Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Today – Wednesday, May 16, 2018 – has been declared “National Classic Movie Day.” In that spirit, I want to tell you about my favorite movie, Casablanca, and why I enjoy it so much.

First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had a torrid love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.

What will Rick do? Will he help Lazlo and his former love escape? Or will his passion for Ilsa force him to follow his heart and reclaim his lost love?

Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), to Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and to brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

SPOILER ALERT!!! If you’ve never seen the movie, be aware that the rest of this article will discuss plot points that will give away key aspects of the film.

First – here’s the original trailer for the film.

So, what’s the big deal? Why do I (and so many others) love this movie so much, and consider it among the best ever made? Well, I can’t speak for others, but for myself, here are three things that I appreciate.

The Movie’s Backstory

Casablanca started out as an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” by Murray Bennett and Joan Allison. In the process of turning that into a movie script, the writers couldn’t decide on what to do with the characters. Does Rick help Lazlo escape with his wife? Do he and Ilsa get back together, but send Lazlo on his way? Back and forth the arguments went. Just giving them the documents they needed to get away seems so, well, anti-climactic. And just handing someone a piece of paper is not exactly dazzling filmmaking.

The Epstein brothers had been assigned to handle the screenplay, but then they were called away to another project, so Howard Koch took over. The brothers would later return to help complete the work. All of this further added to the confusion about finding a good ending for the film. Somehow, though, it all works. In spite of the back-and-forth (or perhaps because of it), the movie just works.

The movie also benefitted from the war news. The Allies had invaded North Africa in late 1942, and President Roosevelt went to Casablanca in January, 1943, to meet with Winston Churchill, so the film took advantage of that free publicity. Its initial release was in New York in December, 1942, with the general release in early 1943.

Another factor that I and lots of other fans really appreciate is that many of the extras who were “customers” at Rick’s – including several with speaking parts – were actually themselves refugees from Europe. Some of them had even been interred at Nazi concentration camps during the 1930s, before making their way to this country. Their accents – not to mention the passion they brought to this anti-Nazi film – added a layer of authenticity that simply could not be imitated.

Sparkling Dialogue

Another thing that I really appreciate is the crackling, rapid-fire dialogue. This film holds the distinction of being the greatest source of lines of any movie on AFI’s list of the Top 100 best movie quotes. From “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris,” from “Round up the usual suspects,” to “This is the start of a beautiful friendship,” everyone has a favorite Casablanca quote.

Here’s an example from a conversation between Rick (Bogart) and Claude Rains’ character, Captain Renault –

 Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.

Rick: It was a combination of all three.

Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

Sparkling!

Of course, there’s one line that’s often misquoted. No one in Casablanca ever, EVER, says, “Play it again, Sam.”

Rick’s Redemption

Of all the great things about this movie, my favorite is the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.

Until now. In one transformational moment, he makes the decision to take a stand. In this scene, Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano, and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs, and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval – watch for his affirmative nod. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing together, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”

Remember, many of those actors were Europeans; some had been imprisoned by the Nazis, others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”

Remember, too, that when this movie was made, the outcome of the war was still very much up for grabs. But the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is very real.

I love this movie, and I appreciate this opportunity to share it with you. Thanks for reading.

Now, I think I’ll go make some popcorn, put my feet up, and one more time watch Rick, Ilsa, Victor, and the rest, in the eternal struggle of good vs. evil. I’ll listen again as Sam sings, “As Time Goes By.” And I’ll rejoice as the good guys win again. Because we’ll always have Paris.

And once again, here’s looking at you, kid.

The Movies, 5 x 5

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me, that I love the movies. I like movie soundtracks. I love throwing out movie quotes at appropriate moments, sometimes just to see if anyone will catch it. And frankly my dear, I DON’T like much of what has been coming out of Hollywood lately. Not because of the content, although that is certainly bad enough.

No, my complaint is that most directors, producers and screenwriters seem to have forgotten how to tell a good story visually. Twenty-seven explosions in search of a plot does NOT make a good movie, in my opinion. CGI is no substitute for genuine character development, and SPFX cannot take the place of a good, you know, story.

I write this, knowing that I have friends in the movie business, both writers and actors. And truthfully, I don’t object to good visual effects – in fact, I love them. I think the “Star Trek” reboot movies are a good example – especially this most recent film, “Into Darkness.” I thought it had a really good story that was really well told, and for once, the effects – including the 3D – actually ADDED to the movie’s effectiveness. I saw it in both 2D and 3D, and the 3D shot of the Enterprise rising up out of the clouds was simply gorgeous.

And this from a diehard fan of the original Trek TV show, who really wanted NOT to like what these young whippersnappers were doing with my franchise.

All of that to say, I don’t think I’m just being an old curmudgeon, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” sort of guy. I don’t hate technology in movies. I just think I have a right to expect more than that for my $12.

I got to spend some time with my brother David and his family last week, and we got on the subject of favorites movies. Actually, I like playing a little game with other movie fans. Here’s how it goes: you pick a category of movie, and list your five favorites from that category. Drama. Action / Adventure. Horror. Comedy.

Yes, I know it’s nerdy. And geeky. What can I say? I AM a nerd. And a geek. But you must like the movies too, or you wouldn’t still be reading at this point, right? So here’s how we’re going to play. I’m going to pick five categories of films, then tell you my five favorites in that category – 5 x 5, get it?

You are welcome to disagree, debate about which movies should have been listed, wonder how I could be so dense as to have left off one of your favorites from a given list, or whatever. That’s part of the fun here. And I’m not saying these are necessarily the best movies of these categories ever made, just my favorites.  If you really want to get into it, you can always sign up at IMDb.com, and create your own lists that you can post.  It’s showtime, folks! (Quick: what movie is that line from?)

FIVE ALL-TIME FAVORITES –  These are my favorite movies.  They are not all necessarily “great” films, but all them continue to touch me deeply.  Here’s a link to the complete list of my Top 25 favorites.

  • 5.  The Shawshank Redemption.  This movie meets one of my criteria for “favorite,” which is that I watch it any time it comes on TV.  Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are a treat.
  • 4.  Tender Mercies.  Talk about redemption: at the end of the movie, when Robert Duvall is throwing the football with his stepson, you have the answer to the question, “Why?”  Incredible movie.
  • 3.  The Quiet Man.  The John Ford Company Players at their best, along with stunning Irish scenery.
  • 2.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  A sentimental favorite because it was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our first date.  Then 30+ years later, we went to see it at the Paramount on our anniversary.
  • 1.  Casablanca.  Is it a war movie?  Is it a romance?  Is it a character picture?  Yes, all of that, and more.  Bogart.  Bergman.  For all sorts of reasons, everybody comes to Rick’s.

FIVE FAVORITE WAR MOVIES – So-called “war” movies are sometimes accused of glorifying violence, but I think a good one has just the opposite effect, showing the waste and futility.  Here are five good ones.

  • 5.  Gettysburg.  Jeff Daniels shines as the speech professor-turned-colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who receives the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top.
  • 4.  The Enemy Below.  Robert Mitchum and Curd Jurgens are amazing as the American and German captains opposing each other.  Who – or what – is the real enemy?
  • 3.  Saving Private Ryan.  I always wondered what it would be like to be behind a landing craft door when it dropped open.  It ain’t pretty.
  • 2.  Twelve O’Clock High.  Gregory Peck as a good man struggling under the burden what he must do to push his men and accomplish the mission.
  • 1.  The Guns of Navarone.  Another great Gregory Peck role, with another fine cast.  David Niven is terrific.

FIVE FAVORITE JOHN WAYNE MOVIES –  John Wayne is, and always will be, known for his Westerns.  But I think he was often at his best when he took that persona and translated it into other kinds of movie storytelling.  Honorable mention: Hellfighters.

  • 5.  The Shootist.  The Duke’s last movie, playing an aging gunfighter who just wants to die in peace.  All actors should go out so well.
  • 4.  True Grit.  Come see a one-eyed fat man.
  • 3.  The High and the Mighty.  John Wayne is a pilot on a doomed airliner.
  • 2.  Fort Apache.  Watching him work with Henry Fonda was always a treat.
  • 1.  The Quiet Man.  Sean Thornton, home from America, to forget his troubles.

FIVE FAVORITE COURTROOM DRAMAS – Trials naturally lend themselves to good movie making.  Life and death, freedom and imprisonment, right and wrong.  Another of the great ones (even though it’s not on this list): Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

  • 5.  The Caine Mutiny.  Humphrey Bogart is great; Jose Ferrer is superb.  Fred McMurray is agreeably spineless and slimy.
  • 4.  The Verdict.  This was Paul Newman’s greatest role, in my opinion, as an alcoholic ambulance-chaser looking for redemption.
  • 3.  A Few Good Men.  Aaron Sorkin writes, and Tom and Demi go up against Jack.  You can’t handle the truth.
  • 2.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  All aspiring actors (and trial lawyers, for that matter) should have to watch Gregory Peck’s closing argument to the jury.  This is how it’s done.
  • 1.  Twelve Angry Men.  Oh my, what a cast.  A tense, real-time drama of a jury that votes 11-1 for a conviction.  Then Henry Fonda starts asking questions.

FIVE FAVORITE BASEBALL MOVIES –  I think it’s fair to say that there have been more great baseball pictures, than all other categories of sports movies combined.  This summer’s 42 is also really, really good.

  • 5.  The Sandlot.  Friends and summers and growing up.  And James Earl Jones ain’t bad.
  • 4.  A League of Their Own.  You know it as well as I do: There’s no crying in baseball.
  • 3.  Field of Dreams.  So many memorable lines and moments.  “No, I mean, what do you want?”  “Oh.  A dog and a beer.”
  • 2.  The Natural.  Yes, it’s cheesy and melodramatic at times.  It’s still wonderful watching Redford knock the cover off the ball.  There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.
  • 1.  Bull Durham.  Okay, this movie has some of the dirtiest language ever put on celluloid, and I really can’t recommend it for that reason.  But it captures the joy of the game and essence of baseball in a way few others have ever matched.  The rose goes in front, big guy.

There, see how easy that was? So now, get your Siskel & Ebert on, and come up with some lists of your own. And please pass the popcorn.

A Movie of Immense Power

Not that it needs anything from me, but I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of praise for Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

It is a movie of immense power.

First of all, a couple of notes.  This is NOT a movie for people who go to the show to see special effects, or to see stuff blown up.  There’s an actual story here.  Second, if you don’t like movies where you have to pay attention to dialogue, save yourself the $8 and stay home.  If you didn’t like “The West Wing” on TV, you almost certainly won’t like “Lincoln.”

But: if you enjoy history, if you like movies where words matter, if you enjoy seeing incredible actors at the top of their craft, then you owe it to yourself to go see this.

Here’s the story: It is January, 1865.  The American Civil War is in its fourth year, and Lincoln has just been reelected.  Two years earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but now he is seeking to abolish slavery once and for all through the proposed 13th Amendment.  The amendment has passed the Senate, but does not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the evenly-divided House.

They say there two things you never want to watch: one is how sausage is made, and the other is how legislation gets passed.  Make an exception in this case.

Daniel Day Lewis is simply phenomenal to watch, and he is surrounded by incredible talent – Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommie Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, just to name a few.  When his advisers are whining because they’re still two votes down, Lincoln thunders,  “I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all … time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured.  I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done, but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes …”

It’s an actual quote, as cited by John B. Alley, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, ed., Rice, 1886 ed., p 585-6.

And then there’s Sally Field.  The fact is, Mary Todd Lincoln had battled mental illness for much of her life, and when their middle son died, she never fully recovered from the loss.  The scene in the privacy of their bedroom, when she and Mr. Lincoln have a screaming fight, is in my opinion, one of the most powerful ever put on film.  Watching her and Daniel Day Lewis go at each other is like watching Frazier and Ali trading punches.

And I don’t have time to tell you how amazing Tommie Lee Jones is here.

I love the way Spielberg structured the storytelling here.  The movie opens with remembrances of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and closes with his Second Inaugural.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I’m telling you, words matter, and they absolutely shine in the hands of this director, this script, and these actors.  “Lincoln” is a gem.