Casablanca (1942): 75th Anniversary Review

Casablanca,_Trailer_Screenshot.JPG

When someone inquires if I consider Casablanca one of my favorite movies, I don’t quite know how to respond. Yes, I do love this film passionately but I feel as if Casablanca is more deeply America’s favorite classic movie. It is not for me to call my own and I will gladly share a joint appreciation for it. Because it’s a film for all of us. As it should be. It’s the perfect articulation and expression of that former Hollywood that existed during the studio age as brought to us by Michael Curtiz.

When we are finally allowed to enter into Rick’s Cafe Americain, it almost feels like hallowed ground. It’s a mythical place that never existed in reality and yet feels so immersive to us as an audience. Curtiz moves through the space with such intent that it makes us completely involved with every person his camera settles on. This is a picture for romantics and sentimentalists to be sure but it caters to those with a cynical edge too. It suggests a deceitful world of pickpockets, unscrupulous officials, and of course, Nazis.

The political tides of the times are reflected in that cinematic bastion of a man Rick Blaine (Bogart). His foreign policy is that he sticks his neck out for no one. But that’s only on the surface. That’s the beauty of the character. There’s a sensitivity and a sacrificial nature that wells up deep inside him, hidden from view. Tortured and embittered as he is, that is not the last word.

There’s also an undeniable undercurrent to the film. Yes, this is not reality. As enveloping as it is, this is wholly a Warner Bros. aesthetic but moreover there’s a sense that the emotions that deluge over Casablanca are very real.

Aside from Bogart and the lovely, incomparable Ingrid Bergman, our cast is made up of a plethora of emigres, men and women, who fled the Nazis for this reason or that. Whether they were Jewish or had different political affiliations or just couldn’t bear to live under such an oppressive regime.

Director Michael Curtiz was originally from Hungary and in him, we find someone who totally understood the plight of those fleeing and the context of the moment where Casablanca was only a pitstop for America. Because take the picture out of its context and something would be lost. Firmly plant it in the era and you have blessed the production with something enduringly special.

Furthermore, in the scene where Lazlo (Paul Henreid) calls on the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out the German’s proud merrimaking it ceases to be a mere scene in a film but becomes an event that swells with real emotions. You can see it in the very body language, the tears in the eyes, and the fervor that comes over everyone. Madeleine Lebeau (the film’s last surviving cast member who passed away last year) singing defiantly, with the tears freely flowing. No longer acting but pure feelings incarnate.

When so many other minority characters make me cringe in pictures of the 30s and 40s, Sam, the piano man (Dooley Wilson), remarkably rarely does. That’s because he’s endowed with a certain autonomy attributed to him in part by Blaine. They are partners, friends, and they watch out for each other.

His singing holds the love story together. Like many of the film’s greatest faces, he’s not a mere sideshow attraction. There’s a necessity to his characterization that adds another dimension to the world that has been conjured up on the Warner Bros. lot. What would Casablanca be without Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sazall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, etc.? It would lose so much color — so much definition.

Another joy of the picture after you see it too many times to count is the continued relish of the script, waiting for your favorite lines only to be taken with new quips that you never picked up on before. For me, most lines of this nature come from the wonderfully amoral and yet completely personable Captain Renault (Claude Rains). But there’s also so much going on around the edges of the frame. One of my favorites involves the young woman who fled from Bulgaria with her husband. The young lady is played by Jack Warner’s step-daughter Joy Page.

Here we see a relationship that mirrors that of Rick and Elsa in a way that only becomes apparent later on. Because she is a woman desperate to get to America with her impoverished husband. He is trying to win money gambling but it’s a desperate even futile situation.

She loves him so much, she is willing to try and use her own beauty and the influence of another man, Inspector Renault to help the man she truly loves. There’s so much subtext to the scene written with the production codes in mind and the sincerity is immediately evident even if some of the import can be lost on us. The same can be said for the foreshadowing.

Part of what makes the picture’s final act work is the fact that Lazlo is such a decent human being. He loves his wife so much, he’s willing to have Blaine take her to safety by using the Letters of Transit if need be. Thus, this dichotomy is set up and Rick must make a decision. He must do the thinking for both of them but that request from Lazlo saves Rick’s reputation no matter the decision that he makes. We know that either might be right. Even though deep in our hearts, there’s only one denouement we want.

Did I even need to write this review? Certainly not but it’s more for my sake than anyone else’s. Casablanca is a dear friend of mine and after 75 years it still comes up smelling like roses. Its themes are timeless in the sense that it allows romance to be its guiding light while still tempering it with the disillusionment and licentiousness that often is so prevalent in this world of ours. That makes its bittersweet interludes ring with a certain deep-seated truth that never comes off as fake. It’s as evocative and witty now as it was in 1942. Perhaps even more so.

5/5 Stars

Review: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Grapes_of_Wrath,_The_-_(Original_Trailer)_-_01The Grapes of Wrath is in special company with a number of literary adaptations where film and source material are both so highly regarded and culturally significant. A few other names spring to mind such as Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

However, even more so than all of those stories John Steinbeck’s novel of exodus during the Dust Bowl has a universal ring reverberating for the common man. The Joads are a humble, simplistic Oklahoma clan, but they are only one family out of many who are forced to make the migration out to California. The Dust Bowl and big business push them off their homes and their only hope is the distant promise land of California. They cling to that hope which keeps them going resolutely onward toward the Orange Groves.

Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) who has just gotten out on parole is the figure from which we see the story through. He’s the focal point certainly, but he is defined by all those around him. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) is the rock of the family, keeping them together, civil, and spirited even when the worst hardships of life hit.

Grandpa dies on the land that he called home. Grandma dies without the company of her lifelong partner. Rosasharn’s husband cuts out when prospects look bad. The family is slowly drained of money, food, gasoline, and hope when they see that the prospects in California are far from good. The book has so much to say politically and socially, using the Joads as a universal parable to reflect the reality of a great many people.

Obviously, John Ford’s film cannot contain all the exposition and commentary of the novel, but he uses the visual medium brilliantly and the Nunnally Johnson’s script fills the screen with all sorts of folks. There are no true villains and the only heroes are those who maintain their humanity and treat others well on a day to day basis. Ma Joad is one, offering food to starving children because it’s the right thing to do. A roadside waitress comes off brusque at first before extending a true act of kindness. You have the genial caretaker (Grant Mitchell) of the Wheat Patch Camp, who is angelic in comparison to so many of the other gruff people the Joads come in contact with.

There’s the scum of the earth. People just doing what they’re told, men just worried about profit, and crooked cops looking to run Okies out. There are those who just grin and bear it to feed their families. They’re part of the problem too and finally, you have Jim Casy and then Tom following in his footsteps.

Former preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine) is a critical figure because he, like so many of the other characters, has lost himself and yet over the course of the film he finds his purpose again. He’s the film’s Christ-like figure (with the initials JC), and yet he seems counter-intuitive to what we expect. But he has the most important things down. He fights for justice and lays down his life for his friends.

Rather like an extensive Dorothea Lange exhibition, cinematographer Gregg Toland shoots the film in beautifully austere and gritty black and white, which feels like a test run for Citizen Kane. However, it remains iconic in its own right with the ways in which it makes the plain, simple, and ordinary cinematic. It’s truly a visual snapshot of Americana with Henry Fonda as our All-American poster boy.

Speaking of Fonda, how could I have lost sight of his character here? Fonda in many ways synonymous with Tom Joad, and I always equate him being a kindly, true blue American. But that’s only part of him. That’s how he acts around his family, but he’s a young man disillusioned by the world. He speaks his mind and is not opposed to fighting back against the injustice. Because that’s what he sees around him. That’s why he kills the man who beats Casy and that’s why he goes out on the road; to be a champion of justice where there isn’t any. It’s an ending more suited for Hollywood at the time than Steinbeck’s original denouement, but it no less poignant or powerful. It doesn’t just stop with the Depression, but it ends up being a whole lot bigger and more universal than that. This is one of the great tales about the human condition, courtesy of one of America’s greatest directors starring one of America’s most legendary actors.

4.5/5 Stars

“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.” – Tom Joad

Review: His Girl Friday (1940)

25148-hisgirl1It all happened in the “Dark Ages” of the newspaper game — When to a reporter “Getting that story” justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.”

Hildy Johnson (aka His Girl Friday) is making her return to the Morning Post but not to get her old job back. She came to pay a visit to her former husband (and paper editor) who she divorced because she is newly engaged and wants to break everything off for good. It means she can go off into the sunset with her new beau, but it also means no more paper. She drops the news and it turns out the wedding is set for the next day so Walter has very little time to go to work. He soon begins a sly barrage of subtle and not so subtle jabs, ridicules, and put downs aimed at the easy target Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter cuts him off, plays dumb, and is in general condescending and conniving. Hildy sees it all unfolding and half watches with bemusement, while also trying to stop Walter from causing any major trouble.

You see he’s a wonderful fellow in a loathsome sort of way, but you cannot help but like him. Because as Hildy notes he comes by charm naturally since “his grandfather was a snake.” These are the kinds of barbs and witty put downs we deal with the entire film. Besides being good fun, it also is quite extraordinary, since they never stop coming. It’s also fascinating to simply watch the many expressions of Cary Grant, whether it is a smirk or straight face, it always has a tinge of mischief which suits his character just fine. He seems more like a little boy at times, trying to win back his girl, and in many ways, that’s what he’s trying to do. But back to the action.

Hildy unwittingly falls into Walter’s trap, and from that point on there’s no stopping her, or Walter’s scheme for that matter. When the wheels of journalism start turning there’s no stopping someone like Hildy with newsprint in her blood. Walter lets her catch wind of a man who pleads innocence though he is to be hung for shooting a black policeman. Hildy puts up a fight, but she doesn’t last very long.

Soon she’s gotten into talk to the nervous prisoner Earl and gets his point of view on the whole messy ordeal. The other newsboys are callous to the world, and as the gallows goes up outside their window, all they can do is play cards and think about the best scoop. Hildy is a little different but she’s still leaving…or is she?

Next, Williams escapes and the mad search for the fugitive is on as the newsroom goes into an uproar. The mayor and sheriff are in a tizzy and then a reprieve for Williams comes, but they ignore it because they need this hanging in order to get re-elected. By a stroke of luck, Hildy finds Williams and stashes him away in a desk. Now she is hooked, and when Walter hears about her stroke of luck, everything begins again like old times. Bruce and his mother are soon disregarded as Hildy types feverishly, and Walter wheels and deals on the telephone. Then, the sheriff and mayor burst in with the rest of the boys. Williams’ hiding place is uncovered and the two reconciled lovebirds look like they might wind up with a jail sentence. But the honorable air-head Mr. Pettibone saves the day. All that’s left to do is depart on a two-week honeymoon to Niagara Falls or maybe a workers riot in Albany. All is right with the world again. Walter’s got His Girl Friday, and she’s got her lovable wiseguy husband back.

I’m not quite sure why I am so often drawn to this movie because it is more than it being readily available in the public domain. The dynamic of Grant and Russell is certainly superb. Walter can be an absolute cad, but Grant’s charm makes him bearable to the end. Russell is the true star of this film and she deals the punches with the rest of the boys. It really is the perfect role for her. The film is blessed with the great supporting cast including Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Gene Lockhart, Billy Gilbert and a host of others who populate the film with colorful faces and voices.

After seeing Nothing Sacred (1937) it was also interesting to see another script from Ben Hecht about journalism. Again, it might be a screwball comedy but there are also political undertones. Most blatantly about journalism itself, but also about corrupt leaders (like the mayor and sheriff), the Red Scare, gender roles, capital punishment, and even WWII.

Of course, it must also be noted that this is a film directed by the great Howard Hawks. I have always had difficulty pinpointing his trademarks, because the reality is, he was so versatile, trying his hand at so many different genres. All I know is that I more often than not enjoy his work behind the camera because it is seamless and it feels quintessentially American. His Girl Friday is no different. Although, this one is just a tad faster than most. It’s sure to raise your blood pressure so be warned.

5/5 Stars

 

Review: Casablanca (1942)

It was over 70 years ago that Casablanca hit the silver screen for the first time. All the main players are dead and gone now. The Golden Age of Hollywood, where pictures were being churned out with factory-like efficiency, has given way to a modern era of blockbusters. To borrow a quote from the movie, it doesn’t seem that one little film would “amount to a hill of beans” in our present world. Still, somehow Casablanca is beloved to this day, despite the numerous other films that have undoubtedly entered the black hole of film oblivion. It seemingly will not die and for good reason.

Considered one of the greatest films of all-time, this well-loved classic deserves to be here. It is the hallmark of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s careers. It also has one of the greatest scripts of all time, and it has achieved legendary status over the years. Many consider it purely the best film ever made and in all honesty, I would never try to refute that.
The film opens quickly and we are immersed in a world that is at the height of the Nazi terror, and many people are fleeing Europe by way of Casablanca. It is a treacherous place full of pickpockets, corrupt authorities, refugees, and naive tourists as well. Two German couriers have been murdered and some invaluable letters of transit have been stolen. That’s when we are first introduced to Rick’s Café Americain and its cynical proprietor Rick Blaine (Bogart).
A shady fellow named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) comes to Rick with the letters and asks Blaine to keep them for him. However, later that night Ugarte is taken into custody, and things begin to get even more complicated. Wanted resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is now in Casablanca, however, a Major Strasser has arrived from Germany to take him in. To top it off, Laszlo’s wife Ilsa (Bergman) was Blaine’s old flame in Paris and, needless to say, it didn’t end well.
Laszlo desperately needs the letters of transit to escape, and he inquires about them. Soon he is led to Blaine, but as Rick often admits he sticks his neck out for nobody. Knowing all too well that he is in danger, Laszlo still shows his defiance against his enemies by leading the people in a round of “La Marseillaise” and as a result, Rick’s is shut down.
All the memories of Paris begin flooding back, and then Ilsa confronts Rick in order to get the letters. This is possibly the most critical point in the film because this tense altercation ultimately renews the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. Rick asks her to trust him, and he begins to take things into his own hands. The results of his actions created one of the great romantic and cinematic moments in the history of film. The whole film leading up to this point hints at it, but Rick truly is a sentimentalist at heart. He can live with the notion that they will always have Paris and that leads him to commit a selfless act of love.
This film holds such a tremendous presence in movie history, and upon seeing the movie it makes complete sense what all the hype is about. What more could you want than Bogey, Bergman, Casablanca, and some of the greatest quotes ever uttered? Do not forget the corrupt, but nevertheless lovable French Captain Louis (Claude Rains), who delivers some terribly witty lines. Honestly, he may be my favorite character in the whole film, and that’s saying a lot!  Then, of course, there is the immortal tune of “As Time Goes By,” sung by Dooley Wilson which will forever be ingrained in film lore.
However, you also gain an appreciation for the other interesting characters of Casablanca, some comical, some sympathetic, and others despicable. We have a rogue gallery of everybody under the sun from Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, German soldiers, various guests, and all the staff at Rick’s Place. This movie has conflict and the uncertainty of war in practically every scene because at the time World War II was in full force. There are a broken romance and a forlorn hero who shows his courage in the end. As an audience, we come to realize the transformation of Rick into a truly great man. Ilsa on her part has the most radiant face I have ever seen.
 It is wonderful that Casablanca succeeds as entertainment despite the fact that it is not modern. In fact, part of its charm is the black and white cinematography that helps make Rick’s Café so atmospheric. It effectively makes each interior shot moodi34 and every romantic scene even more striking. I am very doubtful that they would ever be able to pull this film off in color. It just wouldn’t work.
You do not need explosions and violence either, only great characters and a story with both drama and humor to reel the audience in. Up until the final moments of the movie you are captivated the entire time. Then, fittingly, you are left with the two men walking off into the night with the words, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
In fact, with this film, my thoughts always go back to the script. Lines like “Here’s looking at you kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Round up the usual suspects” are so rampant that you cannot possibly remember them all, and I doubt there will ever be another film that is so immersed in American cultural lexicon. Still, many of my favorite lines in the film are those that get overshadowed by the more famous ones. That is the sign of an amazing film that never grows old. Even those who have not seen this classic film like to think they have, because the influence of Casablanca reaches everywhere. I guess I’m rather an idealist myself so I would like to think that even if 70 more years pass, we’ll always have Casablanca.

Casablanca (1942)

 

Considered one of the greatest films of all-time, this well-loved classic deserves to be here. It is the hallmark of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s careers. It has one of the greatest scripts of all time, and it has achieved legendary status over the years. Many consider it purely the best film ever made and in all honesty, I would never try to refute that.
The film opens quickly, and we are immersed in a world that is at the height of the Nazi terror, and many people are fleeing Europe by way of Casablanca. It is a treacherous place full of pickpockets, corrupt authorities, refugees, and some tourists as well. Two German couriers have been murdered, and some invaluable letters of transit have been stolen. That’s when we are first introduced to Rick’s Café Americain along with its cynical proprietor Rick Blaine (Bogart). A shady fellow named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) comes to him with the letters and asks Blaine to keep them for him. However, later that night Ugarte is taken into custody and things get even more complicated. 

Wanted resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is now in Casablanca, however, a Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has arrived from Germany to take him in. To top it off Laszlo’s wife Ilsa (Bergman) was Blaine’s old flame in Paris and it didn’t end well. Laszlo desperately needs the letters of transit to escape and he inquires about them. Soon he is led to Blaine but as he often admits Rick sticks his neck out for nobody. Laszlo shows his defiance against his enemies by leading the people in a round of “La Marseillaise” and as a result, Rick’s is shut down. 

All the memories of Paris begin flooding back, and then Ilsa confronts Rick in order to get the letters. This is possibly the most critical point in the film because the tense altercation ultimately renews the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. Rick asks her to trust him and he begins to take things into his own hands. The results of his actions created one of the great romantic and cinematic moments in the history of film. The whole film leading up to this point hints at it, but Rick truly is a sentimentalist at heart. He can live with the notion that they will always have Paris and that leads him to commit a selfless act of love.
This film holds such a tremendous presence in movie history it is quite extraordinary. Upon seeing the movie it made complete sense what all the hype was about. What more could you want than Bogey, Bergman, Casablanca, and some of the greatest quotes ever said? Do not forget the French Captain Louis played by Claude Rains or the immortal tune of As Time Goes By sung by Dooley Wilson. However, you also gain an appreciation for the other interesting characters of Casablanca, some comical, some sympathetic, and others mysterious. We have a rogue gallery of everybody under the sun from Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, German soldiers, various guests, and all the staff at Rick’s place. 

This movie has conflict and the uncertainty of war practically in every scene because at the time World War II was in full force. There are a broken romance and a forlorn hero who shows his courage in the end. As an audience, we realize the transformation of Rick into a truly great man. Ilsa, on her part, has the most radiant face I have ever seen! If you take into consideration when this movie was made, it truly is wonderful to watch. You do not need explosions and violence, only great characters and a story with both drama and humor. Up until the final moments of the movie you are captivated the entire time. Then, fittingly you are left with the two men walking off into the night with the words, “Louis I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 In fact, with this film, my thoughts always go back to the script. Lines like “Here’s looking at you kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Round up the usual suspects” are so rampant that you cannot possibly remember them all, and I doubt there will ever be another film that is so entrenched in American culture. Many of my favorite lines in the film are those that get overshadowed by the more famous ones. That is the sign of an amazing film that never grows old. Even those who have not seen this classic film like to think they have because the influence of Casablanca reaches everywhere.

5/5 Stars