Monthly Archives: March 2013

Beyond the Usual Suspects

As everyone knows, Casablanca is an eminently quotable movie. Some of its lines—“Play it [again], Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris”—have permeated our cultural consciousness. I say “Round up,” you say “the usual suspects.” I say “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” and you know exactly which one she walks into. It is, if you’ll excuse the understatement, a well-written movie. So I figured, why not delve further into that rich screenplay and single out a few of its less oft-quoted lines? Below are five of my favorite moments from Casablanca.

I’m a drunkard.

This, in response to Major Strasser’s question “What is your nationality?” I’m a fan of this whole conversation, really. I love how Rick and Strasser lob quips back and forth over champagne and caviar, suggesting an atmosphere of bourgeois politeness belied by the contempt in both men’s voices. (Captain Renault steps between them, as always, with a dose of healthy good humor: “And that makes Rick a citizen of the world!”) This first answer, characteristic of the film’s dialogue, is double-edged: playful, a little expository, and a little melancholy too. Beneath this joke lies the painful truth that Rick’s a man without a country, a man who’s tried to blot out his every allegiance with alcohol. (By the way, I also love that spidery shadow on the wall behind Rick, courtesy of the huge lamps hanging throughout his café.)

I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.

The parallel structure gives this line a captivating rhythm. This is wistful storytelling with a dash of poetry—and humor too, given the incongruity of Ilsa’s dress next to the feldgrau Nazi uniforms. It’s so concise, distilling the agonies of wartime romance into a pair of opposed colors while priming us for Rick’s forthcoming flashback. Bogart delivers it all with a slouch, a restrained scowl, and as much bitterness as he can fit into his voice without being obvious about it. Whereas Ingrid Bergman is always lit for maximum glamour, the light on Bogart ensures that we see every scar and crease in his wounded face. He’s vulnerable in spite of himself. Rick keeps striking this pose of mild antagonism toward the rest of the world but you can tell here that his stoicism is breaking.

Mostly I remember the last one. The wow finish: a guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out.

We’re getting toward the bottom of the bottle with this third flavor of boozy self-pity. Although Casablanca is most remembered for its snappiest lines, the film has its share of monologues, too. Here Bogart rattles off his side of the story, bouncing through the words while near-invisibly tilting his head from side to side, then punctuating the speech with a swig of bourbon. This delivery as well as the dialogue’s wealth of prepositions (on, in, with, on) lend it an almost musical quality, which contrasts with the low, sour rumble of his voice. Not to mention the phrase “wow finish,” the kind of thing a screenwriter would say during a pitch meeting. All of these tonal wrinkles work together with the shot’s visual flair—its moody chiaroscuro, the smoke drifting up from the cigarette between Bogart’s fingers—to make what could’ve been a rote “guy bitching about past heartbreak” scene into something sly and artful.

I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here!

Although I’ve primarily been highlighting Rick’s best lines in Casablanca, I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite something from Claude Rains’ Captain Renault, who seems to communicate entirely in hilarious bon mots. (Like “I’m only a poor corrupt official,” for example, or “That [my heart] is my least vulnerable spot.”) Here he’s at his most sublimely hypocritical, and Rains really sells it with his too-imperious delivery. A riotous punchline follows (“Your winnings, sir!” / “Oh, thank you, very much”) but the line’s still unforgettable on its own, and especially quotable thanks to the doth-protest-too-much quality of that second “shocked.” It’s Renault’s slimy yet endearing personal philosophy summed up in a single ridiculous sentence.

If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it? That Rick’s making a sacrifice, that Ilsa’s facing a moral decision, and that the consequences of her decision will echo throughout the years to come. It’s just the two of them now, cloaked by fog, forced to finally resolve this love triangle. (A brilliantly crafted triangle, incidentally, that’s informed but never constrained by its wartime context.) Yet again, Bogart invests his dialogue with poetic meter, that bounce in his leathery voice. His every gift is bent toward persuading her to leave. Because while the act of letting go may be painful, it’s also cathartic, and by making the harder choice Rick’s gained a wisdom that lights up this line. This isn’t mere moralizing. It’s a rough-hewn love song in the form of a compromise.

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Didn’t She (Blow Your Mind This Time)

As soon as I learned that the subject of this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot” was Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), a thought struck me: “I’m probably going to choose an image of Pam Grier being a badass.” And here we are! The above is part of a rat-a-tat-tat shot sequence, timed down to the millisecond courtesy of Tarantino’s late editor Sally Menke. Jackie scans a list of tenants and dials the number for Bridget Fonda’s Melanie, whose voice snaps out of the intercom: “What?” Jackie retorts with her own name, as if reciting a password. That sharp delivery, the way she sidles up to the intercom during this roughly two-second shot… it’s become cliché to call Tarantino’s characters “cool,” but I don’t know another word that would fit her so well.

That coolness has a special power here, too, because Jackie Brown is by far the lowest-key of Tarantino’s movies. Although he’d already aestheticized the bullshit small talk of L.A.-area criminals in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, here that inclination toward the mundane is pushed even farther. Stylized dialogue and genre movie homage—the latter represented mostly by Grier’s mere presence—take a backseat to scenes of Jackie and bail bondsman Max Cherry doing business, killing time, and awkwardly getting to know one another. This is a very autumnal story, one that’s frank as can be about the ages of its stars, so moments of intense cool like this take on a new significance.

In light of the weariness that pervades Grier’s performance, right up through that heartbreaking lip-sync to “Across 110th Street” in the final scene, shots like this come to feel like anything but movie star posturing. This is Pam Grier: genuine badass. Her image is burnt into the composition, with her matching red nails and dress balanced against the muddy blue of the intercom. The shades suggest glamour, mystery, while the glint of her gold earring and the hair flowing out toward the edge of the frame put me in mind of classical sculpture. Jackie Brown may break down the iconography of Grier’s 1970s performances, but as she leans against that intercom you can see it rising stronger than ever before, phoenix-style, from the ashes.

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Go West

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) is a mouthful of a title, but it sets just the right expectations for Lev Kuleshov’s satirical adventure, which I wrote about over at Movie Mezzanine. It’s exactly the kind of zany fantasy travelogue that the title suggests, dropping an idiot westerner (Mr. West) and his faithful cowboy pal Jeddy into the silly, slapstick-heavy city of Moscow. There, West is terrorized and subjected to a series of elaborate con games by the sinister Zhban (played by Kuleshov’s peer Vsevolod Pudovkin) and his team of back alley grotesques. It’s all very, very funny and right on target when it comes to skewering American myopia. If only all Soviet propaganda were this much fun!

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Link Dump: #90

This week’s kitty is from The Sessions, a movie that doesn’t take many creative chances but is unusual by virtue of being about disability and sex. And now, a whole bunch of links:

And here are our recent search terms, which read like a window into some sad Google user’s erotic nightmares: “fat firl uteras pics,” “www.real-virgil-pussy-ukraine.com,” “she bends on her four ready for deflowring her stories.”

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Starting Over

John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) is a sci-fi movie with elements of horror, surrealism, realism, and pitch-black comedy. I wrote about it over at Movie Mezzanine. It’s a powerful film, due in part to that internal clash of tone and style. The story of “Tony Wilson” is a tragedy, an Orpheus-and-Eurydice tale of the doomed Tony gazing backward from beyond death. But the employees of the film’s incomprehensibly powerful company treat it like a mild bureaucratic snafu and speak of it with Kafkaesque good humor. They may never behave explicitly evil, feigning bedside manners even at the grisly end, but then that makes Seconds even more horrifying to watch. It reminds me of movies like The Game and Society: good, bad, up, down, every normative standard is turned on its head. The materialistic values that Arthur/Tony has lived by as long as he can remember? Meaningless now. He’s cut adrift, forced to wander these huge, intimidating residential and industrial spaces that could be anywhere but feel like nowhere. And as James Wong Howe’s disorienting photography makes perfectly clear, this isn’t just one man’s nightmare. It’s 1960s America’s.

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Beautiful Wickedness

Nothing much happens during “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Judy Garland leans against some hay, then walks, leans against this wheel, walks some more, then sits down. Five shots, about two and a half minutes, and that whole time we’re listening rather than watching because hers is the most wistful voice in all of human history. But minimalism or no, this shot is still surprisingly dense. It’s cut in half diagonally by Judy’s arms and by that wheel, whose arc across the frame guides our eyes toward the upper right—the same off-screen space Judy’s gazing at and singing about. Furthermore, the wheel gives her something sturdy to rely on as she sings her heart out, and its spokes work with the fence in the background to make her look especially imprisoned by Kansas farm life. But of course, like my favorite shot in Easter Parade, this is all about Judy’s eyes, and the sepia is even lightest around her head to accentuate them. Yes, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is this week’s pick for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and this is one of my three favorite images in the movie.

This is another of them, though about as far removed from Auntie Em’s farm as you could get. It’s a matte shot of the Wicked Witch’s castle that’s only onscreen for about two seconds, yet can have a colossal impact on the psyche of a child watching it. The Wizard of Oz overflows with marginal details that suggest sprawling, untold stories: What was the Witch of the East like? Where did the red brick road go? What exactly are the Winkies chanting, and why? Similarly, this shot suggests an impossibly tall fortress sprouting out of a chasm that threads its way around a mountain range, none of which ever actually existed. It’s just a single painting by the uncredited Warren Newcombe that nonetheless arouses the viewer’s curiosity and imagination, with reverberations that are tangible decades later in fantasies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. This shot is visual magic, expanding the film’s already epic scope. (Speaking of camera tricks, I was surprised to realize on this rewatch of Oz that several of my favorite shots involve lap dissolves.)

Finally, sticking to the Witch’s castle, here’s my favorite shot. I really love Margaret Hamilton’s somewhere-over-the-top performance in this movie, and although she’s facing away the camera right now, she’s still oh god so terrifying. Here she’s at the height of her magical authority, screaming “Fly! Fly!” and gesturing broadly to whole squadrons of her simian slaves. This is one woman giddy with unbridled power, using it to exact revenge for her sister’s death. Like that matte painting of the castle, this shot suggests a gray vastness beyond the Witch’s fingertips, but here it’s framed within a picture window. Here we’re privy to the Witch’s war room, whose foreground is dotted with objects—vulture statue, candle, crystal ball, gyroscope—that call to my mind Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. This shot is an intimate portrait of evil, the kind the Witch herself might hang on her wall, with the camera stationed on the inside and gazing out. It’s a vantage point scarier than any lion, tiger, or bear.

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Making History

On its surface, Frank Borzage’s History Is Made at Night (1937) has a lot in common with the urbane Depression-era comedies of, say, Mitchell Leisen or Ernst Lubitsch. A plot-inciting divorce, nighttime trips through Paris, stars Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur: they all suggests something frothy, snappy, and screwball. But the film, for all its laughter and champagne, has a darker edge than I expected. Whereas most such jet-setting romances involve false identities or class barrier transgressions, History is more an urgent matter of love vs. self-sacrifice. It is a comedy, but it’s also a movie where visual lyricism collides with bitter emotions.

The film’s unorthodox tone is most obviously signposted by Colin Clive (Dr. Frankenstein himself) and his febrile performance as Arthur’s would-be ex-husband. He’s obsessive, possessive, a shipping tycoon who treats his wife just like another ocean liner and will kill to keep her from getting away. Clive was never the most flexible actor—Karloff supplied nearly all of Frankenstein’s pathos, even under layers of makeup—but his one-note work fits well here, if only for contrast’s sake. As a paranoid mass of ego, he’s the night to Boyer’s day, with an “If I can’t have her, no one will” attitude that leads him to endanger thousands of lives… then take his own.

Meanwhile, his wife and her new French lover establish a relationship based on mutual pleasure. Arthur’s her usual earnestly American self, while no one’s more continental than Boyer, so they experience some mild culture clash. Boyer flirts via hand ventriloquism, making for an unexpected cameo by Señor Wences as his stand-in, and he engages in some comic business with his best friend, a chef played by Leo Carrillo. But the jokes, again, lie on the film’s surface. History Is Made at Night is really about the act of falling for someone, then doing everything you can to express your love for them.

That precise impulse splits the couple up, then leads them across the Atlantic Ocean before finally reuniting them on a ship bound for Paris. But this togetherness is short-lived. As they try to recreate the night they met, the film’s climax begins: a reprise of the Titanic disaster. So with the ocean threatening to swallow them up, Boyer and Arthur sit side by side on the ship’s deck, talking.

I wish I had known you so many years ago. You never really did finish telling me what you looked like, when you had braces all over your teeth…

I—I was awful. My hair was as straight as a stick and I was so shy. If anyone looked at me I’d run away. Did you always look like this? Your eyes?

The time allotted for any two people to spend together is finite. Desire is not. It’s a pain inherent to any romance yet acknowledged by so few movies. “Don’t be frightened,” murmurs Boyer. “We have nothing to fear anymore. Everything now seems so little, so unimportant.” With just a spare set, some fog, two actors, and a handful of dialogue, Borzage makes love seem the size of the cosmos.

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