Roger Ebert’s Casablanca Commentary

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Honorary Bogart Fix:

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The Lowdown

Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert overlays Hollywood’s most famous film with his own comprehensive commentary.

What I Thought

Any regular readers will know that I drank the Roger Ebert Kool-Aid a long time ago.

As a kid growing up in the Midwest without cable TV, the two greatest things that happened to me on network television (5 channels at the time) were when newbie network Fox began airing old action flicks on Saturday afternoons, and when At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert began airing around the country in syndication.

We had one rental store in town and these two cantankerous film lovers were my only pre-internet guide to making my way through the racks and racks of films that all looked good to me. It was only after I dropped my $1.25 that I’d find out you can’t always judge a film by the VHS cover art, and I needed help making the most of my money.

I continued watching and reading Roger Ebert after Gene Siskel’s unfortunate passing. I didn’t always agree with him, but when I disagreed, I could almost always understand his point. (One of the few complete disagreements I ever had came when Ebert decried that video games were not art.)

I began to love and appreciate the man even more after following his battle with cancer on his blog. It turned out that his observations on life were even more compelling than his observations on films. I devoured his book Life Itself and the loved the subsequent documentary of the same name. Then I fell especially hard for the art of film criticism after finding this little nugget in the used book store:

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To this day, the moment I finish any new film, my first instinct is always to see if Ebert agreed with my assessment, only to realize that I’ll have to make due with the massive body of work that he left behind.

Have I spent enough time building up my admiration for Roger Ebert yet? So is it any surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed his commentary over Casablanca?

Any notable film critic’s thoughts on the film would probably be fun to hear. (I’m a big fan of David Edelstein and occasionally like to read Richard Roeper. Then there’s this podcast that never fails to deliver – http://filmspotting.net/ – always a great listen.) What sets Ebert apart though, is his PhD level knowledge of Casablancas cast, director, legacy, and place within the history of American cinema.

The man led shot-by-shot breakdown’s of the film for live audiences for goodness sake. I would argue that he probably knew the film as well or better than any man or woman alive before he passed.

So what do we get with his commentary?

For starters, I’ve seen the film more times than I can remember but now I have a new appreciation for Ingrid Bergman’s acting style. Ebert gives us a masterclass on her use of “looking down” to project inner turmoil, as well as a quick lesson on the use of shadow to disguise anything on an actor that CGI would go on to take care of decades later.

He works through many of the myths and legends that have surround the film for years. Yes, Warner Brothers wanted George Raft to play Rick at one point. No, they were never really interested in Ronald Reagan. Sure, Hal Wallis influenced the film in subtle, yet significant ways – he wanted a big band, real parrots, and less hats!

Perhaps Ebert’s most stirring observations come when discussing Casablanca’s historical context, Warner Brother’s severe distaste for the Nazi’s, and the incredible amount of foreign actors that populate the film. There’s a reason this movie seems so authentic. The emotions of fear, betrayal, and anger are more than likely all too real for nearly every supporting actor and extra as they watch Hollywood Nazi’s recreate the authoritarian march of Germany’s boots through Europe that they all lived through.

Then we come to the debate of whether or not Ingrid Bergman knew which man she’d end up with at the end of the film before she filmed the final scene. I won’t give you any spoilers, but I think Ebert makes a pretty solid case that settles the question for me.

Do I disagree occasionally with his thoughts? A little. No, I don’t think Paul Henreid was nearly as wooden as Ebert makes him out to be. And on a minor quibble, revolvers have the rotating cylinder – otherwise they’re just pistols Roger!

All of this only touches the surface of what Ebert’s lifelong passion for films adds to the enjoyment of Casablanca. If you’ve seen the film so much that you can’t imagine finding anything new within it, I would highly recommend tracking down a copy with this commentary.

Roger, we miss you dearly.

Here’s Ebert’s thoughts on the film from his site in 1992 – As Time Goes By…