Today I am releasing the third ranked film in my list of top five films of all time. I would say that this is the last of the classic movies on this list, but when you realize that your newest film on the list has somehow reached the age of 22, you start to feel old. Then again, as I have movies from as far back as 1939 what does that make me? (Yes, it makes me a TCM addict. Or an AMC addict from those bygone days before zombies and creepy lawyers took over the station.) I will say that this is the last of the films on my list from the heyday of the Hollywood system, where actors were merely cattle, or so Alfred Hitchcock would have liked them to be. They were groomed and fashioned by studio heads in “B” pictures and then eventually groomed for top billing at a cinema near you. This is my review of one of those classic Hollywood efforts.
I am again stealing from myself and adding on commentary to the criticism. It’s like I have a second chance to look at my writing and edit it. But instead of editing it I get to laugh along with you at my previous effort. This is so much easier than the time and effort that would be spent editing this. And after years as an English teacher and students complaining about the blood that I was dripping all over their papers (contrary to popular opinion, teachers are not vampires and don’t put blood on papers), I felt it odd that I would go back and put red ink all over my own. So I am having a little fun with my previous effort and I hope you do as well.
And without much further ado, I introduce you to my third ranked film of all time.
Day 3 – Casablanca
“You must remember this. A Kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply as time goes by. And when true lovers woo, they still say I love you. On that you can rely. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.” With just a few bars in a chorus, everyone can be taken back to Rick’s Cantina in the middle of Casablanca. (Or in my case, to a couch while I was sick in the 9th grade when I was staying home from school.) Casablanca is an indelible part of the American movie landscape. There are so many different ways I could go about reviewing the film, and why it fits on my top five movies of all time. But let’s take a little side trip to understand why I rate the films on my list as the top five of all time. (Because I am explaining myself, and then explaining myself again. Maybe I should have written a treatise about top five movies and then just reviewed them straight up. Hmmmmm….)
Top Five Criterion
What does it mean to have a top five of anything? And what does a top five mean to you, or to me for that matter. (I am explaining what it means to me right now. So pondering what it means to you, I’m not sure what I was thinking.) I remember sitting in on a date recently (as if somehow I was observing my own date from some obscure location. Me and my disembodied spirit.), and the person informed me that while she had a top five favorite movies, there was a movie that was not on the list that she would watch more often than any other. She loved The Big Lebowski. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a big Joel and Ethan Coen fan and love the movie, even going so far as to become a dudeist priest, because, you know, it tied the room together, or something like that. But I would never have considered it among my top 5 movies of all time. (Let me think about that again. Nope! Still not a top five.) And she didn’t put it up their either, but she watched it all the time. She loved it. So given that I have been relating what my top five films are, I will get a bit into the criteria weeds for what my own top 5 is before continuing on. (In other words, skip the next four paragraphs if you don’t want to fall asleep. What in the world was I thinking???)
Choosing a top five means to me several things. Obviously, it would have to be one of my favorite movies to watch. In this instance, I would have to say that Big Lebowski might rank higher than say Citizen Kane. Which I am sure many people would feel like is a travesty. (For you film critics out there rolling your eyes, I see you. I definitely see you.) But seriously, other than for film study about technique and storytelling, would you really sit down and say it is one of those pleasurable films that you could watch time and again? Maybe some critics could. I am not among them. (Rosebud! Rosebud?!? A stupid sled?!?!) I believe that you have to enjoy the piece that you are watching to place it in your top five. (Unless you are a masochist. Then carry on.) This doesn’t mean that I place entertainment value above message or impact. It just means that I consider it along with those when determining greatness. (Ok maybe I do edit this slightly. There were two sentences here that I couldn’t even comprehend.)
Great films must be timeless in some way. This, unfortunately, tends to eliminate most films in the comedy scope, unless the comedies are timeless. This is a reason why Buster Keaton’s films, while maybe not as popular as Chaplain’s films at the time, tend to wear better than many of the contemporary comics of his day. Physical comedy almost always wears better over time than particular sketches. (I never considered wearing a movie before. Somehow I’m not sure my arms would go through the holes in the sides of the film.) Most comic sketches, that are funny to this day, deal with issues that focus on the human condition in general, and not on anything specifically. This is why it becomes really hard for a comedy movie to make a best of anything list, other than a list of comedy movies. (For all you comics out there, you can string me up with rope later.) Postmodern comedies and Black Comedies are another thing altogether, because they make fun of the human condition. Those do make me laugh, but the impact it makes on me doesn’t last past the length of the film. Great films must be good ten years later. It must be good thirty years later (even though some films on the list are not that old. They are getting older every day).
Aside from being enjoyable and timeless, a film must move me in some way. (This does not mean move me to vomit, or to run screaming from the theater) I do not have to be crying by the end of the film, although certainly some of the top films have moved me to tears. I do not have to be laughing hysterically throughout the film, although that might help. What this does mean is that it has to provoke some sort of emotion in me. This emotion can be anything. (Well maybe not anything, as I have discussed earlier.) It can be disgust, anger, fear, happiness, tears, loss, abandonment, etc. But it has to provoke something within me. I need to be walking out of the film (preferably after the screen has faded to black), and the film has to stick with me. I cannot leave the film and two hours later barely imagine a scene or a line of dialogue (not that I am the quote king of film).
I can enjoy films like Independence Day, Jurassic Park, or the Avengers and will give them a good rating. But the film experience tends to be limited to the running time of the movie. For me, a top five film must go above and beyond the initial experience. A movie like Citizen Kane or a Lawrence of Arabia shines here. The movies are beyond fluff, and make a person think long after the film is over. (Or fear for the existence of humanity after watching Natural Born Killers.) It may even make one argue about the significance of a plot point, or the symbol of a particular set piece.
Casablanca : The Memorable Performances
These are but three in a myriad of ways to judge a film. But they are my three main criteria and what I use to judge movies. So how do I place Casablanca in the top 5 of all time? I begin with the acting and writing. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the classic every-man who has been wronged by a lost love. Ilsa, acted elegantly by Ingrid Bergman, plays the foreign woman who came along to soften the every-man’s heart until crushing it, leaving him lost in the cold cruel world of Nazis and Fascists during World War II. In a precursor to being dumped by text, or as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City would learn by Post-It Note, Rick is dumped by a letter, without explanation, and without the ability to respond. (For those of you with a heart . . . in person is the best way to dump a person. It sucks but it’s better than ghosting.) Of course this is all back story to Rick that we do not find out about until later.
The story begins with Rick, the night club owner who stands up for nothing and for no one. In one exchange with a German General the conversation goes:
“Maj. Heinrich Strasser: What is your nationality?
Rick Blaine: I’m a drunkard.
Capt. Louis Renault: That makes Rick a citizen of the world.”
Rick is a broken man who has decided to get out of the world the most he can get out of it. And he is going to make the best of a bad situation for himself, running a seedy, although profitable, night club in the city. He even takes advantage of a situation, where a gentleman who considers him a friend leaves him with letters of transit. This man has murdered and stolen to get them, but even after his capture, Rick keeps the letters, possibly profiting from them in the future as the German’s cannot find them.
Along comes Ilsa to gum up the works. She not only breaks back into Rick’s life without an explanation, she insists on bringing back to Rick all of the bad memories that he had before. It forces Rick to relive all of the pain that he has already suffered at the hands of her. She goes to the night club and forces his friend, Sam (Dooley Wilson), to play “As Time Goes By” on the piano. As soon as Rick hears this, he forces Sam to stop playing until he realizes who has made him play it. The emotions are clearly etched on Rick’s hardened face as it both destroys and softens his character at the same time.
Later that evening Rick forces Sam to play the music once again, believing that Elsa is going to show up, and convincing himself that he can take the torture just as she can. We end up reliving the painful memories that he has etched into his brain through a series of flashbacks at the high and low points of their brief relationship. And then she shows up, first to beg for the letters of transit, then to threaten him at gunpoint, before breaking down to reveal that she still loved him and why she had left him in the first place.
What is Rick going to do? Is he going to become a good guy and help them out? Is he going to help out Ilsa’s husband and keep Ilsa all for himself? Or is he going to abandon both of them just as he was abandoned in Paris? I could go into detail about all of these different things, but I think that would spoil the plot of the movie. (Because I haven’t told you half the plot already . . . right. I do not reveal the ending. Hey! It’s something.) And if you haven’t seen Casablanca yet, I think it is worth watching. (I am captain obvious. Because I actually think you should watch a top rated movie and not just stare at the box.)
The actors, aside from the main three, are a who’s who of Hollywood character actors. There is Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt and Paul Henried. They are foils or inspirations for Rick. There is Signor Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet), the businessman, who is in competition with Rick who sees Rick go against his own financial self-interest. There is General Strasser (Conrad Veidt) who is the German general who Rick should want to get along with in business, but who Rick ultimately challenges by allowing the French at the bar to engage in the singing of the French national anthem. There is Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), the corrupt French officer who Rick regularly buys off, exposing Rick to be less corrupt in the end, doing things for the benefit of others and not just for himself. (I am not sure exposing is the right word. Maybe finding.) This caricature of Rick we have at the beginning transforms to something completely different by the final credit sequence. (Because great films have static characters right? Maybe static non-leading characters?)
Casablanca : In Glorious Black and White
Aside from the brilliant acting and writing, there is the cinematography itself. While color was used in a wide array of films by that time, the Director and Cinematographer, Michael Curtiz, and Arthur Edeson decided to go with a dimly lit back and white backdrop. For anyone who thinks films should have been made in color and attempts to colorize such black and white classics, this film exemplifies the travesty of such a belief. (Yes, shame on you Mr. Turner!!!) First of all, we are introduced to Rick in a dingy, seedy nightclub where some high end clientele, but mostly seedy clientele, are permitted to drink, sometimes gamble, and often get into trouble. Making this in color would transform the place entirely. (What were you thinking when making Havana?? Really?!?)
Many of the outside activities in Casablanca are in back streets and alleys because these are the people that Rick is dealing with. Colorizing the prints would diminish those sequences as well. But there is just one shot, where Rick is sitting with a bottle and a shot glass, and you see the smoke from the cigarette wafting into the air, while the extreme pain and emotion are written on the contours of Rick’s face, that changing would ruin. If anyone tried to change that scene it would rip out the heart of the film. Here is a man who was broken by the world and living in the seediest of places. This cinematography perfectly highlights every wrinkle and every mark of pain that this man has had to endure in his life, and at the hands of Ilsa. Putting it in Technicolor would hide this pain. It is the moment where the man must confront the demons of his past. This cannot be told any other way. (Mic dropped!)
Casablanca : Cliché or Brilliance?
Aside from all of these things, who can forget all of the lines that we now consider to be cliché, originating in this one piece. “A penny for your thoughts.” “We’ll always have Paris.” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “Here’s looking at you kid.” “Louis, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” “Round up the usual suspects.” There are so many different lines that one cannot possibly forget that have ended up in other movies and other settings at different times. Casablanca has so many famous lines, people have even quoted lines that were not there. “Play it again Sam,” is not a line in Casablanca and yet it has gained worldwide fame (and a whole movie dedicated to it). That’s how timeless this piece is. People may call it cliché. But is it cliché? Or was it the beginning of the use of these lines in other films?
Casablanca : What Does Romance Mean?
(**more spoiler alert**) The heart of the movie is the romance between Rick and himself. This may sound strange. But truthfully, Rick has lost interest in caring for himself when his heart is broken by Ilsa in Paris; and he buries himself in the corner of the world to have his soul rot. Ilsa reawakens in him a love for all sorts of things, not just a love for her. It’s a love of country; it’s a love of things that are right in the world; it’s a love of human kind. Ultimately Rick discovers a love of himself that moves him into action. It’s a story of what real love should inspire in all of us. I will not say more; but if you haven’t seen the movie, you should go and see it for yourself. (If the first three times I have recommended this to you didn’t convince you, will this fourth time help?)
Why do I love Casablanca and why is it in my top five movies of all time? I love it for the lines. I love it for the Romance. I love it for the silly patriotism. I love it for the sensual cinematography. (Get your mind out of the gutter! It was released in 1942 and not 2002.) I love it because the acting is amazing, the roles are rich, and for the music that Sam plays on the piano. I love it because every time I want to be the one saying, “Play it Sam. Play it for old time’s sake.” I love Casablanca because ”the world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”
This Film is Perfectly Toasty (Because I would rate this film anything other than this, given my strange penchant for calling films toasty, as it’s on my top five list.)
*up next on the top 5 (and probably the one that will receive the most argument) – Gone with the Wind* (**spoiler alert** It’s my fourth rated film. Oh wait! I already put out that review. Oops!)
So this is the third review in my list of top five films of all time. Which, I suppose, makes this the hump day of film reviews, or something like that. You have made it over half way through a top five list, and you haven’t passed out on the floor yet. Congratulations! Or if you have passed out on the floor I hope you have an amazingly comfortable carpet to sleep on. (Hardwood floors just don’t do it for me and sleeping. We have a mutual non-aggression pact.) Hopefully you have been able to get a feel for how I look at films, or how I laugh at the way I look at films. I know some friends who feel like I should have gotten into film criticism. They felt like I should be a Roger Ebert of films. Well, for my taste there are too many Roger Eberts out there and not enough David Elliotts. (Wait . . . no. Please no more David Elliotts. I’m not looking for a clone. That might be scary.)
Despite wanting to create a blog that was quintessentially me, I love films, and couldn’t imagine not reviewing a few from time to time. These are some great movies, I believe, and for the most part I think that your children would be ok watching them, although they might get a little bit bored. There are plenty of classic Disney films to introduce your children to, but if you want them to get into classic cinema, it may be a bit more difficult. Ironically, I got into classic movies watching the Disney Channel. Yes, I am of that ancient race who remembers when the Disney Channel was classic Disney Movies, classic Disney cartoons, and classic films all the time. (Although one can debate whether or not Tron was a classic. They did make a sequel to it, and it had “The Dude” in it. So maybe . . . maybe. . . ) I grew to love classic movies through watching lots of the Disney Channel.
Knowing parents who love classic movies could use this, I will create a list of classic films to introduce to your children for them to grow to love classic movies. Because I don’t want another film like Schindler’s list to come along and make a new generation go around talking about the brilliant new art form of black and white cinema. I shudder at the thought. Please comment about what you like about this list, or anything else you like about the blog so far.
This is me signing off again.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life
Links to other reviews of top five.
Number 5 : Vertigo
Number 4 : Gone with the Wind
Number 2 : Glory
Number 1 : Shawshank Redemption