This week's flick of the week takes us with the great Humphrey Bogart playing one of his great roles in The Big Sleep to him playing his greatest role in his greatest film, that of Rick Blaine in Casablanca.
I resisted picking Casablanca because it feels like I should have left it till the end. It is my favourite film. I don't think it is the best film ever made - that is a different argument; just as I think Ulysses is the best novel ever written, I wouldn't call it my favourite (I'll leave what is for another blog).
I'm not even so sure why I love this film so much. The plot has a few holes in it - the big one being why would having letters of transit signed by General De Gaull be of any use in Vichy France? But I don't care.
In fact you could probably sit down and tell me any other things wrong with the film. To all of them I would say "I don't care." (And I would also probably say you are lying, because there is nothing else wrong with the film!)
Let's look at the cast. Bogart and Bergman. I mean you can stop right there can't you? But no let's also add in Paul Henried doing the impossible - actually seeming like he could be a man whom a woman might choose to stay with instead of Rick. (I say might). Claude Raines in the pivotal role of Captain Renault (scandalously missed out on winning the Oscar for the role). Then you have Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet as Urgate and Ferrari teaming up with Bogart as they did so brilliantly in The Maltese Falcon.
So we have perhaps the best cast of all time. Then we have indisputably the best script of all time. I'm not talking the famous lines - "Here's looking at you kid", "Round up the usual suspects". I'm talking the banter between the characters:
Captain Renault: Rick, there are many exit visas sold in this café, but we know that "you've" never sold one. That is the reason we permit you to remain open.
Rick: Oh? I thought it was because I let you win at roulette.
Captain Renault: That is "another" reason.
Ilsa: I wasn't sure you were the same. Let's see, the last time we met...
Rick: Was La Belle Aurore.
Ilsa: How nice, you remembered. But of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.
Rick: Not an easy day to forget.
Rick: I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey, you wore blue.
Major Strasser: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?
Rick: It's not particularly my beloved Paris.
Heinz: Can you imagine us in London?
Rick: When you get there, ask me!
Captain Renault: Hmmh! Diplomatist!
Major Strasser: How about New York?
Rick: Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.
Captain Renault: And what in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: Waters? What waters? We're in the desert!
Rick: [sardonically] I was misinformed.
Captain Renault: I have often speculated on 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.
Ugarte: You despise me, don't you?
Rick: If I gave you any thought I probably would.
Ugarte: Rick, think of all the poor devils who can't meet Renault's price. I get it for them for half. Is that so... parasitic?
Rick: I don't mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.
Yvonne: Where were you last night?
Rick: That's so long ago, I don't remember.
Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.
Oh geez, I could go on and on. Such great writing by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch (at least they won the Oscar).
But for all that, the real reason for the greatness of this film is Bogart. If ever there was a film you wish to know the prequel of it is this one. I love the opening scene of Rick playing chess against himself as he smokes endless cigarettes (Bogie died of cancer at the age of 58 and you know why watching this film) and wordlessly watching all coming into his club. It is one of the great character setting openings of all time (another I'd include on that list is the scene at the opening of Schindler's List of Schindler getting ready and going to the restaurant).
But in reality you don't want to know too much about Rick. It's because you don't know why he had to leave America that gives him such character. Screen writers should take note - audiences don't need to know everything. Less is more. Rick is the ultimate movie mystery - you'd love to know his history, but you fear if you knew too much all the romance of him would be gone.
And it's also a film you just would love to see the sequel. But again I refuse to read any. The sequel will be in my head, just as is the prequel. Because try as people might you couldn't capture this lightning twice. It is perfect and that's all we need know or care.
I have seen this once on the big screen - back in 1993 for the 50th Anniversary. It was thrilling. But because it's a film all made on a film stage, you lose very little by dimming the lights in your own lounge room, and hitting 'play' on your DVD.
Here's the best scene I could find on youtube. It's a pivotal moment in the film - the point where you know Rick is going to have to at some stage make a choice because it is obvious Victor Laszlo isn't going to keep a low profile while he stays in Casablanca. One of the things people often forget about Casablanca is that it was made in 1942 when WWII was still very much in the balance. So when Laszlo says to Rick at the end:
"Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win."
It was no foregone conclusion.
This is great film making, and also great propaganda. It might not make you want to enlist, but it sure as hell makes you want to join in the fight.