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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Henreid’

When it comes to attempting to write something interesting and novel about Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca, you really are on a hiding to nothing: millions of words have already been produced about what’s quite possibly the most beloved film in the history of American cinema. Few films contain quite so many iconic moments and characters, few have spawned such an attendant industry of other films and productions that haven’t actually been sequels or prequels. When screenwriting guru Robert McKee deconstructs the perfect script to see how it functions, it’s Casablanca that he uses. This is a film as secure in its status as an unimpeachable work of art as any you could hope to find.

Casablanca-Poster

And yet still, it seems, there are people around who haven’t seen it. I took just such a person to a revival at the Phoenix the other day, and as the Marseilles faded away at the end their verdict was that ‘it was really pretty good’. Oh well, can’t win ’em all, I suppose: but it nice to see a good turn-out from people of all ages for the screening. If Casablanca comes on the TV, I’ll always try to find the time to watch it if I can, but being able to see it on the big screen still felt like a bit of a treat. Nice to see others feel the same way.

The story, it may not surprise you, is set in Casablanca at the tail end of 1941, with the city something of a melting-pot: technically still under the control of unoccupied France, it is chock full of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, all desperately trying to find a way north to Lisbon and then across the Atlantic to America. The cheerily corrupt local Prefect of Police, Renault (Claude Rains), is doing his best to profit from this situation, as is the gangster Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet). Keeping himself somewhat aloof from it all is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a cynical American ex-mercenary now running one of the city’s more chic nightclubs.

But all this changes with the arrival of resistance figurehead Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his beautiful young wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), also looking for a way to the States. At the behest of visiting Nazi officer Strasser (Conrad Veidt), Renault is under orders to make sure Laszlo stays in Casablanca, but Rick has come into possession of travelling papers which will allow them to escape. The complication is that Rick is in love with Ilsa, following a brief fling in Paris the previous year, and still bitter about the way she left him without any explanation.

And so the stage is set: will the Nazis find a pretext to get Laszlo back into their clutches? Will Ilsa stay with her husband, or will Rick’s saturnine charms prove irresistible? Will Rick hang on to the papers, or will his better nature make a long overdue reappearance? And will people ever stop using the most famous misquote from this movie?

On paper, there isn’t very much to distinguish Casablanca from a great many other mid-range studio pictures of this period – there’s a (somewhat spuriously) exotic setting, a strong note of romance, some slightly overcooked intrigue, a dash of wit. But nothing to suggest the legendary status that the film now enjoys. (Complete, by the way, with a whole clutch of attendant myths – like the one that Ronald Reagan was at one point considered for the role of Rick, or that the ending of the film was ever really in doubt – the censors office wouldn’t have permitted a conclusion where a wife left her husband for another man.)

Perhaps it’s partly a result of the sheer sincerity that much of the cast brought to the film. The story is a bit hokey and sentimental, but the sentiments are powerful ones, and never more so than during the darkest depths of the Second World War. The fact that Casablanca only features three American performers is, I think, a less well-known fact than it ought to be. Many of the supporting actors had themselves fled Europe during the rise of the Nazis (including, ironically enough, some of those playing Nazis in this film), so it’s entirely understandable that they would have felt a strong sense of commitment to the film.

That said, this may be a very sincere film with a (certainly by modern standards) hokey and sentimental message about self-sacrifice and standing up for the Right Thing at its heart, but this cloaked by what at first appears to be a façade about decadent cynicism – there are a few jokes at the expense of the more naïve refugees, while in many ways the film’s most appealing character is Louis Renault, whose conversion to the side of the angels at the climax is rather more arbitrary than Rick’s. Cynically and ironically witty lines pepper the film (this is, of course, one of the most quotable films in history), and they do give the impression that you’re watching something sophisticated and fashionably worldly, even when you’re really actually not.

But then again, this is a film with – for the most part – an impeccable structure and plot (you can probably quibble about why the Germans don’t just have Laszlo arrested, and how the letters of transit are just an obvious plot device), brilliantly cast, filled with memorable moments and lines of dialogue. This is one of those films where ‘the best bits’ basically comprises the entire running time – I’ve always been most taken with the genuinely moving moment where the patrons of the club sing the Marseilles to drown out a Nazi drinking song, a sequence of real feeling in the midst of some of Louis’ best comic lines.

Mark Kermode has written cogently on Casablanca’s appeal as Exhibit A in the ‘they don’t make them like this any more’ discussion, with particular reference to how modern focus groups might object to its famously self-denying ending. Is it fair to say that part of Casablanca’s magic is that it’s the product of a less cynical, more innocent era? Possibly it is, but in the same way it’s perhaps the film’s great success at being both cynical and idealistic, heartfelt and yet hokey, important and yet trivial, which has resulted in it becoming the legendary movie that it is.

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