Sunday, December 7, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: Casablanca I

Through the month of December, we're going to be showcasing classic scenes from "Casablanca," the 1942 Warner Brothers "studio" picture, which is a long-admired favorite (quite rightly!) and seems to be the one movie that is pointed to as validating the old Hollywood studio system.

Well, yes and no.

The Story: Through a happy confluence of studio politics and a muddled shooting schedule (and a script that was constantly in flux), this film managed to optimize into the roaring crowd-pleaser it is today (and always has been). But it would have been a different story if the film had starred (as was proposed) Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan (hot after their pairing in "King's Row"). Director Michael Curtiz, a craftsman of no specific genre or strong-suit other than a flair for filling the frame with exotic eye-pleasing images was wrestling a bag of cats with this picture: it had no ending, and the players--the usually cranky Bogart, the nervous Ingrid Bergman worrying about her American debut, and the imperious Warner's romantic star Paul Heinreid--dutifully went through their paces and hit their marks without a clue how the story would resolve. *

It didn't make one jot of difference in this legendary film. And the difficulties during its construction only add to the legend.

But the movie hinges on the character of Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), man of local mystery. The story is his character arc, how he goes from a man who "sticks his neck out for nobody," to returning to his roots. The surly saloon owner in a dead-end corner of Africa who plays both ends against the middle, and carries a whiff of corruption. Bogart's on-screen 80% of the time and when he's not, people are talking about him, speculating about him, sucking up to him, watching him out of the corners of their eyes, semi-resplendent in his white and black tuxedo--a good-bad man.

The movie is based on a rarely-staged play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" (Does anybody try to revive it? Do they even bother?), and it does indeed seem like the whole of Casablanca assembles every evening in this one formal night-club to drink, gamble, do a little business, and watch the guy in the corner table drinking alone and working out chess strategies. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why is he here? Can he save me (us)?

For the sleazy little grifter Ugarte (Peter Lorre, one of many films he did with Bogart) it's "will he legitimize my existence by acknowledging me?" A minor player in the black-market of "Casablanca" (where there are "vultures, vultures everywhere") he acts like a big shot around Rick, but can be shot down for the minor-leaguer he is with merely a glance. Like most everyone, he doesn't know a lot about Rick, and is just one more of the Café Américain patrons speculating on the owner. Tonight, he gets Rick to notice him on the night of his greatest triumph...and his worst mistake. Another mistake is thinking that if Rick will do one favor for him, he'll do another. And as we know by this point, Rick "sticks (his) neck out for nobody."

But, still, they speculate, playing their guessing game about who he is, where he came from, and what he may be doing here. Everybody Comes to Rick's, yes. But also:

Everybody De-Constructs Rick Vol. 1: Ugarte
The Set-Up: It's a busy night at Rick's Café Américain. There are deals being made to flee the country in hushed tones. Tourists are getting fleeced by pick-pockets. There's quite a police presence. And Rick's United Nations of a staff is practicing diplomacy and politely discouraging any concessions from the owner. In fact, Rick has just barred the head of the Deutsche Bank from the casino. Small time hustlers like Ugarte, however, have no problem getting in, and bending his ear.


Ugarte: Heh. You know, Rick, watching you just now with the Deutsche Bank one would think you'd been doing this all your life.
Richard Blaine: Oh? What makes you think I haven't?
Ugarte: Oh! Oh, nothing. Er, but when you first came to Casablanca I thought...

Rick: You thought what?
Ugarte: Oh, what right do I have to think?

Ugarte: May I? (He sits down at Rick's table, while the owner barely acknowledge him) Too bad about those two German couriers, wasn't it?
Rick: They got a lucky break. Yesterday they were just two German clerks. Now, they're...the honored dead.

Ugarte: Heh. You're a very cynical person, Rick, if, if you'll forgive me for saying so.
Rick: I forgive you...
Ugarte: Thank you. Will you have a drink with me, please?
Rick: No!
Ugarte: Oh, I forgot, you never drink with any...I'll, I'll have another, please.
Waiter: Yes M'sieur.

Ugarte: You despise me, don't you?
Rick: Well, if I gave you any thought, maybe I would.

Ugarte: But why? Oh. You object to the kind of business I do, huh? But think of all those poor refugees who must rot in this place if I didn't help them. Well, that's not so bad...through ways of my own I provide them with exit visas.

Rick: For a price, Ugarte. For a price.

Ugarte: Heh-heh. But think of all the poor devils who can't meet Renault's price. Oh, 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.

Ugarte: Well, Rick, after tonight I'll be through with the whole business and I'm leaving, finally, this Casablanca.
Rick: Who'd you bribe for the visa? Renault or yourself?

Ugarte: Myself. I found myself much more reasonable. Look, Rick.

Ugarte: You know what this is? Something that even you have never seen. letters of transit signed by General DeGaulle.

Ugarte: They cannot be rescinded. Not even questioned. One moment.

Ugarte: Tonight, I'll be selling them for even more money than even I have ever dreamed of. And then, adieu, Casablanca.

Ugarte: You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.

Ugarte: Will you keep these for me please?
Rick: For how long?
Ugarte: Oh, perhaps an hour. Perhaps a little longer...
Rick: I don't want them here overnight.

Ugarte: Don't be afraid of that. Please keep them for me.

Ugarte: Thank you. I knew I could trust you. Waiter!

Ugarte: I'll be expecting some people. Uh....If anyone asks for me, I'll be right here.
Waiter: Yes, M'seur.

Ugarte: Rick, I hope you're more impressed with me now. If you'll forgive me, I'll share my good luck with your roulette wheel.

Rick: Now, just a moment. Hey, I heard a rumor those two German couriers were carrying letters of transit.

Ugarte: Oh, I've heard that rumor, too. Poor devils.

Rick: Yes, you're right, Ugarte. I am a little more impressed with you.


Words by
Murray Burnett, Joan Alison, Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch

Pictures by
Arthur Edeson and Michael Curtiz

Casablanca is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

* There's a famous story of Curtiz setting up a shot of Bogart nodding, and the Warners contract-player, not yet their super-star, badgering the director with questions about what he was nodding at. Curtiz told him it didn't matter, and the actor dutifully stood on his mark and nodded, meaningfully, at "he-had-no-idea-what" at the call of "Action!"

It's the shot that tells the Cafe band to play "La Marseillaise."

What difference would it have made if Bogart knew? I'd have to say not much, though Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg would probably spin emotively in their graves. The shot's only a couple of ticks long, and sometimes the power of montage trumps motivation, as
Kuleshov pointed out.

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