A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Once upon a time, entirely by accident and when they were discussing something completely different (like Father Ted), Bookfoxes Kirsty and Moira discovered that they had a shared love of the 1942 film classic, Casablanca. After chatting away for several minutes, it occurred to them that it would make a jolly good subject for a VL piece. So, a couple of days ago, they sat down and made a proper job of it … revealing, in the process, rather more about themselves and their several strange passions than they probably intended.
We join them as they settle down for a good natter, with As Time Goes By playing softly, somewhere in the background …
Kirsty Jane McCluskey (feeling rather intimidated by the scale of the thing): How shall we start?
Moira Briggs: Why don’t we start with how less is more? The first—and really major—thing that struck me about Casablanca when I watched it a couple of days ago, for the first time in many years, is how understated it all is. No histrionics, nothing double-underlined. Can you imagine what they’d do to it if they remade it today?
KJM: I dare not think. And I hope the persistent rumours of a remake or sequel never, ever turn out to be true.
(I’ve got it playing here: coming up to the bit with the Marseillaise, where I always fall completely apart).
MB: That’s a superb moment … It’s the point in the story when I really understood what it was that Ilsa saw in Victor, and saw it myself.
And Paul Henreid was so quietly magnificent throughout … but he’s very much overlooked now. How many people, other than real film buffs, could tell you off the top of their heads who played Victor Laszlo?
*breaks off to weep tempestuously*
MB: *proffers virtual hankie*
KJM: Thank you. Colin appeared just as I broke down, as he heard Die Wacht Am Rhein start up and knew it was coming.
*blows nose and composes self*
I’ve only really come to appreciate Henreid as I’ve grown up. Quiet magnificence is exactly it: nothing flashy about his performance. And I think it takes a bit of living before you understand exactly what Laszlo understands, and what he’s prepared to bear.
He still isn’t my great love, though …
MB: Oh no. I know who that is. And Renault is such an odious little man, too … or should be, only it doesn’t work out that way …
KJM: He is truly bad—unscrupulous, exploitative, vice-ridden—and that’s another thing I’ve only really grasped as I’ve grown up. And, because he really is bad, and because I can see exactly how comfortable (and profitable) it is for him to keep on collaborating, I’m shocked and delighted when he abruptly redeems himself. Every time. I could go all theological here (I won’t), but what it really boils down to is that, somewhere in the course of that famous farewell that plays out right in front of him, something troubles him so deeply that all his perks and privileges lose their meaning. If he’s suddenly prepared to throw it all in and join the resistance, it’s because he can’t bear to do otherwise. But it isn’t a bloodless conversion moment, either. In the middle of it all, that brief line—Round up the usual suspects—lands like a cannonball.
I’d be the first to admit, though, that I might find it harder to appreciate Captain Renault’s change of heart if he were played by some other actor. I am the only romantic novelist I know to have modelled a hero after Claude Rains.
MB: I can’t see it working with anyone except Rains. I think he’s the only actor of the period who could possibly have pulled that conjuring trick off. Like you, I didn’t really grasp what a foul little man Renault is until I returned to the film as an adult. The charm kicks up so much dust, you just can’t see past it until you start paying attention—REALLY start paying attention—in a way that most people (myself included) don’t when they’re watching films. When I rewatched it this time around, it was the first time I’ve ever sat down and given it 100% of my attention, and it was a revelation.
KJM: I actually wonder if it might not be the same with Laszlo. Would he be almost too heroic, too untouchably Good, if Henreid didn’t play him with that note of subdued pain?
MB: Henreid –Yes. We’re back with him again, aren’t we? He plays Laszlo as a man who hasn’t lost his faith in people in spite of what he’s seen and been through—but he’s nobody’s fool, either—and he reads people better than probably anyone else in the film.
However you look at it, Casablanca fielded the perfect cast—it was virtually flawless from Peter Lorre’s cameo, setting the whole ‘letters of transit’ situation up, to Conrad Veidt as the archetypal Nazi villain. Did you know that, realizing he was going to be typecast as Nazis for the rest of his life, Veidt insisted that they were ALWAYS dyed-in-the-wool villains?
KJM: I didn’t know that about him, but it doesn’t surprise me. I think that’s one of the things that makes Casablanca so viscerally affecting if you know even a little about the making of it—that so many of the cast had only just escaped danger themselves, and had family and loved ones living under occupation. It invests everything with an … I don’t know, immediacy is a pale and rather silly word for it. But it matters and, even decades later, we feel just how much it matters. Like that scene with the Marseillaise.
MB: Yes – with all those bona fide European refugees who were the supporting actors and extras … I remember reading that during the filming of that scene—”the duel of the anthems” I think it’s known as—people were genuinely crying: the emotion was real. All of those accents, all of that broken English, it was completely authentic. It’s to Humphrey Bogart’s credit that he held his own so well against such a solidly European cast who knew exactly what they were doing and what was happening back in Europe: Veidt, who’d fled Germany in the 1930s with his Jewish wife; Paul Henreid, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and facing deportation or internment as an “enemy alien”; Peter Lorre … in fact, given the fact that it was an American film, made in the US, the almost total absence of US actors is extraordinary.
KJM: Authenticity is a horribly overused word—practically meaningless now—but that’s exactly what this has.
Maybe it’s another sign of growing up, but the central love story doesn’t affect me so much as the rest of it, these days. Or perhaps it affects me in another way. I still cry like a broken firehose, but it tends to be at a different set of moments. The duel of the anthems is one. The young Bulgarian winning at roulette. The expression on Rick’s face as the train pulls away … Do excuse me, I seem to have something in my eye again.
MB: That’s such a wonderful scene—Rick letting the young woman win at roulette—and so beautifully and simply played. I don’t think Bogart was ever better than he was in Casablanca. It’s almost as if he slightly retuned himself to blend in with the rest of the cast, rather than stand out as the Hollwood Megastar—turning it into a real ensemble piece.
And I agree completely about the central love story. In many ways it’s the least interesting part of the film—the only really ‘Hollywood’ ingredient. It’s the satellite stories and characters that hold your attention—and it is SUCH a character-driven film. The bulk of the action takes place in one location—Rick’s—reflecting its origins as a stage play of course, but that slightly claustrophobic feel suits the plotline perfectly: all those people waiting, packed together, hoping to make their escape to America.
There’s a beautiful scene early on as the camera moves through the bar, and at every table people are immersed in whispered conversations, money is changing hands, arrangements are being made …
KJM: Yes. I’ve seen very few films of any vintage where you get such a strong sense of people in their context. And there’s really no such thing as a minor role. Funnily enough, watching it this time round, I found myself fascinated by Karl the waiter. You have a sense of this whole story just offstage.
MB: And Rick’s discarded girlfriend—Yvonne, is her name?—she only has a relatively small part, but that character makes a journey of her own. Not to mention the vignettes and flashes of humour … the refugees with their small but beautifully drawn and performed little storylines. The more you look, the more you notice, and the more you notice, the better it gets.
KJM: There’s a close up of Yvonne, during the duel of the anthems, singing with tears in her eyes; and just a few minutes before, she was joyfully lining up the drinks with her German officer. You could make a whole film just about that.
But sometimes—very occasionally—the moments that are clearly meant to be significant fall a little flat for me. The business with the Vichy water bottle, for example. It might be because you could already read Renault’s decision in his face and in his body, but it seemed oddly stagey for a film that manages to be so natural.
MB: Rains didn’t need the help, did he? He had such an open and readable face, and knew how to control it—he could do it all himself. Perhaps Michael Curtiz wasn’t convinced that everybody watching would get the point?
KJM: I suppose what I forget in the heat of it all is that this was made as a propaganda film!
MB: Very much so … and a lot of Americans in particular wouldn’t have been that familiar with the situation in Europe. In fact the whole ‘Vichy’ thing would probably have been a bit of a mystery to many of them. Casablanca was made in 1942, when the US had only just entered the war—and many Americans still weren’t convinced that they had any business getting involved in the war in Europe. It’s easy to forget that.
KJM: It certainly is. Well, I could keep going on this for hours, but we should probably draw gently to a close. To sum up, then, what do you like best about Casablanca? And, dare I ask it, least?
MB: As to what I like least—well, it’s as near perfect as any film can be, and devoid of moments when you think “Now would be a good time to nip out and put the kettle on” … but if there IS a weak link, for me it’s Sydney Greenstreet who was—pretty much—playing Sydney Greenstreet. He wasn’t bad by any means, and his is only a smallish part, but he didn’t bring anything particularly fresh or different to his role as Ferrari—in stark contrast to everyone else. You could almost say that everyone else seemed to know that they were taking part in something extraordinary, while he was just making another film …
Conrad Veidt: A gentle, intelligent and cultured man who could submerge it all and produce a steely-eyed monster like Strasser.
Paul Henreid: Bringing such a world of painful knowledge to a part that could so easily have been just a colourless heroic cypher.
Dooley Wilson: No great singer, but with Humphrey Bogart in a deserted bar, providing one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history.
What about you?
KJM: Having racked my brains about what I like least (apart from the water bottle moment, of course), I have to agree with you about Greenstreet. You expect more, really, from him.
As for what I like best … well, shall we take Claude Rains as read? I’d have to add Humphrey Bogart to that. I’m a great fan of his, anyway, ever since I saw Deadline USA at an impressionable age. In fact, that’s what originally brought me to watch Casablanca. And I agree with you that it’s his best performance of all. Rick is so weary, so bruised: not just by love, I think, but by politics. Cynicism was a Bogart specialty, of course, but this is a very particular cynicism. And when he emerges from his careful neutrality and re-enters the fight (on both fronts), you can’t help but love him for it.
Moira is currently between gainful employments, considering exacting revenge on everyone who has ever wronged her by writing a roman à clef, and in the meantime slapping emulsion on everything that doesn’t move in the hope of rendering her house respectable enough to sell to someone …
Kirsty is a writer who generally goes in for serious things like theology, but occasionally throws the loaf at the ceiling and writes splashy Ruritanian fiction full of political intrigue and handsome men in képis.