Wednesday, 24 March 2010
"Here's looking at you kid," says Rick Blaine as he raises a toast to Ilsa, his love. Humphrey Bogart mouths this famous line four times in the two-hour drama and each time his eyes are as earnest as his tone romantic. The intensity of emotions and raw appeal turns me wobbly in the knees. And I feel, where have all these MEN gone?
It is not for nothing that Casablanca is said to be the best Hollywood film of all times. But, you have to let it grow on you. I admit, with utmost humility, that the 1943 classic didn't quite impress me the first time. However, I am too much of a moviebuff to back out. I took it up as a challenge to discover why at all is the Michael Curtiz film considered a cinematic spendour? And, I sat down to watch, and rewatch it. Result? Revelation and surprise at every step. Realisation dawned that the film has layers, you have to negotiate through them to fall in love with it. And what a journey it has been!!!
Let's not delve into the political backdrop. We, film lovers I mean, know that the film is a love story set during the Second World War in Casablanca, the French part of Morocco. Casablanca being the exit point to America, the promised land for all refugees who have incurred the wrath of the Nazis, is a plateau full of tension. Amidst the disturbances we are taken to Rick's Cafe Americain, a joint with plenty of music and cards (illegal gambling), transit deals and passing of secret information. Till this point the movie looks like any other war thriller where plans are divulged and enemies are nabbed with the help of spies. Even the opening strain sounds like the music apt for a Greek war drama. But sit tight...
Everyone in the cafe wants Rick's company, a high ranking bank officer, high society ladies and even Louis, the Nazi general. Expectation is heightened by the tantalising insights into Rick's persona. And then you see him...well not exactly, but his hand!!! The camera lifts to reveal the star of the show, Rick Blaine. And I gasp.
No, Bogart is not your Gregory Peck or Clark Gable (deadly good looks according to me) but he floors with his confidence, his commanding demeanour and his edgy tongue. He is as natty in a dinner jacket as attractive in an overcoat. I recall the sequence where he shrugs of a young lady's romantic overtures without even slightly regretting it. The woman pleads, drools, but Rick "doesn't care about the ladies." His swagger is weakening and yes, the way his cigarette dangles from his lip...inexplicable!!! He is dashing, smart and sexy. He has his way in every situation and incidents reveal that he can bail anyone out from a tough situation but he "sticks his neck out for nobody." But there is always a first time.
The entrance of the lady is sudden, with no flourish absolutely. That makes it even more remarkable. Ilsa, a role tailormade for Ingrid Bergman, walks in to the gin joint with Victor Laszlo, who is later revealed to be her husband. It is through the quizzical expression of Sam, the musician, that we realise that there is more to Ilsa than meets the eye. She requests Sam to play an old song and Rick dashes out to stop him. He sees Ilsa and turns pale...with bitterness and disgust. But the street smart guy that he is, he does small talk with Ilsa, who looks up to him with a rush of emotions. But Rick is not bothered. Once bitten twice shy...
Rick is nursing a wound and will not be vulnerable anymore but his head is woozing with questions. He gets drunk and babbles away to Sam. In a short flashback we see the reason as to why he is angry with Ilsa, the Paris days when he loved her, the joyous time they spent together and the promises they made to each other before things went awry. When a beautiful Ilsa, with eyes that bore deep into Rick's soul, says, "Kiss me Rick. Kiss me as if it were the last time," it's obvious that this film is bound to go down in movie history. Her appeal though, is a premonition of bad times. Amidst the passion you sense a disturbance, a nervous strain that doesn't let you enjoy the lovers' proximity. It is kind of unsettling. And then...
Cut to the present, Ilsa makes a request to Rick, but he is reluctant, apprehensive. He misunderstands Ilsa but we are hopeful. Events unfold fast enough for the ex-lovers to meet again. It is then that she tells him why she left him in the lurch. Now she wants him to help her husband, a Czech Resistance leader, escape from the claws of the Third Reich. But she professes, "You know I loved you Rick and I still love you." And with that she melts into his arms and the hero, always in command, holds on tightly. God, can romance get any better???
All scores settled, Rick has his woman now and though he is politically neutral, he will help Victor. The script is clear. Rick and the Nazis, namely Louis, play a cat and mouse game and we are slowly edging towards denouement. But not so easy...Appearances can be deceptive.
Casablanca is a taut, thrilling romantic drama full of punchlines and crackling potshots at the Nazi regime. A sample: When Louis orders the indefinite closure of the cafe on charges of illegal gambling, he is stopped short by the casino attendant who hands him the money he has won via the same means in the cafe itself. Louis pockets the money straighfacedly and walks off. We chuckle. There are more such winners.
But the movie rules because of the rawness of passion exhibited by Rick and Ilsa. Bogart and Bergman are stupendous and very convincing. He is like a whiplash and she is smouldering. Her eyes are windows to her soul that is in turmoil. In fact, years later when she plays the resourceful nurse in Cactus Flower, you still spot the remnants of that magic, though a much watered-down version.
If you are a sucker for romance, go see the film. If you like thrillers, go see the film. If you love mush, there can be nothing better than this masterpiece. And if these reasons are not enough, simply see it for the lead pair and the plot. And yes, the one liners. After coming across Ilsa at his cafe for the first time, a despondent lovesick Rick mutters: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine!" Sublime, I say.