Tuesday, November 20, 2007


From the Vault: Casablanca

NOTE: Ranked No. 5 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die, and after 50 years, Casablanca retains its place as the quintessential Hollywood movie. Released originally in November 1942, the prints of Casablanca have been refurbished and re-released in honor of the Oscar-winning best picture of 1943.

The influence of the film on American culture and filmmaking cannot be overstated. It wasn't a technical groundbreaker such as Citizen Kane or a stunning epic such as Gone With the Wind, it was a movie more apt to be discovered on late-night television, whose poster adorns many a college student's wall and whose dialogue is recognized by people of all ages.

There were the obvious homages, like Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam, Neil Simon's Bogart-tribute The Cheap Detective and the bad Sydney Pollack-Robert Redford collaboration Havana, but there also were subtler tributes.

When Steven Spielberg traced Indiana Jones' route on a world map in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he took that from the opening of Casablanca. George Lucas copied the arrival of Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and his initial meeting with Capt. Renault (the incomparable Claude Rains) for Darth Vader's greeting of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.

When Julie Hagerty became obsessed with the number 22 on the roulette wheel in Albert Brooks' Lost in America, it was because Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) rigged that number to allow the young couple to win on his gaming tables in Casablanca.

What should be remembered most about Michael Curtiz's film though are the wonderful cast and the sparkling dialogue by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch.

Bogart was at the top of his form as the smooth cynic "who sticks his neck out for nobody," but who suffers from a broken heart and a violent past.

Ingrid Bergman was stunningly beautiful as the woman who understandably left Bogart shattered. The cast was top-notch, from the waiters and bartenders at Rick's Cafe Americain to Peter Lorre as a "cut-rate parasite" and Sydney Greenstreet as the owner of the rival club, The Blue Parrot.

However, in my opinion, the film's real star was Claude Rains as Capt. Louis Renault. His role is like the other roles, only more so. A self-proclaimed corrupt official, Rains' Louis sparks scenes with his sly wit. He could have been a villain but in Rains' hands, you can't help but love him.

Then, there is Dooley Wilson's Sam, singing his heart out on the now-classic "As Time Goes By." Even the slightly hokey Paris flashbacks come off well.

Finally, there is possibly the most perfect ending of any Hollywood film. In the course of the film, a drunken Bogart lashes out at Bergman and tells her about stories with "wow endings." Curtiz's film delivers one of its own.

When things are looking hopeless in this plot, one character wishes for a miracle to which Rains replies, "The Germans have outlawed miracles." Fortunately, Hollywood used to be able to produce some miracles of its own and Casablanca was one of the greatest.

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I sat up to 2:00 a.m. last night, when I stumbled on Graydon Carter chosing this on TCM as one of his picks from the vault.

It's #2 on my alltime favorite list. What struck me on this particular viewing were the tight shots, particularly on Bogart, and how beautifully he could hold them.
I've always loved the unifying visual theme of spinning -- globes spinning in the opening sequence, overhead fans spinning, the propellers spinning. The rhythm of spinning and the sense that the world might spin off its axis (and Axis), is really thrilling, on top of the lovely performances and quotable dialogue. I'm shocked, shocked, that's it's not # 1 on everyone's list. But then again, it may not be the best movie ever, but it is the best friend among movies.
M.A., I had the TCM broadcast playing in the background last night while I was programming. It's not a good movie to write code to; I kept paying too much attention to the dialogue. (You know a good movie to write software to: 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)

This is going to sound like sacrilege--well maybe not from the guy who dislikes Rear Window--but I used to think Casablanca was seriously overrated. "It's a nice three-star movie," I wrote back in 1985. Chalk it up to being young and foolish (put that pitchfork back, Ed Copeland!); I now see it for the masterpiece it is.

Here's Looking at You, Kid.
Rick: (to Ugarte)If I gave you any though I might (hate you).

I'll never forget that line and also:

Renault: Why attracted you to Casablanca?
Rick: the waters
Renault: Waters? Why we're surrounded by miles of desert.
rick: I was misinformed

The Epstein's script is just wonderful.
Think men and women view the world differently? You bet they do, and this gender difference includes film appreciation. By far the majority of my women friends point to "Gone With the Wind" as the greatest film ever made, with "Now, Voyageur" a close second. "Casablanca?" you ask? Not even in the top ten. But this doesn't take away that Casa really touches a chord with male viewers. For women film fans, Ilsa is just too much of a figment of a male vision of unattainable love/sex and not a strong character from a woman's perspective. (It's hardly surprising that the male-dominated AFI includes "The Godfather" in 2nd place! You won't even find it in my collection of 300+ films!). Like your blog, but beware of generalizations (I doubt if many African-Americans would rate "Wind" very highly either!). Ain't film grand?
I know plenty of women feel buffs who would disagree with you, some of whom are in the comments above yours. It's why I always cringe at the idea of the term "chick flick." There is no such thing. There are good movies, bad movies and those in between. I love Terms of Endearments but think Beaches sucks. By pigeonholing all women or all men as liking one movie or one kind of movie, you are doing a disservice to the sexes. Not all people are made alike. You are the one making the generalizations by assuming that the majority of women would go for GWTW and men for Casablanca. The saddest truth of all is that outside of true movie buffs, younger moviegoers haven't bothered to see either film because they don't think much made outside their lifetimes hold any intrinsic value.
York University Film School took an impromptu poll of favourite classic movies while I attended the programme. Among over 400 respondents, over 80% of the women voted for GWTW, whereas not a single male did. That's quite a difference, statistically speaking. So my comment is based on my experience, not yours. I never said "all women"", you did. Why are you using insults such as "disservice to the sexes", "pigeon holing all women", etc. Surely there is room for open debate regarding film or is this blog being run by the politically correct? Lighten up and realize that the AFI list is not and has never been a gold standard of viewing (the French, afterall, viewed Jerry Lewis as being as great as Chaplin at one time and gave him the honours to prove it). Anyone who has a blog should expect differing opinions, or do you want your blog to be restricted to those who see through your eyes only?
I wasn't hurling insults and believe me I don't hold the AFI in very high regard, but it's no more an expert sayin than 400 people in a class. The fact is that most serious connoisseurs of film regardless of gender due to agree that Casablanca is held in higher esteem than Gone With the Wind while people stll acknowledge GWTW's greatness. On my own top 100, GWTW ranked No. 91. You are the one who started the conversation with the idea that men and women viewin movies differently when the truth is that every single person views every single movie differently and it does do a disservice to both the movies in questions and the genders to assume that by their genitalia they will be preordained to like one movie more than another. A few years back I did a survey of the best best pictures here on this blog and it had a pretty even mix of men and women who participated and GWTW landed in 13th place, Casablanca in 1st. Each person who participate submitted a ranked ballot of their top 10 best best pictures. Casablanca appeared on 99 of 107 ballots. GWTW appears on 36.BTW, I ranked GWTW No. 7 on the 10 I submited. If you'd like to read the results, which includes quotes from the particpants, and the women who spoke glowingly about Casablanca, click here.
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