Thursday, 29 March 2012
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt
By Alan Bacchus
This is my favourite movie of all time, the zenith of Hollywood studio system, a war time romance, pot boiling noir and razor sharp thriller all rolled into one, crafted to perfection with one of the greatest screenplays of all time. It’s also the culmination of the creative skills of one of the great directors of all time, Michael Curtiz, a shamefully unheralded genius, a rare studio-era auteur whose influence spread for decades into the work of pulp masters like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
It was also the launching film for Humphrey Bogart, who, before then, was a primarily a character actor, playing second bill heavies, supporting more notorious thugs like James Cagney. Here Curtiz takes a chance on Bogie as brooding anti-hero and romantic leading man. He plays Rick Blaine, owner of Rick’s a popular club in Casablanca (Morocco) a port city known for exporting anti-Nazi resistence spies. But Rick’s there because he’s escaped his own persecution in other parts of the world, as well as a failed relationship with his former fling. Once burned twice shy, now ‘he sticks his neck out for nobody.’
Then, of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, in walks Isla Lund (Bergman), his former flame with her Residence hero husband Victor Laszlo (Henreid), looking to buy letters of transit which would send them abroad in safety. The Nazi thug Major Strasser (Veidt) and the Casablanca chief of police Capt Renault (Rains) know this and tries to intercept. With Rick in the middle, and torn between his rekindled love affair and his innate desire to fight against oppression, he’s forced to make a crucial decision, leave with Ilsa or give up the letters to Laszlo. This decision, choose selfishg love, or sacrifice for the good of the world, becomes one of cinema’s great surprise endings.
Plenty of analysis has done on Julius and Philip Epstein’s legendary screenplay. It’s perhaps rivalled only by Chinatown for it’s structural perfection, like the Parthanon of screenplays. Michael Curtiz’s direction is even sharper and to the point. Watch his editing, and punctuation scenes, his brilliant montage scenes and pacing of action. The opening sequence is magnificence, powered by the pulsing Max Steiner score, Curtiz throws us into the fast paced, multi-cultural world of urban Casablanca. Few films kickstart with a better bang than this.
Curtiz's mastery of the visual cinema language is on the level of all the revered masters of the era – Ford, Welles and Hitchcock. His camerawork is unmistakable. The master of the dolly shot, but always motivated by the movement of his actors. But since Curtiz loved to move his camera, it meant his actors were constantly in motion, criss crossing the frame in the foreground and background to create the elaborate choreography on screen. His lighting represents the best of early studio noir. His use of shadows is a hallmark as well – often framing the shadows of his characters to convey the secretic world of the covert activities.
The awesome new Warner Blu-Ray boxset commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the film is chock full of goodness. In fact before even before I popped in the Blu-Ray of the actual film I watched the accompanying documentary: Michael Curtiz: The Best Director You’ve Never Heard Of. The comprehensive chronicle of his career confirms everything I love about the man, his artistic triumphs as well as his gruff cantankerous personality. The testimonial of Steven Spielberg alone, who owes as much to Curtiz as he does to Ford, is perhaps the greatest compliment to the man.
Casablanca 70th Anniversary Box Set is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment
I also suggest going through Michael Curtiz's great body of work to discover some great films made in the style of Casablanca, such as:
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
The Sea Hawk (1940)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
The Sea Wolf (1941)
Flamingo Road (1949)
Young Man With a Horn (1950)