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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

JOHNNY CHAZZ' TURN: COMMON "CASABLANCA"

JOHNNY CHAZZ: It is amazing how often the film “Casablanca” is brought up in casual or even serious film conversation over the years. To so many film-goers, “Casablanca” rates high on their list and more often than not in their top-3 of all time. The fact is that there is very little offered in the film in terms of cinematic, performance and technical greatness that allow it (in this critic’s opinion) to reach a top-100 list. Thus, the purpose of this week’s blog is not to destroy this great American film, but rather to try to put the film in perspective for what it really is.

Perhaps it is the idea that the film is simply in black and white. Perhaps it offers a glance into another world – a romantic and exotic one. Or, quite possibly it is the very fact that the film has become such a cliché that people simply slot it into their top-three list as a default. This is quite sad.

At its very essence, “Casablanca” always seemed, to me, to be lacking all the goodies that such great classic films (not only black and white) do. Prime examples might include films such as “Tokyo Story”, “Citizen Kane”, “8 ½”, “La Dolce Vita” and even the tremendous classic “Seven Samurai”. Performances in all of those films have real depth. To add, the storyline has not only substance, but real dimension as well as sub-plots. The screenplays are magnificent and take us through a journey that is not only realistic, but unpredictable.

I recall my grandfather and I sitting down one Sunday afternoon in 1989 to watch this movie and it was probably the second time I had seen it at that point. For him it was simply a trip to the past – a walk down memory lane re-visiting a film that once was. Perhaps that is exactly what defines this film: a nostalgic piece with touches of romance. What exactly is with this love affair with “Casablanca?”
Enjoy the original 1942 trailer

There are very few dramatic effects. The dialogue is plain and sappy and almost borderlines on juvenile. The sets are marginal and uninteresting – and they look like sets. The film just does not offer enough for this critic.

Come on down and visit the Cafe American!
Casablanca” is really no better and simultaneously no much worse than any other film. In respect to many of the films we love and adore here on CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT, there really is no comparison and it simply does not live up to expectations or the hype. As I continue to impress over and over on COUNTERPOINT, the “screenplay” is 75% of a film’s success in terms of greatness and that percentage may be on the low-side. Great films have great writing – and it is really that simple. Take a look at the classic “Sunset Boulevard” which offers us a main character of a screenplay writer. Any job title could have been used to define the greatness and the potential downfall of American Cinema and the screenwriter was the tool of choice….brilliant!

The bottom line is that “Casablanca” simply does what any other marginal film does with the narrative. It is plot focused and remains linear through and through. This defines ‘dull’ and lacks creativity. Audiences want and crave more – so give it to them. “Casablanca” does not – and never will. Amongst them the fact that it is melodrama- driven by plot, not by character development. The characters simply react to everything that is said and their motivation is only a function of the last spoken. The film is a classic version of the domino effect shot in black and white.

Is the fact that the film takes place during wartime make it so terrific? If that is the case, then we must immediately turn our heads to the great war films of all time – and that list could be quite long beginning with the likes of “Gone With The Wind” (a better romance set in war time), “All Quiet on The Western Front” then moving to “Paths of Glory” (Kubrick), Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and even “Platoon” or “The Deer Hunter”. These films are not plot driven – it is the motivation of the characters and the world around them that drives the plot. So, what really is the plot in “Casablanca?” What is the point of the film?

There are countless flaws with the film, and the film only deserves this type of critique as it remains very “average” on this critic’s rating scale. I could list 300 films that could take the place of this one on an all-time list and I bet that our reading audience could do the same.

Dooley Wilson as Sam

Casablanca” remains somewhat entertaining and is fun to visit from time to time and most of that is due to the notoriety that the film has received over the years. Perhaps the title track ‘As Time Goes By’ is the only area of the film that offers intrigue and a true memory. Still, this critic views the film “Casablanca” lacking originality, true purpose and vision. It has little effect on a shrewd and discriminating audience, and offers almost little in terms of personal growth and both artistic and cinematic value. Bogart and Bergman’s performances are also no better than what we have seen in their other films, and quite possibly worse. How often do we here the meaningless and juvenile line “Here’s looking at you, kid” in the film? It remains tiring and uninspiring.

Judge for yourselves CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT fans. I leave this portion now with my counterpart Jer and eagerly anticipate his reply.

JER: There is a lot to be said in the span of a few short paragraphs, J.C., but let me see if I can address each of the concerns and topics brought up.

To begin with, I am not a huge fan of CASABLANCA, but I have enjoyed it in the past and I could see myself watching it again very soon after I am done typing this up! I have come to respect the film for what it is over the years and that is what I am going to base my overviews on. For the reader, let me inform you of spoilers about the film, including the ending…proceed with caution…

Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine
The year is 1942 and the world is at war. The film takes place during the early part of the war in an unoccupied part of Africa. We are introduced to Rick Blaine (an immortalized role for actor Humphrey Bogart) who owns the hottest nightclub in Casablanca. The film, in my opinion, was an escape for war- occupied Americans having to deal with the harsh realities of the truth happening in their lives. Like many Americans in present day 2011, many had loved ones involved in the war during that time. To imagine a place that the Nazis had not taken over or stepped foot onto was a place of Zen.

The bubble is all too soon left to pop as Nazi Major Strasser steps into this little part of the world with his own suspicions. Underground Czech leader Victor Laszlo is detained by Strasser, when Rick discovers a passenger riding with Laszlo…his one- time love, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Rick is left to deal with many emotional thoughts, since she had left him in Paris… only to find out later that she had good reason to. 

Paul Henreid and Bergman as Victor & Ilsa
Spoiler: ‘Rick’s Café Americain’ worked as a front for many Europeans who were avoiding the Germans before heading towards America. The Café found a way to provide exit visas to people making their way out of the country…owned and operated by Rick himself. Rick is stricken with disbelief when he finds that Ilsa is now married to Victor, Rick still lends a hand to assist in their  escape…still hoping that her love for Rick would prevail. With Strasser on their tail, Rick gets the Laszlos off safely… it is here that Rick gives his famous speech to Ilsa to get on the plane and be with her husband since “we will always have Paris.” Rick is joined at the airport by Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) who invites him to join the Free French before more Germans arrive into Casablanca. As the fog roles in and the plane has taken off, it is at this classic moment that Rick turns to Renault with the final words, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Cheesy? Maybe…every cliché imaginable has been played and over- played in today’s world of cinema. Remember that the year of CASABLANCA’s release was 1942 and bare in mind that endings like this were unsuspecting and caused an emotional reaction when everyone hoped that Rick and Ilsa would reunite and ‘live happily ever after.’ This isn’t the way films like this are supposed to end. I think that its original approach to the storybook ending and flipping it around as it did, may have caused the rules of film- watching to change.

I can agree with JC, to a certain degree, about countless films that could have been listed before CASABLANCA in my list of favorites. The film carries a certain feel and mysticism about it. Perhaps it’s the exotic location of this hideaway in Africa… perhaps it’s the idea of romance and it being in the wrong place in the wrong time…or perhaps it’s the act of chivalry from Rick’s part to let his love, Ilsa, depart to safety with a man he can only hope will bring her joy and happiness in his own absence.

Contemporary films that have followed may have been better written, better acted and even better produced than CASABLANCA… there is no doubt about it. The key word, however, is contemporary. The newer films have re-written the way that films have been made. It would be completely unfair to compare the likes of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or PATHS OF GLORY with FULL METAL JACKET (both directed by Stanley Kubrick, I might add) so I believe that the same kind of level of unfairness might derive from comparing CASABLANCA to the likes of PLATOON, THE DEER HUNTER or APOCALYPSE NOW. Each of these films deserve the respect they demand for their continued greatness in storytelling, screenplay and production as much as CASABLANCA should receive its own…in its rightful placing on any film lover’s list.

JOHNNY CHAZZ: Some solid statements here Jer, and I can identify with a few of your angles on this. We do certainly have to keep in mind that it was released in 1942 and the emotional reaction caused by the film was formidable. Now, you mentioned the word "Cheesy"...my reply? "Yes" - and with conviction.

Still, romance and war as a genre was commonplace in film during this era and “Casablanca” was really nothing new. Mysticism? I think that only exists due in part to what we have been told growing up and how influenced some of us may have been by the idea that some movie-goers actually state that this was the greatest film ever.

Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Laszlo
The performances are marginal for the time period and for these actors and the script are common and dull to say the least. There were countless films where Ingrid Bergman offered better performances ("Murder on the Orient Express", "Gaslight", "Spellbound" and "Notorious" would be prime examples). Additionally, the script borders on 'juvenile' and is full of one-liners to support it. Neither character seems believable in the film even though they are almost both cast as "heroes" per se, completely taking away from the film's realism. Simply put, the film was dummied-down for audiences - it was predictable, simply-written, the sets look like cardboard and the film (oh, excuse me....the movie) lacked any cinematic technique that was commonplace in virtually every other "outstanding film" at that time.
                                          Sam plays it again: "As Time Goes By"

Classic films (drama and war movies alike) that absolutely tower over Casablanca during that time period would include and most certainly would not be limited to: "Citizen Kane"; "All Quiet...."; "The Longest Day"; "Dr. Strangelove"; "The Third Man"; "Notorious"; "The Third Man"; "Bridge over River Kwai"; "Stage Door Canteen"; "The Best Years of Our Lives"; "Double Indemnity"; "Rebecca"; "It's a Wonderful Life" and "On The Waterfront".


In sum, "Casablanca" is pop-art in a sense. It lacks merit, is full of one-liners used to give it a spark and the performances are extremely dull. The point here being: Casablanca just does not live up to its hype and was very, very "common" for the time period and what we saw coming out of Hollywood. What is worse is how films today continue to copy and cliché the film over and over again. *** PICTURE POINTS: 6.5/10

Another blog topic is laid to rest with a return of JER’s turn coming at ya… as always we hope to SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!

Have you visited the official CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT page on YOUTUBE? Check out classic and contemporary trailers, scenes and other great trips down memory lane! Just click the link and check out the "Favorites" on our site! Enjoy!

2 comments:

  1. I agree that the film isn't the best film out there. Like Jer said, the film had great impact during it's time and made people feel it was a great film and that sentiment has carried over to younger generations. Kind of like grandma's pot roast recipe. It may not be the best, but it's grandma's, so it is. I don't see anything wrong with it being in a persons top 100 or even top 10. There are many films you both have recommended that I wouldn't put in my top 500. Sentiment has to be considered. Example...I would rate the book Pride and Prejudice in my top 5 and yet I wouldn't even think of putting The Catcher in the Rye in my top 100. Many of us watch and cherish movies (and books) for how they make us feel and what kind of impact it had on us when we watched it. I thoroughly enjoyed this weeks topic. It's my favorite by Johnny so far. Keep up the great work!!

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  2. Thank you for sharing with us! We want to always keep our readers thinking and listening to all opinions from everyone. Whatever opinions you want to listen to and follow would be the individual choice...doesn't mean we are always right or wrong! thanks again

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