Top 50 - #1 - Casablanca

Well, I really can't put it off any more, not after watching this wonderful, wonderful film for what was probably the 6th or 7th time yesterday. See, there was a house dinner. And one of my house mates has a Casablanca poster in his room, but had never seen the film. I'd been pestering him to watch it for a long time, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. "But it's black and white!" he protested. "I'll fall asleep!".

I bristled. So did another one of my house mates -one who had been mildly OK with watching the film - but not for the same reason. "Wait, it's BLACK AND WHITE? No, no way, it'll be boring." Luckily, I can be pretty persuasive, and I managed to coerce them into watching 30 minutes of the film. If they found it too boring then, the deal was, we'd switch it off and pick a color film to watch. Needless to say, we watched until the moment Louis and Rick walk off in the fog.

I know, lists of this kind, those made by the more discerning film buffs at least, are usually dominated by another black and white film, one that doesn't even appear on the list: I am talking, of course, of Citizen Kane. Thing is, while I greatly admire Citizen Kane, while I can see why it is revered and still innovative after all these years, I can't muster up any love for it. It's just too cold and analytic an exercise, with no room for real emotion, for any lovely flaws.

Casablanca does have flaws. When Ilsa says "was that cannon fire, or is that my heart pounding?" it's corny, too corny in this instance, and "The Germans wore gray. You were blue" is also stretching it a little, but the film's willing corniness works, it wins you over. And I mean, who can remember any quotes from Citizen Kane besides "Rosebud"? Contrast this with this film, which gave us "Here's looking at you, kid", "Play it once, Sam, for old times sake" "If she can stand it I can! Play it!", "I stick my neck out for nobody", "We'll always have Paris", "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship", "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine" and so many more.

Ah, but you say, Citizen Kane is all about cinematography! To which I reply, Citizen Kane is all about showing off. Yes, the camera in Casablanca moved in much more conventional ways, but it is above all effective. Take the shot which introduces us to Rick: first the check, the hand signing it "OK Rick", then taking the cigarette and in one smooth movement showing us the face of our hero.

Ah, Rick. Yes, Ingrid Bergman is glowing here, more beautiful than ever, but to me this movie belongs to Bogart. His Rick is so wounded, but he doesn't want to be pitied, doesn't want to be weak, and it's through his bitterness that it shows. The way he delivers lines like "Or aren't you the one that tells", with a sneer: it's mean, it's lashing out, but it's also profoundly touching, more so than any doe-eyes could ever have been. He doesn't "emote" in the way male actors sometimes try now, but his emotions are obvious.

Well, I don't pretend to be able to add something to all that has already been said about this film, let alone something insightful. I just love this film. And I don't think I can share that any better than by leaving you with some more wonderful exchanges:

Captain Renault: Carl, see that Major Strasser gets a good table, one close to the ladies.
Carl: I have already given him the best, knowing he is German and would take it anyway.


Captain Renault: Rick, there are many exit visas sold in this café, but we know that you've never sold one. That is the reason we permit you to remain open.
Rick: Oh? I thought it was because I let you win at roulette.
Captain Renault: That is another reason.


Ilsa: Don't, Rick! I can understand how you feel.
Rick: [scoffs] You understand how I feel. How long was it we had, honey?
Ilsa: [on the verge of tears] I didn't count the days.
Rick: Well, I did. Every one of 'em. Mostly I remember the last one. The wild finish. A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look in his face because his insides have been kicked out.


Major Strasser: You give him credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he's just another blundering American.
Captain Renault: We musn't underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.


Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
Captain Renault: That is my least vulnerable spot.


Major Strasser: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?
Rick: It's not particularly my beloved Paris.
Heinz: Can you imagine us in London?
Rick: When you get there, ask me!
Captain Renault: Hmmh! Diplomatist!
Major Strasser: How about New York?
Rick: Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.


Captain Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.


Major Strasser: What is your nationality?
Rick: I'm a drunkard.
Captain Renault: That makes Rick a citizen of the world.




Oh, but did I love this film. If I ever do a top 10 noirs, this is sure to be on it. The story's based on a gimmick, really: a man investigating his own murder, but it works, from the wonderful opening following a man staggering towards the police station and into the homicide division to the convoluted resolution. I also loved the sub-story about how only impending death can cure this man of his fear of commitment: in a way, his misfortune could be seen as a punishment for his lecherous behavior at the beginning, complete with lovely sound effects. The girl's a bit of a nag in person but wonderfully funny and playful on the phone, and despite the goofiness of the whole "luminous toxin" business (and its convenient timing) the ending manages to move.

Dr. MacDonald: Of course, I'll have to notify the police. This is a case for Homicide.
Frank Bigelow: Homicide!
Dr. MacDonald: I don't think you fully understand, Bigelow. You've been murdered.


Impact - 1949

I once argued that if it has a happy ending, it ain't a film noir, but this film has made me reconsider. It's noir alright, with the pretty, glamorous wife plotting to kill her husband with her lover, and a truly great scene leading up to said murder attempt. In the Idaho part of the movie, the lighting is probably too cheerful, the people too decent and the eventual outcome too sunny, but Ella Raines is so cute you forgive that right away. Brian Donlevy is also great, convincing both as the energetic loving husband at the beginning and as the angry, desperate man he becomes. This isn't great noir, but it is mighty enjoyable, and it fully earns its happy conclusion.


Michael Clayton - quick thoughts

Ok, instead of telling screenwriters and directors about "show and tell", how about following that doctrine and just showing them Michael Clayton? Class-action suit films are generally not my thing, but there isn't a crying mom or dying kid in sight here, just professional people trying to do their jobs, and a screenwriter-turned-director showing everyone how it's done.


There's this wonderful moment where Michael Clayton is looking through his colleagues apartment. He opens the fridge, sees a bottle of champagne and two glasses. The shot is clear, but not overemphasized. We don't get a shot of a "Eureka" look on Clooney's face. But we understand that seeing this means the guy didn't kill himself, and we know that Clayton is smart enough to get that, too.

If there's one criticism to be made it's that for a thriller, it isn't particularly thrilling. It is never boring, however, and there is a kind of horror to seeing Tom Wilkinson's character killed, not because there's so much violence or blood or gore involved, but because of the cold professionalism of the killers: it seems that to them, there isn't much difference between installing microphones in someone's apartment, placing a bomb in a car or killing someone, checking - twice, for good measure- to make sure his pulse is gone.

The film ends with Clooney in a cab, while the credits show. He's not a great actor, probably. But he knows how to portray a character without acting too much, or making his feelings too explicit. And Tony Gilroy, the director, knows how to leave out enough, but never too much: he doesn't condescend to his audience, but he's never too clever, either. I can't wait to see what he does next.