Casablanca – Denny Ledger’s Take

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I’ve seen it a hundred times, you’ve seen it a hundred times. I’ll see it a hundred times more. You will too, let’s be honest.

But why?

Nearly eighty years on and it’s lost none of its magic. A simple three-way love triangle set in an exotic locale with a wartime backdrop, it certainly doesn’t sound like a classic on the surface.

It started as an un-produced three-act play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, when Warner Bros. snapped up the film rights, changing the name to Casablanca, following the success of Algiers in 1938.

It would be another film that would slip through the fingers of George Raft, as Jack Warner mentioned his name in consideration for the lead, Rick Blane, an American expatriate running a saloon in Casablanca, but executive producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz had already made up their minds on the lead, and once again Raft’s loss would be Bogie’s gain.

With a white tuxedo and still with a heavy hangover from some dame back in Paris, it doesn’t quite seem to be familiar territory for Bogie, whose screen persona after High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon was by now clearly defined. However, this is classic Bogie, the classic Bogie role perhaps.

It would be his sixth of eight collaborations with Curtiz, and his first opposite Ingrid Bergman, who got the role after it was decided that the female lead should not be American, but European, where previously Bogie regulars Mary Astor and Ann Sheridan were briefly considered.

She was cast as Ilsa Lund, and the woman who broke Bogie’s heart, and who is still stamping on it, despite his better efforts of trying to forget her with a little help from a gin bottle and a ‘strictly forbidden’ policy on one particular tune.

Never a romantic leading man, and only recently joining the ranks of leading men, there is a natural chemistry between Bogie and Bergman, and also Rick and Ilsa.

The same could not be said of Ilsa and her husband, Victor Laszlo, nor of Bergman and the Viennese Paul Henreid, as the underground resistance leader.

He’s as stiff as Bogie’s gin, – po-faced, emotionless, humorless, too proud, too heroic; it’s little wonder Ilsa has kept the flame burning for Rick all this time.

The crux of the film is the question: who will Ilsa leave Casablanca with?

There is also a sub-question that comes with it: who does Ilsa truly love?

We assume, incorrectly I might add, that the two questions are mutually exclusive, that Ilsa will leave with the man she loves. Right? Right?

Well, let’s look at the evidence.

If we consider what would have happened if she had left with Rick and not Victor at the end of the film, would it still have the same effect and reputation nearly 80 years on? Would film critics, historians and fans still be discussing the implications and reasons for the decision?

No. Bogie or Henreid? Come on. Rick or Victor? Come off it. We wouldn’t give it a second thought, as we want her to leave with Rick, not her husband.

One question, perhaps the ultimate question that remains with us long after the film has ended, is who did Ilsa want to leave on the plane with? After all, her fate was decided by Rick, and although she accepts the reasons for going with Victor (at least she says she does), would she rather have gone with Rick, the man who, deep down, she knows is the love of her life?

Which leads us on to fact two. Censorship.

Ilsa was married, which meant she could never leave with Rick at the end as the censors would not allow it.

Bergman had asked Curtiz which man Ilsa really loved so she could know how to play the role. However, the script was written and rewritten as shooting went on, and as the shoot began, there was no ending, and no decision was made who she would be leaving with or who she really loved.

In answer to her question, Curtiz told her, ‘We don’t know yet – just play it, … in between’.

If Bergman, or anyone else, was in any doubt about who she would leave with at the end of the film, or indeed who she truly loved, she would only have to consider what the Breen Office would dictate.

As the censorship board, there is no way they would have allowed Ilsa to be in love with Rick or leave on the plane with him instead of Victor while Victor, her husband, was still alive. To achieve such a thing would be immoral, and would not have passed the censors.

Another facet to the theory that Bergman did not know who she loved or would be leaving with, was the fact that the film was not shot in sequence. Several key scenes were shot after the end sequence so she would have known during the filming of the remaining scenes who she would be leaving with.

In the end of course, she leaves with her dullard, Cointreau-drinking husband. No wonder she looks upset. It is Bogie, complete with the more familiar uniform of trench coat, fedora and gun, who does the honorable thing.

Now, let’s consider this.

The end scene at the airport is perhaps as famous as any scene in cinema history. In reality, the scene was shot on a small sound stage at the studio. A smoke machine filled the set so you could not get a sense of the size of the airport. The plane itself was a cut out model and the engineers were midgets, as a full-size man would have been taller than the plane itself.

The letters of transit, and coincidentally, there being no such thing in reality, are a MacGuffin. That is, a false prize. The question remains that even with the letters, would Lazlo still be allowed to leave Casablanca?

A bigger question can be asked, as the revelation of who is getting on the plane with Ilsa is revealed:  who was there to prevent Ilsa, Victor, Rick, Louis, and hey, why not Sam while we’re at it, from getting on the plane? Who checked the letters of transit? The airport was deserted, save for the midgets and the pilot, who drives the plane away so he was otherwise engaged.

But let’s back it up a bit and move away from the conspiracy theories.

The film is concerned with two letters of transit which have been stolen and subsequently gone missing. These were documents which would allow the exit from Casablanca. The letters were stolen by one Ugarte, played by Bogie regular Peter Lorre.

There was also a role for another Bogie regular, Sydney Greenstreet, however, any excitement we may have had in another pairing of Lorre and Greenstreet (who would star in seven films together) was slightly diminished as they share no screen time together. In fact, Lorre is out of the picture within the first reel. However, both men bring the usual qualities to the film, and are part of the rich world that makes Casablanca so special to millions of people all over the world. Added to the cast are Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt as well as a host of European actors and, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam.

Many a film has tried to play on the themes of Casablanca. Passage to Marseilles which reunited Curtiz and Lorre, Greenstreet, Rains and, of course, Bogie. To Have and Have Not, loosely based on the Ernest Hemingway novel, the first pairing Bogie and Bacall, and The Conspirators starring Henreid, Lorre, and Greenstreet.

There was also room for the Marx Brothers parody / homage, A Night in Casablanca, complete with Groucho’s Kornblow, dressed in white tuxedo as well as the usual huge cigar, painted on eyebrows and mustache.

The film would also get the Looney Tunes treatment in an eight-minute version of Carrotblanca, with Bugs Bunny as Rick, Tweety as an unsettlingly accurate Lorre impersonation as Ugarte, Daffy as Sam, Pepé Le Pew as Renault and Yosemite Sam as Strasser, as well as countless other references, quotes, rip offs and homages.

It was both a film of its time and timeless. It spoke of the plight of refugees, a topic that is still rife in the world today, and having beliefs in a higher cause, ultimately, freedom, and the belief and pursuit of it.

It is almost certainly the most loved film of all time, and it is not remembered as a Bergman film, Henreid film nor Curtiz film, but a Bogie film.

‘Here’s looking at you, kid.’

*Denny Ledger’s new book A Reasonable Amount of Trouble: The Films of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart can be purchased from Amazon hereYou can find him online at @dennyledger on Twitter.  This post is part of the section of the blog entitled Take 2 where Classic Film fans and writers can contribute to the blog.  You can check out the rest of those posts here.*

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