A Walk Down Fascination Street
- Bits and Pieces about Casablanca

Søren Høy

Time has been good to film analysts and reviewers around the world with respect to Casablanca. We have had sixty years to dig deep down into details, and can of course, and understandably, add the historical knowledge into the text. What was the situation when Warner Brothers made the film, and how did history turn the same way as the film did? It has also been stated one (or even two) million times, that Casablanca is a classic. A masterpiece. An all time favourite - the best love story without physical love and a unique ensemble piece way ahead of its time. Hard to deal with. Almost everything has been written about Casablanca - so I guess the only obvious thing is to write an article about what really amused me when I researched on what my article should be about. You could call it an article about what first met the eye - what deep down (or even more correctly - on the slick surface) fascinates me about the film.

Using that understated technique I hope that reading the piece will be as entertaining as it has been reading about Casablanca and seeing the film once more.

I have seen it 8-10 times, and every time something new occurs. This time it was one of the - to say the least - corny discoveries. The window view in the Paris-flashback is the same (Sacré Coeur seen from somewhere just down the Montmartre Hill in the 9th arrondissement) as the view Harrison Ford has in Frantic (1988) and Ebbe Langberg in Peters Baby (1961). Strange observation - but yet again - Casablanca was made long before these two films, so it just adds value to the myth about Casablanca, that directors from Polanski to Annelise Reenberg pays their respect to Michael Curtiz and his classic film every chance they get.

Box Office and Oscar
I have this great book called "The most popular film of the last fifty years" - bought back in 1988. I know it is possible to find all details on the Internet, but sometimes the old heavy books are the best. I feel good in their company - a bit like the old films.

I wondered how much money Casablanca made when it was running back in 42 and 43. The answer is of cause in the big book.

It turns out, that it was the seventh best selling film in USA that year. It grossed 3,7 million dollars, which was a third of what was made by number one, For Whom the Bell Tolls (11 million). Ingrid Bergman starred with Gary Cooper in the classic Hemmingway adaptation and she effectively entered the big league of money-making Hollywood actresses that year.

Several war epics were made for release in the early forties. In 1943 five of the ten best selling films were war films. Funny enough director Michael Curtiz also made third best grossing film in 1943: This is the Army - a wartime major set piece flag-waver with music by Irving Berlin.

Casablanca was the only one without the battlefield as the dramatic highlight. Quite daring to make a war/love story with so few gun shots (when Peter Lorre's Ugarte tries to escape, and when Rick kills Strasser) with the war going on in Europe, and people wanting to see dead Germans - and only three years after another epic love story, Gone with the Wind, which was already a classic by that time.

No one making Casablanca thought they were making a great movie. It was simply another Warner Bros. release. It was an A list picture, no doubt about that.

Bogart, Bergman and Paul Henreid were stars, and no better cast of supporting actors could have been assembled on the Warner's lot than Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and Dooley Wilson. But it was made on a tight budget ($950, 000), and released with modest expectations. Everyone involved in the film had been, and would be, working in dozens of other films made under similar circumstances, so the greatness of Casablanca was largely the result of happy chance.

The film premiered in November 1942, but was not released until 1943, leaving the dark-horse film clear to win three Oscars (presented in early March of 1944) for Best Picture (producer Hal B. Wallis), Best Director (Michael Curtiz) and Best Screenplay (Julius P. Epstein) and to earn five other nominations.

The nominations included Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart), Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains), Best B/W Cinematography (Arthur Edeson), Best Score (Max Steiner), and Best Film Editing (Owen Marks).

Bogart lost to Paul Lukas for his role in Watch on the Rhine. And Bergman was not even nominated for this film, but was instead nominated for Best Actress for For Whom the Bell Tolls. Unfortunately she lost to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette.

Anyway, Casablanca made it big. Both at the box office, with the critics, the audience and the Academy.

Behind the film
There have been two attempts to make a sequel to Casablanca, both times on television, both times a failure. After its success in 1943 Warner Bros. tried unsuccessfully to pair up some of the talents again and rekindle the magic. The story, from an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, has itself been recycled many times.

The fact is that even if they had wanted to, Warner's could not have set out to make Casablanca turn out the way it did. It was a combination of elements and circumstances that produced a work of indefinable appeal that has endured for generations even though tastes and attitudes have changed. One does not set out to make a classic; one sets out to make a movie.

Casablanca was produced by Hal B. Wallis (a major player in 1940s Hollywood) and directed by Michael Curtiz, a reliable craftsman who had already helmed hits such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), the latter of which had won James Cagney an Oscar for Best Actor.

The initial casting had Ronald Reagan playing the tough American exile Richard Blaine.

Ilsa Lund was to be played by Ann Sheridan. Who can imagine that? Not that I am amazed by the fact that several actors go through producer meetings - English director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner and many others) told me once that every Hollywood hunk from Harrison Ford to Nicolas Cage was in line for Russell Crowe's Maximus in Gladiator. Crowe won the Oscar and made a career. That is the way the Tinseltown system works.

But anyway - Ronald Reagan... Think about that. I cannot se anybody besides Bogey as Rick. But it was not that obvious back then.

Producer Wallis went through several names including Frank Morgan, Michéle Morgan and Heddy Lamar, before fixing on Bogart and Bergman.

Bogart had just proved his worth (!) in the hits and The Maltese Falcon (both 1941 and both produced by Wallis), and Bergman was still well rated since Intermezzo (1936).

The supporting roles were filled out by other bankable talents including Paul Henreid, fresh from playing opposite Bette Davis in Now Voyager (1942), Claude Rains, an Oscar nominee for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre both from The Maltese Falcon and Conrad Veidt who was so memorable as the villain in The Thief of Baghdad (1940).

I saw a documentary about the film, where my suspicion turned out to be right. They did not know what they were doing. They could not figure out the genre, and the daily script was never finished until everybody was set and ready to shoot.

Some wanted it to be a romance; others wanted it to be a war propaganda picture. It ended up being neither, though it is better at being a war picture than a romance.

For all Curtiz's skill and Arthur Edeson's elegant abilities with the camera they do not give the war picture the suspense that is needs and they do not give the romance the tension or exoticness it deserves.

When production began on Casablanca the screenplay was unfinished leaving the conclusion to the movie up in the air.

According to the main source herself Ingrid Bergman, she asked director Michael Curtiz whom of the two men she was in love with, Rick or her freedom fighter husband Victor Laszlo? Curtiz responded: "Play it between".

Bergman, always being the consummate actress, did as she was told and played it in between. That is the one serious flaw in her performance, that nasty indecision in a character that clearly has already made up her mind about who she loves, even though it does not turn out the way she expects it to.

In her close-ups during the final scene, Bergman's face reflects confusing emotions. And well she might have been confused, since neither she nor anyone else on the film knew for sure until the final day who would get on the plane. Bergman played the whole movie without knowing how it would end, and this had the subtle effect of making all of her scenes more emotionally convincing; she could not tilt in the direction she knew the wind was blowing.

The film as a film
What works in the film, and what does not work? What is myth, and what really comes out of the screen? It is quite surprising what you see when you look a little bit further.

The Paris-flashback for instance. It is horribly made. Bad technique, even for 1942 - and quite boring storytelling. They needed the flashback for the story to hold, but obviously they did not know how to make it. Shot on blue screen and without any solid information. But it lifts the film from the dark Casablanca setting - and it enables us to see Bogey smile in the film. And that is something! Both for Bogart and for Rick.

And I do not know if anyone remembers the German Laudsprecher from the same Paris-sequence, but there is one - and it delivers its message with a super funny US-German accent, to which Bogey replies "I dunno what he is saying - my German is a bit rusty". That just makes it even more comical, because he comments on the indeed rusty German in the message. Intentional or not - it is brilliantly funny!

And Ingrid Bergman? This is probably the film most people remember her for. She does not act much in Casablanca, and she has surprisingly few scenes with Bogart - but the few she has are absolutely brilliant. She is Norwegian in the film, which is a bit strange. They could, with better subtext, have made her Swedish and neutral in the war. Both because she is Swedish, and because love cannot choose between war and freedom.

Bogart's performance as Rick in Casablanca is to be ranked among his best. Of course along with his Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and his Fred Dobbs in The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. At first I thought that it was his play alone, sitting drinking in the bar, that was the true Casablanca-scenes - but it turned out later to be the scenes with Renault that really hit home. He is the only one who can see through Rick, and from the very beginning he knows that Rick is a softy deep down, he comments on everything Rick does. If he drinks - if he does not. How Rick's mood changes when he sees Ilsa, and how Rick's motivation changes as the plot develops. The relationship between the two men is actually what keeps the plot line going the film, and gives the brilliant and understandable ending, where the two men walk out into the mist.

Curtiz's low key direction helps the film. He does not charge the material with energy or enthusiasm but he keeps everything at a level pace. He does what nobody would dare today. The entire intrigue is situated in the same location. 25 minutes in the beginning in the cafe - we see everybody in the game, we feel everything happening and we certainly do not feel that there is a world worth knowing outside the cafe. The whole world is inside the cafe (rumour has it that 25 nations are represented in the café scene!), and despite the movie's low budget, Curtiz and Edeson make the movie look like an aesthetic masterpiece. The camera works for the story and the characters - with the same efficiency that was "invented" with Dogme 95, fifty-three years later.

Strangely the visual style is both the films strength and weakness. The light in Rick's Cafe is almost too designed. There is nothing dirty in the setdesign. The bars and streets are clean and polished. You notice the same thing in the characters. There is absolutely nothing mean in freedomfighter Laszlo, Bergman is smooth as an angel and even big time hustler Ferreri looks like he just walked out from a Versace show.

Rick is more understandable. He is a playboy from everywhere in the world where there is money. He "sticks his neck out for nobody" (at least until the end of the film), and along with his war-independent attitude, it gives him the right to wear white tux and dancing shoes, and never get his hands dirty. He is a really well written character. We know only fragments of his past; he is mysterious, cynical, tough and at the same time a heartbroken heartbreaker.

Now that's cinema for you.

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