Archive for Ingrid Bergman

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.

Crosby Stille Nacht

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 7, 2019 by dcairns

The Unbearable Lightness of Bing — I’ve written before about Leo McCarey’s baffling descent — or ascension — into demented Catholic mania — now I’ve made a more sympathetic video essay for Arrow Video to accompany their lovely Blu-Ray of THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S in which, with the aid of editor Stephen Horne, I attempt to burrow into that weirdness and the improvisational techniques and freeform narrative approach that McCarey employed.

You can buy it, for your own pleasure or as a gift for the Bingrid fan in your life.

And remember —

Nunsplaining

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2017 by dcairns

Bing upstaged by kitten in boater. I guess this is what you’re reduced to when you can’t allow your comedy any trace of meanness.  But I admit I like the funny awkwardness of the composition.

A kind of morbid seasonal curiosity drove us on, remorselessly, into THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S, Leo McCarey’s follow-up to GOING MY WAY. It’s exactly the same length, two hours and five minutes, making this quite a Bing-binge. It’s exactly as shapeless as its predecessor but somewhat more amusing.

Bing walks into view from the side, just as he walked out of GOING MY WAY, a touch you can only appreciate if you watch them together, but he exited GMW walking right to left and enters this one left to right. What’s the matter, Bing? You call your movie GOING MY WAY, but just what IS your way? You seem UNCERTAIN.

The pleasure-needle briefly wobbles into the red when we meet Una O’Connor who warns Bing balefully about the deleterious effects of being “up to your neck in nuns.” Fine words, delivered by a woman with just the right Gothic horror comedy credentials to put them over big. But in fact, the nuns are fine, and Bing gets on perfectly well with them, and the movie resolves this inconsistency by having Una largely disappear for the next two hours so as not to remind us of the false promise of dramatic tension.

There are other amusing issues of continuity. Teenager Joan Carroll (one of those weird little adults they have as teenagers in the forties) shows up with lipstick and Bing wipes it off, revealing one of the few un-touched faces to be seen in Hollywood films of the period. But in her very next scene she has lipstick again, just paler, the kind we’re not supposed to notice. And she needs it, I guess, to stop us noticing that Ingrid Bergman, a nun, also wears subtle but quite apparent lipstick throughout. (In THE NUN’S STORY the sisters all wear make-up but it’s cunningly invisible.)

Bergman brings the entertainment, though. It’s the entertainment of seeing a lusty woman in a habit. When she smiles, it’s not only one of the most beauteous smiles in cinema, it’s far from beatific. It’s full of sex. When she tells Joan Carroll about all the things she should experience before deciding if she wants to be a nun, she seems to be really getting into it, and when she says “not until you’ve known all this…and more,” it’s not “more things that we have time to get into here,” it’s “more things than I can tell you about while the Breen Office is eavesdropping — wait until the fade-out.”

Also having her natural exuberance stifled is Ruth Donnelly, the Frank McHugh of this movie, a zesty pre-code malefactor now tamped down and smothered in vestments for the repressed post-war world. It’s like McCarey was on a personal mission to leach the good, dirty fun out of everything. William Gargan also turns up, simpering — he’s a different case, since his attempts at pre-code stardom fizzled, and he got a new lease of life in wartime while some of the proper leading men were away fighting.

Who else? henry Travers as the millionaire from whom the nuns want to get a new school. Casting someone convincingly irascible and Scrooge-like would seem the minimum requirement to generate some dramatic zing and tension, so McCarey, naturally, goes the other way in order to flatten and confuse his film, casting a mild, befuddled performer who was about to play an angel. McCarey’s strategy in these films is to throw a wet blanket over anything threatening to become suspenseful. It’s not incompetence, it’s genuinely his aim. But I can’t really sympathise with it.

Henry Travers upstaged by dog. See top.

He does pull off one terrific moment with this approach, I’ll admit. When Travers has his conversion and becomes a saintly philanthropist, he tells Ingrid she can have her new school and he’s just off to sign the papers. Those of us who have seen a few films, and noticed Travers’ jaywalking one scene earlier, wonder if he’s perhaps going to be struck down by an automobile before he can reach the office. He exits, there’s a pause, then a screech of brakes and cries of alarm. Ingrid opens the door in time to see him emerging from under a truck, waving. He’s fine! A sort of heart-warming narrative double-cross. Pull off a couple more of those and you might have a picture.

I will admit that the nativity play rehearsal is funny and charming and uses McCarey’s way with improv to get very natural performances from kids who are supposed to be giving bad performances in a play. I especially like the lead boy who can’t breathe. This is the only film I know of where “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus” is sung apart from FULL METAL JACKET. McCarey reports that the sequence worried the studio suits, who feared it might be blasphemous, “But they weren’t Catholic.”