2/24/09

R082 Casablanca

(1942, Drama/Romance, b&w)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett

Snoopy’s attacking! Run!

Rating: ***1/2

In a Nutshell:


World-weary bar owner Rick helps a former lover escape WWII-era Morocco.

Summary:

Why does Paul Henreid get third billing when he's the least famous actor in this movie?In 1941 the Second World War, still in its opening act, sends refugees fleeing to Northern Africa, from there to Portugal and then (hopefully) the United States. Casablanca is an important stop along the refugee trail. People hoping to move on to Lisbon must have the right travel documents, be able to bribe the corrupt Chief of Police Renault (Claude Rains), or pay for forgeries from men like the unsavory Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) or the even less savory Ugarte (Peter Lorre).

As our story begins, Ugarte has murdered two German couriers and stolen a pair of blank Letters of Transit, apparently the holy grails of travel documents. He plans to sell them for a vast sum of money and retire, but he doesn’t want to have them on him in case he’s searched before the deal. To this end, he leaves them with the owner of the nightclub where he does his business, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Unfortunately for him, Renault knows what he’s done and what he’s stolen. The weasely chief of police normally wouldn’t care, but it just so happens that a detachment of Nazi soldiers, led by Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has arrived to demand that the thief be arrested and the letters recovered. Renault’s men make the arrest and drag Ugarte out of the night club, leaving Rick holding the letters.

Ugarte’s intended buyer arrives—celebrated Czechoslovakian resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), whose activities have upset a number of very important Nazis, forcing him to flee for his life. This is another reason Major Strasser has come to Casablanca: to lean on Renault for Lazlo’s arrest. Renault agrees and patiently awaits a pretext.

Lazlo’s wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) recognizes Rick’s pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson), and begs him to play her favorite song. Rick recognizes the song and starts to berate him, but Sam just points to Ilsa and leaves. Rick and Ilsa have an oblique conversation about Paris. He meets Lazlo, bids Ilsa farewell, and then waits until everyone leaves for the night to crawl into a bottle of bourbon and start the flashbacks.

Everybody goes to Ricks.It seems that he and Ilsa were desperately in love three years go in Paris. After numerous scenes of moonstruck motoring, lounging and drinking, Rick proposes on the eve of the German invasion. Ilsa tearfully deflects the question, but agrees to leave Paris with him the next day. The next day arrives along with a note from Ilsa, explaining that she can’t leave Paris with him or ever see him again. Ilsa arrives in the present day to try and explain, but Rick is too drunk to do anything but hurl insults. Ilsa leaves again in tears.

In the scenes that follow, Lazlo tries to find papers for passage to Lisbon while Rick stalks Ilsa to needle her about her betrayal. Lazlo eventually finds out the original letters of transit are probably with Rick, and he attempts to buy them from him. Rick refuses. When Lazlo asks why, he says, “Ask your wife.”

Ilsa sneaks back to Rick’s place that night while Lazlo is at the local resistance meeting. She explains how she thought her husband was dead when she loved him in Paris, but then he resurfaced and she had to go back to him. She still loves Rick, and she’ll stay with him if he’ll help Lazlo get to Lisbon.

Meanwhile, the police have broken up the resistance meeting, scattering the attendees. One of Rick’s revolutionary employees brings Lazlo back to Rick’s place. Rick sends Ilsa home before Lazlo sees her. In their subsequent conversation, Lazlo admits that he knows about Rick and Ilsa’s past history. He loves Ilsa too, but he’ll let her go with Rick if Rick will use the letters of transit to escort her out of danger. The police arrive and arrest Lazlo.

The next day, Rick goes to Renault with a proposition. He has no charges or evidence to keep Lazlo imprisoned now, but if he’ll release Lazlo long enough for Rick to sell him the letters of transit, he’ll be able to arrest him for possession of stolen documents. Renault agrees and arrives at Rick’s place that night in time to witness the transaction. However, when Renault tries to make the arrest, Rick pulls a gun. With Renault as his hostage, Rick escorts Lazlo and Ilsa to the airport to help them make their getaway. Ilsa still wants to stay with Rick, but Rick talks her out of it with a famous speech that boils down to 1) Lazlo needs her and 2) Casablanca isn’t safe for any of them anymore.

The plane takes off with Lazlo and Ilsa aboard, but Major Strasser arrives to try and call it back. Rick guns him down as he picks up the phone. The police arrive to find Renault, Rick and Strasser’s body. Moved by Rick’s act of selflessness, Renault tells the policemen to “round up the usual suspects”, effectively sending them away again. He and Rick determine to flee to France and help resist the Nazi occupation.

Thoughts:

Three iconic film characters, plus one whose name is only remembered because Bogart mentions it in the most famous speech in movie history.Sure, Mike, Bill and Kevin make fun of the accents and headgear, but the Casablanca Rifftrax is more of a continuous comedy routine running parallel to the film than outright mockery. Consider the following exchange:

[During a close-up of Bogart’s hand signing a check, then pulling back to get our first glimpse of the movie’s hero.]
Bill: An iconic movie character is about to be introduced.
Kevin: Jar Jar Binks?
Bill: Go to so much hell, it’s not even funny, Kevin.
Mike: Hey, don’t Bogart that cigar!
Bill: Mike, join Kevin in hell.

It’s representative of the rest of the commentary in that they’ve taken pains to mock themselves instead of the scene. In fact, while most of the Rifftrax I’ve watched mingle themselves with action in a way that makes them essential to my enjoyment of movie, this one seems more like a layer on top. A delicious layer, but no more than frosting to this film. It still has a great deal to recommend it, however, and I don’t regret seeing it.

I do have a bit of advice, though. Do not watch this Rifftrax if you’ve never seen the film before. I say this not out of reverence for Casablanca. It’s a quality film that deserves to be first experienced in its untreated form, but I’m not one of those cinema snobs who’ll wail and call you a heretic if you choose to do otherwise. My concerns are more technical in nature. This is a movie about secrets and conspiracies. It is a movie about intelligent, articulate men, many of them in odd foreign hats, huddling at corner tables while talking fast and low in their 1940s accents. Of the four who came over to watch this with me, three laughed at half and frowned in puzzlement at the remainder. The one who laughed at just about everything was the one who, like me, already knew most of the movie by heart. It’s hilarious, but with so many people all talking at once, you have to already know what’s going on if you want to follow it.