February 9, 2012

NEVER A BAD TIME TO GO TO RICK'S:

As time goes by, a night in Rick's Café means more than ever before: As 'Casablanca' is re-released this week, 70 years after its premier, Matthew Bell says play it, Sam (MATTHEW BELL, 05 FEBRUARY 2012, The Independent)

The film's inception dates back to the summer of 1938, when an American English teacher called Murray Burnett travelled to Vienna to help his Jewish relatives escape the Nazis. Afterwards, he spent some time on the Cote d'Azure, where he visited a nightclub where a black pianist played to a mixed crowd of Nazis and refugees. When he got home, he wrote a play called Everybody Comes to Rick's. He sold the script in January 1942 to Warner Brothers for $20,000, and they changed the title to Casablanca, apparently in an attempt to replicate the success of the 1938 hit Algiers. Filming began on 25 May, and was wrapped up by 3 August. Unlike most movies today, it was made in sequence because only the first half of the script was ready when shooting began. Hollywood was like that in those days.

Many myths have emerged from the making of Casablanca, among them the rumour that Ronald Reagan was lined up to play Rick. This isn't true, though the future president would have had one advantage over Bogart, who was so short that he had to stand on blocks next to Bergman. But more interesting than the backstory of Casablanca's slapdash production is the film's story itself. At its heart is the idea of personal sacrifice for the greater good. Rick may come across as a hard-bitten cynic, who "sticks his neck out for nobody". In fact (look away now if you haven't seen it) he is an idealist who once ran guns to Ethiopia and fought in the Spanish Civil War. Given the choice between running away with the love of his life, Ilsa, or saving a hero of the Resistance, Victor Laszlo, who will save thousands of Jews, he chooses the latter. Or, as Rick puts it, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans".

While Ilsa and Laszlo are the perfect doe-eyed romantic heroes, and Major Strasser is a pantomime baddie, it's the shadier characters in between that elevate Casablanca from a standard schlock-fest to a nuanced observation of human nature. Take the appalling Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains - a spineless stooge of Vichy France, who will appease anyone to make his own life agreeable. Like Rick, he wishes to remain neutral, but unlike Rick has no shame, and forces desperate girls to sleep with him in exchange for an exit visa. As an allegory of wartime France, you couldn't get more damning. His refrain of "Round up the usual suspects" whenever the Germans stamp their feet is the pithiest lesson in how to dissemble that any politician could ask for.

Someone once said that all the best novels revolve around a big house with plenty of people coming and going. This is one of the key plot devices of Casablanca, as Rick's Café provides the opportunity for several sub-plots to be spun around the main story. So tinkling away at the piano there's Sam, Rick's sidekick, who promised never to play "As Time Goes By", as it reminds Rick of Ilsa. Then there's the story of the young Bulgarian couple, desperate to flee . She's prepared to sacrifice her dignity by secretly sleeping with Captain Renault in exchange for an exit visa. But in a neat example of a small act of evil being committed to stop a greater one, Rick rigs the roulette table so that her husband wins enough money to buy their way out, and her dignity is spared. Again, the themes of sacrifice and duty are lightly packed into one little sub-plot.

Posted by at February 9, 2012 6:11 PM
  

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