isn’t above that sort of thing himself.

  34. For some reason it took me a while to like Casablanca. I do now. I reckon that it is perhaps its warm, homely, nostalgic and sentimental mood that many people enjoy.

    I saw Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry the other evening. I have to confess it was a bit like watching the proverbial paint dry.

  35. AHumphrys Says:

    Great piece on the ultimate Hollywood ‘classic’ – you have made me want to re-view it again. Happy birthday (I am also older than you, but less wise by a margin). Look forward to seeing you in S&S too.

  36. “How long since YOU watched CASABLANCA?”

    …funny you should ask – just last night in 35mm up on a nice big screen!!! This was in a college class (Intro to Film) and most of the students raised their hands when the prof asked how many liked the film!!! This time around for me I was catching a lot more double-meanings in the dialogue than I had ever before. I’m always amazed how this film never gets old and always holds surprises whenever I end up watching it!!! (I also seem to get more emotionally moved with each viewing.)


  37. Yeah, it gets me more emotionally each time — part of growing older I think.

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