Everybody Comes to Rick’s

So, seven and a bit years since I last watched CASABLANCA? Too long. We ran Karen Thomas’s fine documentary Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood as a companion piece to the somewhat heavier Filmemigration aus Nazideutschland (since Hollywood apparently ran out of original titles decades ago, could not unwieldy compound words by the Next Big Thing?), and it uses CASABLANCA as a sort of fulcrum, tracing the stories of many of the film’s European participants. It made me want to see the Curtiz classic again, so we ran it.

Thoughts on character introductions, spun in the direction of the Classics for Comfort CMBA Spring Blogathon.

Bogie is introduced with a shot of his hand signing a cheque, next to a smoldering ashtray and a wineglass, then a delayed tilt up to his face once we’ve waited long enough to be curious. See also: Sean Connery’s very first appearance at the roulette wheel in DR. NO. But whereas Connery’s Bond is gambling because that’s the kind of somewhat louche character he is, Bogart’s Rick Blaine is working out a chess problem. So, while much action and dialogue is devoted to Rick’s persona as a cynical drunk who’s at heart a noble romantic, this first shot suggests that he has an analytical mind which can work out complex strategies in advance, anticipating his opponent’s moves and countering them. Exactly the skillset he deploys in the film’s dizzying third act, spinning yarns to manipulate Renault, Ilsa and Victor Laszlo (only the wily Renault successfully tricks him with his phone call to Major Strasser).

So, once again the late William Goldman’s criticisms of CASABLANCA’s opening ten minutes can be seen to be, at the very least, overstated: for all its ponderous narration and documentary montage (necessary, I think, to connect the 100% studio-bound romance with the real-world events playing out even as the movie was first screened), it’s a model of tight construction and artful foreshadowing.

The introduction of the other characters is equally cunning. It’s perfect that Strasser (Connie Veidt) arrives by plane, like Hitler at the start of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. I think it’s the only time we see real sky in the film, and the plane’s landing in a matte-shot airfield with a painted city around it completes the transition from wartime reality to big sound stage (which may previously have had a sign painted on the roof diverting prospective Japanese bombers to the nearby Lockheed plant). And the arrival by plane at the start mirrors the departure at the end (but Strasser won’t be catching that flight).

There’s a fast tilt down from a matte painting, linked to a crane shot of the studio set — freeze-frame this, and the line between painting and reality (actually just a different kind of artifice) is shockingly obvious (I’ve drawn a line through it to highlight the dark fuzzy bar) but it’s impossible to spot at normal speed. It’s a microcosm of Curtiz’s line to screenwriter Howard Koch, telling him not to worry about plot illogicalities: “I make it go so fast no one notices.”

Claude Rains’ introduction as Renault is less dramatic: you might be fooled into thinking him a subsidiary character, like Basil Exposition. But his relaxed manner is an early clue to what an enjoyable and cunning presence he’s going to be.

Sam is introduced as we enter Rick’s. Dooley Wilson is treated with considerable respect by Rick and by Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet): he’s evidently the big draw at the Cafe Americain. A shame that Ilsa will refer to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano” later. You can justify it by saying it’s the forties, but I actually question whether a Swedish character who’s never been to America would have thought of the middle-aged musician as a “boy.”

Peter Lorre’s Ugarte slides in the door with a nod to Bogie while other business is being attended to. Very casual-like. If we didn’t know him, he might be just another of the numerous bit-players already seen doing business at Rick’s (buying, selling, pickpocketing). And in fact he is just that, only he’s Peter Lorre and he’s bringing a MacGuffin that already cost two lives (Nazi lives, though, we’re shedding no tears). By his third shot, he’s lavishing us with twitchy, sweaty anxiety and making it seem jolly entertaining.

I note that there is no reason at all for Rick to accept the letters of transit from Ugarte. He doesn’t want them, he doesn’t like Ugarte and he’s not, at this stage, supposed to be interested in the resistance (and the letters have no connection to the resistance yet). It’s pure plot mechanics, puppeteering the cast in plain sight. Never mind: we want to know what happens next.

Greenstreet enters with a tracking shot that cuts through the throng, touching breast, lips and brow in a smooth salute to a Muslim associate, and takes his seat while Sam is singing: we get a musical interlude but also a bit of suspense as we wait to hear why this obviously significant figure has arrived. He tries to buy the cafe. Rick rejects his offer without hearing the price. He tries to buy Sam. “I don’t buy or sell human beings,” says Rick. “Too bad, that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity,” replies Greenstreet, typing himself as a swine but doing it with not just a twinkle (everyone twinkles at Rick’s) but with an adorable-repulsive wrinkling of the nose, as if he were Baby Spice.

Ilsa and Victor enter together in another, different tracking shot: classic Curtiz, gliding through a space at a slight angle to the action, with a tone of interesting local colour slipped in between subject and camera. 3D without glasses. Looking at all these entrances in one sequence, one is reminded, abstractly, that this was once a play (unproduced). But it never feels like one, since the space is broken up into so many different playing areas, which feel like scenes in themselves. The busy bit players are reminiscent of a much earlier phase of Warners movies, the pre-codes which often documented a particular area of American life, commerce or politics or transportation, and would often open with a flurry of tiny sketches establishing the life of the place.

Ilsa and Victor glide right past Sam, who is playing the bittersweet Plaisir D’Amour, an absurdly apposite choice if you stop to think about it. But you’re not that likely to stop. The art of story is the art of making the audience wait for what they want to see, but making them enjoy your delaying tactics too. So Bergman doesn’t immediately meet Bogie, she meets John Qualen. And then Claude Rains. And then Conrad Veidt. And then Dooley Wilson… and then there’s a really remarkable ten-second shot of Bergman just listening and thinking…

Bogie and Bergman’s eyes meet thirty-two minutes and ten seconds into CASABLANCA.

CASABLANCA stars Samuel Spade; Dr. Constance Petersen; Jeremiah (Jerry) Durrance; Dr. Jack Griffin aka The Invisible Man; Gwynplaine / Lord Clancharlie; Kasper Gutman; Joel Cairo; Felix Bassenak; Madeleine – l’attrice francaise; Gabe Tucker; Marsinah; Miser Stephens; Sylvanian Agitator; Der sterbene Homer; Danton; Aramis; Baron St. Fontanel; Nectenabus; Count Alexis Rakonin; Crunch; Lo Tinto; and Reinhard Heydrich.

For the Classics For Comfort Spring Blogathon, my five classics recommended for cosy viewing at this Difficult Time:

CASABLANCA

REAR WINDOW

THE SEVEN SAMURAI

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

LONESOME

Chosen because I could watch them anytime and they’d give me a glow.

22 Responses to “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Goldman’s unjustly famous “Nobody knows anything” should be revised to “Goldman doesn’t know all that much.” Love his screenplays for “Soldier in the Rain” and “Harper” LOATHE his pathologically homophobic attack on Broadway “The Season.” Goldman had tons of trouble with his “Strange twilight urges” and eagerly projected them onto everyone else. This marks him as a poor source for any discussion of “Casablanca” in which Bogie loses Bergman but wins Claude Rains. So to speak.

    The best overall piece of writing on “Casablanca” can be found HERE

  2. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “I make it go so fast no one notices.” Actually it ALL goes so fast we can’t help but notice. “Casablanca” is nominally about Bogie and Bergman, but it’s wildly overstuffed with all sorts of great actors: Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet, Dalio, Madeline Lebeau, Leonid Kinsky et. al. The pace and care I which character and incident come and go are such that there isn’t a boring nanosecond in in the whole fabulous show.

  3. Grant Skene Says:

    I find myself rewatching Casablanca every couple of months. Its obvious love for humanity, warts and all, is the perfect riposte to the callousness of Nazism. I don’t bore you with my many thoughts. Suffice to say, “Vive la France! Vive la Marseillais!”, and cry with joy.

  4. Rains’ “If I were a woman, I would be in love with Rick,” raised Fiona’s eyebrows. Was David Thomson the first writer to “go there” in Suspects?

    The Marsellaise scene is lovely. I wondered about the claim that Curtiz only cared about settings and atmosphere, when the reaction shots in this film so meticulously dot every i and cross (and doublecross) every t. But reading the Warner Bros memos, it seems like the producers really kept on top of this stuff, plus you have Julius Epstein recording that the first rendition of “Round up the usual suspects” was devoid of cutaways and hence lacked suspense. So I guess maybe Curtiz really was the autistic auteur and he formed a beautiful friendship with that phantasm, the Genius of the System.

  5. It is all sort of perfect, isn’t it? And during these times when the world truly does seem upside down, it’s a comfort to know that everything must turn out just right at Rick’s.

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Casablanca is more than a movie at this point. It’s kind of become a legend. Especially in the last 10 years or so, it’s become along with The great dictator, maybe the classic movie most popular among young people. Of course to some extent it’s been that way since the Bogart cult of the ’60s. There are other Curtiz movies, other Bogart, other Bergman, heck other everyone in the cast, that I like more than this one but Casablanca has this transcendent appeal to it.

    I think one reason is that it’s a rare Hollywood movie that’s about defeat. All the people in that movie are losers to some extent or another. I don’t think you can really say at the end anyone gets what the really want. Bogart’s Rick is a veteran of the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, which was the embittering defeat of the left in that time. The resistance movement for all the patina of glamor that it owes in large part to Casablanca, was born of military defeat as well. Then on top of that there’s the romantic defeat. That makes it quite moving and still allows it a freshness, because even now media rarely knows how to portray or show defeat, or the idea of retaining dignity in defeat.

    And I think that theme is more prescient since 2016 and during this pandemic, where more people across the planet experience defeat across the board than ever before.

  7. I don’t recall for sure, but I don’t think Donald Trump has cited Casablanca as an old movie he likes: I don’t think he’d know what to make of something where the hero has been on the losing side twice, gives up the girl, sells his brand to Sydney Greenstreet, and is fighting fascism by the end. Still, since he thinks Kane is the hero of Citizen Kane, maybe he’d identify with Strasser?

    Defeat surrounds the characters, but by the time of the film’s production, the name Casablanca was in the news with victorious implications, so the film is looking forward to eventual triumph… it never discusses this, though, so it still has the poignancy of failure…

  8. Carlmacs Says:

    Thanks for this commentary that allows me to see a familiar classic with new eyes. One question re: your list of recommended classics at the end: forgive my ignorance but what is LONESOME?

  9. ehrenstein47 Says:

    As he lies with every breath Donald Trump has even seen “Casablanca.” cites it because it’s a very famous movie that everybody that everybody likes. Major Strasser is the only character in it Trump would really like.

  10. The dog whistle implicit in his namechacking Gone with the Wind is obvious, but I can’t figure out what led him to cite Sunset Blvd (to defeaning silence from his baffled crowd), other than it was the only title his corrupt memory banks could draw upon. Still, I suppose “crazy old celeb in big house hopelessly dreaming of one last triumph” might be something he could relate to.

  11. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I think with 45, he just likes to cites classic movies because it’s become a sign for the “good old days” and so on. When everyone was white and in their place. He’s basically nostalgic for the American cinema imposed on Hollywood by the Hays Code and not for the American cinema that fought the Code, subverted and resisted it tooth and nail throughout that time. So he cited SUNSET BLVD. because he sees that as a movie about the old days and a nostalgia trip, even if that movie was seen in its time as quite a critical movie about Hollywood. This happens routinely with the arts, where the idea of something being classic, runs the risk of being co-opted for the most superficial and transient reasons and not the deeper aesthetic reasons.

    As someone studying at a University for a PHD, I took a course on Old English for a translation requirement and the professor talked about how the Old English or Anglo-Saxon studies runs the risk of being co-opted by the right wing because they see Alfred of Wessex as a proto-Brexiteer and so on. Kieron Gillen, the comics artist, wrote a wonderful graphic series called Once & Future which deconstructs the Arthur myth and criticizes that right-wing takeover.

  12. I’m with Sudarshan about the use Trump makes of movie citations, but picking Sunset Boulevard in particular remains a little puzzling if you agree with the supposition that Trump doesn’t have what the rest of us would recognize as opinions or reactions or even memories, just … acid reflux of the brain. Somehow Sunset Boulevard was sloshing around at that moment.

    And fucking right-wing orcs — hands off Alfred the Great.

  13. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Madeline Lebeau was married to Marcel Dalio. Two decades later she turns up in “8 1/2” as the actress who keeps pestering Guido to explain her character to her. Imagine having TWO classics to one’s credit list.

  14. Grant Skene Says:

    Trump probably just wants to build a hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Name recognition.

    Well said, Sudarshan Ramani. It is the love and compassion for the underdog, and the sincere empathy for refugees that just tugs at your heartstrings. If a Trumpite could still demand they build the wall after watching Casablanca, they should be sentenced to the same fate as those two German couriers.

    Of course, since much of the cast were immigrants, and many refugees themselves, you can sense that this movie was more than just a job to them. And keep in mind that it was being filmed in 1942 where even the US, as well as the Allies as a whole, had experienced more defeats than victories. Sacrifices were being made, and more to come. There was hope for success, but hardly guarantees.

    That’s why the ending is so perfect and poignant. The wife must go with her husband. This is no time to desert the guy who is doing all he can to fight the enemy. (Remember that you gals on the homefront.) While the hero sends his love off to safety while he stays to fight. (Come on you men, this is no time to stay home with the girlfriend! There’s a war to fight.)

    I am not belittling those sentiments. This film espouses this view so eloquently, you just know it is right.

  15. dbenson Says:

    An old Disney World attraction, recently replaced by a livelier Mickey Mouse ride (fortunately they kept the remarkable Chinese Theater facade and lobby). If you want to cut to the chase, they recreate the end of “Casablanca” around the 10 minute mark:

    It was a bit livelier when it first opened, when the live performers were hammier and more energetic.

  16. Carlmacs, sorry I almost missed your comment. Lonesome is a 1929 Pal Fejos film from Universal, incredible touching and technically dazzling, with all kinds of colour experiments (and some unfortunate sound sequences, but those are kind of quaint) and visual ideas. Almost forgotten, it was discovered, restored and is now available from Criterion.

  17. Watching Filmemigration aus Nazideutschland, I was struck by how many of the movie industry refugees really had passed through Casablanca. For some reason it was surprising to see documentary backing up a Hollywood story.

  18. I loved the way you analyzed the introductions of all these characters. I’ve seen this film many, many times, but never thought about the character introductions before…which I am shocked – shocked! – to discover. ;)

  19. Thanks! Character introductions are something I admire when done well… I should look at more films through this lens.

  20. I like your focus on the entrances of different characters, as it says so much about why the storytelling in this film works so well.

  21. chris schneider Says:

    Richard Corliss “went there” before David Thomson. Corliss alludes to it in TALKING PICTURES, which was 1970s, whereas SUSPECTS was 1980s

  22. Ah, that’s good to know. I never quite understood the enthusiasm about Suspects, it seemed the kind of trick that would be easy to do once you’d though of it (which is less easy, admittedly).

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