Archive for Casablanca

Everybody Comes to Rick’s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2020 by dcairns

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.

The Hogmanay Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on December 31, 2017 by dcairns

1. OK, that’s the intertitle (from THE GOLD RUSH).

2. Now for the film grammar lesson. It’s said that, because we read from left to right, the positioning of characters in frame has a dramatic meaning that depends on which direction they’re pointed in. A character aimed right is going somewhere, a character aimed left is, ahem, strong and stable, has arrived where they were going. Presumably in other cultures like Japan where they read right to left, this is reversed, but I haven’t gotten around to checking.

I was a little skeptical of this idea when Robert McKee said it in a close analysis of a scene from CASABLANCA — every time McKee talks, I will him to be wrong. But it seems to hold up. And it doesn’t seem to matter how skilled the filmmaker is, it appears to occur unconsciously/automatically. Which makes it, I guess, a lesson you can’t do anything with, unless you’re a director and you get paralysed by doubt in setting up a scene: it might unblock your blocking. The complacent Mr. Sheldrake isn’t going anywhere, physically or spiritually.

Miss Kubelik doesn’t know it yet, but she has a visit to pay.

3. OK, that’s the film grammar bit. Now for the mash-up —

   

4. Now for the benediction: whichever of these images most closely resembles your New Year’s Eve activities, may the new year bring you peace and wisdom and kindness and joy.

And movies!

A Night Without Casablanca

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2017 by dcairns

I wrote a little about this one years back (has it been years?) and so left it to nearly the end of my Marxian odyssey this time (for late-comers, I’m writing about those aspects of the Marx Bros films excluding the Marx Bros — what are usually considered the bad bits).

A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA sees the three remaining Bros at United Artists, in 1946, in a largely studio-bound version of North Africa. Plot revolves around Nazi gold and art treasures, then I imagine quite a new McGuffin. It’s probably sensible that the Marx films skipped the war years altogether (if one considers WWII from an American perspective) and refer to the Third Reich fairly obliquely here.

The film is deftly directed by Archie Mayo, with a surprising amount of fluid camera movement. It’s questionable whether a Marx Bros film NEEDS fluid camera movement, but it’s getting it regardless. And despite the limited budget keeping us in a hotel for most of the plot (when the boys escape jail and steal a plane, they crash right back into the jail again, thus saving on further sets) it looks pretty good.

No Margaret Dumont, alas, but Sig Rumann is present and incorrect as Pfferman the German. He’s a Nazi-in-hiding with a giveaway scar on his head (I’m imagining an unfortunate encounter with the Inglourious Basterds) for which he requires the camouflage of a toupee. Harpo is set up as Rusty, his put-upon underling, a role that dates back to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and Thalberg’s unfortunate attempts to sentimentalize Harpo. Still, it means we can have lots of scenes of Sig being driven to apoplexy by Harpo and later the other brothers. And he keeps his clothes on this time. The sight of his genital cluster swaying within his long johns in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA will follow me to my mausoleum.

Sig comes complete with henchpersons, the oily Kurt and the seductive Bea. Kurt is ably played by actual German Frederick Giermann, and gets a decent sabre duel with Harpo. Giermann is one of countless fugitives from the Nazis who enjoyed a few boom years in Hollywood playing the guys he had fled. His career dries up not long after the war.

Bea is the excellent and lovely Lisette Verea, who seems to be genuinely having a ball, and is particularly good with Groucho. The nice girls in these films are always a bore, but the vamps are generally great value. Better, Verea gets to convert to the side of good, meaning she can get chased offscreen by the Bros at the end. This Romanian vixen was in just two films, the other being the 1933 version of THE GHOST TRAIN, which I bet is aces. ALL versions of THE GHOST TRAIN seem to be thoroughly entertaining.

Frank Tashlin worked on gags for this one, including Harpo’s first scene, leaning against a wall, getting moved on by a policeman (“Say, what do you think you are doing, holding up the building?”), at which point the full-sized building collapses. He may have also devised Groucho’s deleted entrance, in which his small desert hotel blows away in a sandstorm. The movie has obviously suffered quite a bit of this “tightening” — despite which Chico and Harpo’s musical numbers remain intact — numerous scenes fade-out in mid-action, or with characters opening their mouths to begin new quips. Who knows if there was gold in the lost footage? The remaining film has its longeurs, and the inelegance of the cutting does make me wonder if they snipped out the wrong bits.

Chief among the longeurs, of course, are the romantic leads, but the movie gives them short shrift, for which we can be grateful. Their names are Charles Drake and Lois Collier, and they can’t help themselves. And the script doesn’t exactly go out of its way to help them either. Of Mr. Drake, the IMDb says “No change in popularity this week,” which strikes me as beautifully apt. Collier had a much shorter career than her co-star, but most of her characters had names. This pair doesn’t get a lot of screen time — the movie actually seems to forget about them midway, and it’s a surprise when they crash back into the plot. And at least they don’t sing.

Lisette Verea does, briefly, and the number chosen, Who’s Sorry Now?, is a very good one, and it’s nice that it’s by Kalmar & Ruby, who wrote Hooray for Captain Spaulding! and Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, and who are the chief credited writers on DUCK SOUP.

Who else? Perennial bit player Paul Harvey plays Mr. Smythe, who can’t get a room in Groucho’s hotel without showing his marriage license. Mr. Harvey was born in Sandwich, Illinois, which makes me warm to him. Sig Rumann was a Hamburger — perhaps he would have bonded with the Sandwich man also.

There’s an extraordinary-looking thesp called David Hoffman as an Arab spy. And Dan Seymour as the Prefect of Police, his beard dismissed by Groucho as a terrible case of five O’clock shadow. And, we are told, Ruth Roman as a harem girl, but I failed to spot her.

The movie is a big step up from THE BIG STORE, it seems to me, and lets the Brothers be properly anarchic and only incidentally noble. Though the best bits of OPERA and RACES are up there with the best bits of anything else, I can’t help feel that the Marxes made a mistake, essentially, in signing with MGM — this movie liberates them from the Thalberg influence. The studio where they SHOULD have found a home, Warner Bros (the most brazenly Jewish, most leftie, most proletarian, and most casually vulgar studio) threatened to sue over the use of the word CASABLANCA in the title here. Groucho threatened to counter-sue over the use of their word BROTHERS.

Despite someone NEARLY saying “Round up the usual suspects” and a Groucho-Lisette riff on “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” from TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, there’s little of Bogart here, though Groucho’s tent-like white jacket may be a clown version of Rick’s evening dress. A more actionable version could be imagined, with Groucho running a night club, Chico as a combined Dooley Wilson and Peter Lorre (“Sure I gotta the lettuce o’ transit!”) and Harpo as… hmm, not sure. Paul Henreid could play himself.