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Here's Looking at You, Bogie
Apr 8, 2000
Review by David Abrams
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:As close to perfect as Hollywood gets, everything came together like a dream on this movie: direction, writing, music, cinematography and--of course--a first-rate cast
Cons:One or two lines of sappy dialogue--but ONLY one or two!
On January 6, 1942, screenwriter Robert Buckner sent a memo to Hal Wallis, the legendary producer at Warner Brothers studios regarding a play he’d just read: “Dear Hal, I don’t believe the story or the characters. Its main situations and the basic relations of the principals are completely censorable and messy, its big-moment is sheer hokum melodrama…and this guy Rick is two-parts Hemingway, one-part Scott Fitzgerald, and a dash of café Christ.”
Recommend this product?
Eleven months later, Warner Brothers premiered that messy, hokum melodrama and an American cultural icon was born. The movie was, of course, Casablanca and the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Christ character was Rick Blaine, otherwise known as Humphrey Bogart. The movie went on to take home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. That night, Robert Buckner proceeded to have a hearty dinner of crow.
Let’s not be too harsh on Buckner, though. By all accounts, Casablanca should have been a predictable hokey failure. It managed to overcome problems in casting, script and budget to become one of the most legendary motion pictures of all time. More on the production later; for now, I want to tell you why I’m an unabashed fan of this hokum.
James Dean Out, Bogie In
When I first saw Casablanca, I was a teenager going through a James Dean phase. Months earlier, I’d seen Rebel Without a Cause during a retro-film festival weekend at the local art house cinema. I walked around with my jacket collar flipped up, I combed my hair back, I jabbed a cigarette in my mouth and tried to look totally J.D.
I was a rebellious adolescent (natch) and the squinty eyes and tortured spirit were just my bag. My cool slouch practically screamed: “Get off my back, Daddy-o!”
Then, one day, I attended another retro-film festival at the Trout Cinema (a tiny, one-person operation in Laramie, Wyoming, that has sadly gone belly-up like so many other tiny art-house cinemas). I was just starting my love affair with classic movies and since I’d heard about Casablanca all my life (who hasn’t?), I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I settled down with my bag of greasy, slightly-stale popcorn and box of very-stale Milk Duds and affected my very best James Dean sneer.
But it was all in vain. The 80-seat screening room was empty save for me and one other person, a drunk who was lightly dozing in one corner. I squinted at him fiercely, as if to say, “You better not start snoring, Daddy-o. If you do, I might just have to stand up and scream, You’re tearing me apart!.”
Then the lights dimmed. The projector started up with a whir and a clatter. The numbers counted down with that familiar radar-screen sweep. Max Steiner’s smashing overture crackled through the tiny speakers of the Trout Cinema and the newsreel narrator’s voice began: “With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas...”
Two hours later, the fog of the final airport scene still swirling around my feet, I emerged from the Trout Cinema trembling with joy and sorrow and all those other tumbling emotions that great movies stir inside your chest. I knew I’d just seen something remarkable: a film with a rat-a-tat pace that combined intrigue, humor and romance effortlessly. I was captivated by my Casablanca experience and decided right then and there to become Humphrey Bogart.
I ditched Dean in a heartbeat. Bogie was now my role model. My lip curled, stiffening into a tough-guy lisp. My eyes took on a world-weary, hangdog quality. Words like “broads” and “schweet-haht” crept into my vocabulary. I toyed with the idea of wearing a trench coat and fedora for the rest of my life. I decorated my college dorm with a reproduction poster of Casablanca. I sat in the local bar at a corner table, squinting through the cigarette smoke and looking up every time the front door opened. I dreamed of my Ingrid Bergman walking into the Corner Pocket Bar and Lounge and I’d get the chance to mutter, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world….”
Time marched on and eventually the Bogart habits dropped away. I stopped smoking, my lip lost its stiffness and I met a woman who was not quite Ingrid Bergman, but she was darned close. I married her before she could get on board a plane with a suave-looking European Resistance leader. We had children and I called them all “schweet-hahts.”
Life, thanks in part to Casablanca, was beautiful.
“The beginning of a beautiful friendship…”
Casablanca is one of those movies that have become so much a part of our society that the mere mention of the phrase “Here’s looking at you, kid” or hearing a snippet of “As Time Goes By” calls to mind vivid images.
Recently, I purchased the soundtrack (in fact, I’m listening to it as I write this), which includes portions of the film’s whip-smart dialogue. Every time Bogey’s voice comes through my CD player’s speakers, I swear I can smell the diesel engines of the airplane revving up to take Ilsa away from Rick. I’m a little older and less Bogeyfied these days, but it always takes me back to my salad days (“when I was green in judgment and stiff of lip”).
For those of you who have never seen Casablanca—and there’s probably a few who have never actually watched it, despite the fact that the movie is such a big part of our cultural consciousness—here’s what it’s about:
Rick Blaine (Bogart) is the owner of Casablanca’s most popular hot spot, Rick’s Café Americain, a mecca for international refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Here, amid the back-room gambling and the front-room jazz club, the desperate folks gather to make deals for exit visas and passports. Rick, an expatriate who actually does have a bit of Hemingway and Fitzgerald running through his veins, oversees the whole works with a carefully-maintained detachment. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he says, but his voice sounds like he’s trying to convince himself of his stony nature. Underneath it all, you suspect Rick’s really a softie.
He’s nothing if not a sharp fox, however. He’s always one step ahead of the local police chief Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and the snake-like Nazi officer Strasser (Conrad Veidt) who’s just flown into Casablanca in pursuit of legendary hero Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). The respected leader of the French Resistance, Laszlo is a threat to the Nazi regime and Strasser is determined not to let him escape to America where he can drum up support from the Allies.
As the movie opens, the camera moves through Rick’s Café and, in a series of brilliantly-written vignettes, we are introduced to a large group of minor characters, including Sam (Dooley Wilson), Rick’s piano-playing sidekick; headwaiter Carl (S. Z. Sakall); and Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a black-marketeer of visas. Ugarte is arrested, but before he’s captured, he slips two exit visas to Rick. The visas were supposed to be handed off that night to Laszlo. As the whimpering Ugarte is hauled away by Louis’ gendarmes, Rick slips the visas into Sam’s piano.
So, with the exposition neatly dispensed in a tightly-written 15 minutes, it’s time for Laszlo to make his entrance at Rick’s Café. By his side is the stunningly beautiful Ilsa (Bergman). Even in her dumpy travel frocks, Ilsa’s gorgeous enough to shatter wine glasses and make the wires in Sam’s piano go twang-snap. When he sees her, even the normally cool-as-a-cucumber Rick is thrown off-balance and he’s rendered momentarily speechless.
But there’s a good reason for Rick’s shock. It turns out that Ilsa was once his lover and, after a romantic fling in Paris (“we’ll always have Paris”), she left him standing at the train station in the rain holding a “Dear Rick” letter in his hand (it’s one of director Michael Curtiz’ over-the-top sentimental touches to have the raindrops look like teardrops dissolving the ink; but you know what? It works!).
And so the stage is set for one of the greatest love triangles in movie history. When it comes right down to it, Casablanca is about Romance vs. Idealism. Rick is tortured by his love for Ilsa because it means committing to something. If he softens his heart, he also weakens his resolve to stay outside the political arena. It’s the conflict splitting Rick apart that makes this a great movie and keeps us glued to every word, every curl of cigarette smoke, every tear trembling on Bergman’s eyelashes. Should Rick help the freedom-fighting cause and give the exit visas to Laszlo and Ilsa? Or should he ditch patriotism in favor of love and use the visas for himself and Ilsa?
By now, there’s probably no one left on the face of the earth who doesn’t know how Casablanca turns out. The final airport scene is the most imitated and best-loved of all movie moments (I’ve even got a 30-second clip of it that I use as a screensaver). But if you think I’m going to reveal the final resolution, you’re sadly mistaken, sweetheart. There actually might be one or two poor saps out there who have never seen Casablanca. I want them to enjoy all the movie’s heart-wrenching surprises just like audiences back in 1942 did.
“And when two lovers woo…”
Casablanca was very nearly a dull movie.
Buckner wasn’t too far off when he worried about its hokum. The script was based on an unproduced stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s. Warner Brothers snatched it up in a hurry and, because of its world-events timeliness, quickly dispatched a team of scriptwriters to start pounding out revisions to the dialogue on their typewriters. Right from the start, there was a loosey-goosey atmosphere surrounding the project.
The film was rewritten daily during filming, with the actors never sure where their characters were headed in the story (Bergman complained that she didn’t know which man Ilsa was supposed to be in love with—of course, it’s that indecisive quality that adds to the movie’s magic). Actors filmed reaction shots without knowing what they were reacting to.
The shoestring budget meant that everything (with the exception of one short scene) had to be filmed on the studio’s soundstage. In fact, money was so tight that they couldn’t use a real plane in the background during the climactic airport confrontation. Instead, the set department built a small cardboard cutout and, to give the illusion that the plane was full-sized, midgets were hired to portray the take-off crew. Of course, with “As Time Goes By” and all that fog swirling around, you don’t even notice this clever trick.
Even before the cameras started rolling on Casablanca, it almost headed for disaster because of its casting. Bogart and Bergman were not the first choices for Rick and Ilsa. Other early contenders for their roles were George Raft (Bogie’s real-life nemesis), Ronald Reagan (!), Hedy Lamarr and Ann Sheridan (at the time, the hardest-working actress in Hollywood). Incidentally, Reagan and Sheridan went on to make another successful film that year, Kings Row. Once Wallis and the other producers settled on Bergman and Henreid for their roles, they had to negotiate with other studios where they were under contract. Deals were made and handshakes were exchanged between Jack L. Warner and David O. Selznick just to get Ingrid over to the Warners studio for the 70-day shoot.
And, let me tell you, the world is a better place because of those handshakes. I cannot imagine Casablanca with any other actors playing these parts. Bergman proves she is the Queen of Eye-Sparkle in a performance where she gives her heart and soul to every line she delivers—even the silliest ones like “Is that cannon-fire or is it my heart pounding?” are spoken with conviction. Henreid brings earnest honesty to a part that could have been dull as dishwater. His Laszlo is alluring and handsome, even with that big scar running across his forehead.
What can I say? This was the role he was born to play. Sure, he created memorable characters in earlier films like High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, but he breathed unforgettable life into Rick Blaine. Here was a cynic who’d been holding it all in after getting his heart broken, steeling himself against ever falling in love again. And then she walks into his café. Just look at Bogie’s eyes and you’ll see all the pain and regret spilling out. He even gets a few eye-sparkle moments of his own.
Bogart was, of course, an unhandsome man and he had an odd, nasal tone of voice that sounded like it was just this side of a speech impediment. But the way he carried himself, the confident-yet-defeated posture, the gravel authority of his voice—that’s what made Bogie such an icon. When we remember Humphrey, most of the time he’s wearing that famous trench coat and he’s looking tough and cool and noble.
That day I walked out of the Trout Cinema, I tried my best to adopt that cool nobility, but it was all a sham. I was no Bogie. I was just a teenager with a stiff upper lip and a Salvation Army trench coat. I was just a shadowy imitation of a legend.
These days, I still get in Bogie moods. Some nights, as I fall asleep next to my own lovely version of Ingrid Bergman, I whisper to her, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” My wife, however, is already out like a light, perhaps dreaming of European freedom fighters and smoky cafes. I sigh and murmur: “Well…we’ll always have Paris.”
Yes, and thank goodness we’ll always have Casablanca.
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