Sunday, December 27, 2015

1943 - Casablanca

Since my last post, Kat and I have a new addition to our family. Emily was born in early November and is already melting hearts everywhere. With two little ones in the house now, finding time for this blog may be even more difficult than it has been (and it was already difficult). Indeed, I watched the movie below well over a month ago and am only now getting around to blogging about it. I have to admit, though, that the transition from one to two babies has not felt as life-altering as becoming parents for the first time. Most likely, that's simply due to the fact that we're already used to the sleep deprivation and constant cleanup of infant waste. And if having a second offspring weren't enough, we also just moved house and are dealing with all that that entails, so ... you know ... you may not hear from me again for a while...

Now, you may remember way back when I began this year of review many, many months ago that I mentioned taking the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour and happening upon an exhibit of their past Best Picture winners. One of those winners is indeed the victor of this current year of discussion and now that I'm ready to review that film, it's time to share the photos I took of that exhibit - one of the sheet music for As Time Goes By accompanied by composer Max Steiner's baton, and the other of a costume worn by Conrad Veidt in the film. Granted, it's probably not so thrilling just looking at the photos, so instead consider these photos as mementos of the brief moment of excitement that I experienced when I saw these items in person ... which I realise is probably even less thrilling for you...

Anyway, as I'm sure you've now inferred, our next Best Picture nominee from 1943 is the classic of classics...


Casablanca
Director:
Michael Curtiz
Screenplay:
Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
(based on the play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison)
Starring:
Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay)

When I'm asked to name my favourite movie of all time, I always have trouble narrowing it down to just one, but I do have a few standard responses for when I'm asked for my favourite movie of a particular genre. And Casablanca is, without question, my go-to pick for favourite classic film. (Yes, I know "classic" isn't technically a singular genre, but it was a section in most video stores - and probably on most streaming sites nowadays - and it's a word with a not entirely meaningless definition that a lot of people use to categorise a subsection - or perhaps, more accurately, an era - of cinema, so stop your pedantry.)

For those living under a rock, Casablanca centres on Rick Blaine (Bogart), the owner of a cafe/club in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. He inadvertently becomes the recipient of two letters of transit, important documents for any European refugee attempting to reach the United States. This makes him a concern to the corrupt but friendly French police captain Louis Renault (Rains) and the less-than-friendly German Major Strasser (Veidt) who want to make sure a resistance fighter named Victor Laszlo (Henreid) doesn't get the chance to leave the city. To complicate matters, Rick's old flame, Ilsa Lund (Bergman), happens to be Laszlo's wife. When Victor and Ilsa show up in Rick's establishment (the first time Rick has seen Ilsa since she abruptly abandoned him in Paris many years ago), Rick finds himself torn between helping the cause and dealing with his unresolved feelings for Ilsa.

Clearly, one of the reasons Casablanca has stood the test of time is its clear and captivating story. The plot is easy to follow yet subtle enough to allow the audience to figure some things out on their own, yet another consequence of the Hays Code, no doubt. For instance, when Louis is toying with the wife of a man who needs an exit visa, the insinuations run rampant, but nobody explicitly mentions that it's all about sex.

There are undoubtedly some very serious themes - which is almost mandatory in any story that involves war and Nazis - not to mention the sincere and heartbreaking romance aspect of the story, yet there is an abundance of comic relief, all appropriate and never undercutting the film's gravity. You might even call the film a dramedy, even if that term didn't exist in 1943. During some of the most poignant moments, the film is not afraid to cut the tension with a well-timed giggle. Perhaps my favourite of these is when Strasser orders Louis to find a reason to shut down the cafe. Louis immediately demands everyone leave, exclaiming that he is shocked to hear that there is gambling taking place in the back room. At that very moment, a cashier approaches Louis and very audibly says, "Your winnings, sir," while handing him a wad of cash. Without skipping a beat, Louis thanks the man and continues carrying out his orders.

This comedy-drama quality is enhanced - or maybe even created - by the wonderful dialogue, poetic and stirring at times, and witty and amusing at others. The brilliance of these words - or at least their popularity - is confirmed by the number of memorable quotes that have entered the cultural landscape. The AFI voted six of them into their list of the 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time, twice as many as any other movie. Not included in that list is the lesser-known but hilarious exchange of dialogue - and possibly my favourite such exchange in the entire history of cinema - between Carl and a German couple practicing their English. Rather than describe it here, it's probably better to just direct you to the clip.

The cast is uniformly wonderful, each one solid in their respective roles. As I mentioned in the posts on Watch on the Rhine and For Whom the Bell Tolls, I used to be flabbergasted as to how Bogart and Bergman (pictured) didn't win Best Actor and Best Actress for Casablanca. After seeing those two other films, though, I now understand why, even though I might still disagree. Both their performances here are sublime. Bogart was nominated for his. Bergman wasn't (because she was nommed for Tolls instead). Claude Rains was the other acting nominee, delivering a polished portrayal as the likable, albeit occasionally sleazy, Louis. And for my money, Peter Lorre's is the most delicious performance in the film, playing the pitiful weasel. It's short on screen time but big on character.