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No. 2 (tie): “Casablanca” (1942)

“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
~~Rick Blaine

“Casablanca” is remembered as the motion picture industry’s happiest accidental success, and there’s much evidence to suggest the film deserves that reputation. This was a motion picture of meager ambitions: tight budget, hastily scribbled lines, an ending even leading lady Ingrid Bergman didn’t know until the last moment. It should have been a fiasco.Yet in a display of jaw-dropping magic, these elements combined to create a sly, wistful, sizzling romantic drama and one of the greatest films ever made.

Surely there are scads of essays and reviews to support this claim, but it’s better to speak from the heart. And “Casablanca” reminds this heart why directors keep making motion pictures: because they create worlds outside our own, with characters with hurts and longings that mirror our own yet seem so much bigger. We have room to explore all our feelings in these worlds. “Casablanca” reminds this heart why people love movies: because a cherished few take us on journeys we don’t want to come back from. “Casablanca,” adapted from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” takes us on such a trip, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman leading the way. The film captivates so partly because of their talent and their palpable chemistry; they don’t make onscreen pairings like this anymore. They don’t make leading men like Bogart anymore, either, actors who exude charm and crack wise while hinting at emotional damage that’s nearly beyond repair. When Bogart bites into lines like “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he doesn’t leave a crumb behind.

Thus, Bogart is a fine choice to lead the A-list cast of “Casablanca.” Bogart is Rick Blaine, a scornful merican expatriate living in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. Rick runs Café Américain, the local watering hole with a back room for gambling, and his ever-so-slight nods determine who sees that back room. His café is home of sorts for the downtrodden and the ones who trampled on them: Nazi officials like Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a member of the German army, and self-serving local police captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains); underhanded wheeler-dealers like Signor Ferrari (first-rate character actor Sydney Greenstreet) and small-time crook Ugarte (Lorre, always a delight), who stole coveted letters of transit — a free pass from German-run Europe to Portugal to the U.S. — from two murdered couriers; and refugees hoping to get to America. Rick welcomes them all, but he’s loathe to take up any cause that doesn’t benefit him … until Ilsa Lund (Bergman), the woman who burned him, turns up at the café wanting papers for herself and her husband Victor (Paul Henreid). This is the one thing that flaps the seemingly unflappable Rick: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Bogart’s weary, wry delivery of that famous line remains unmatched. It also suggests Ilsa’s reappearance is about so much more than letters of transit.

So many iconic lines are there in “Casablanca” that the movie nabbed six of the 100 spots in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movie Quotes.”  There must have been a cap to let other films in, for nearly every snippet of dialogue is exquisite enough to deserve a spot. Every line has a purpose. Unearthing old hurts or covering them up. Generating intimacy or backing away from it. Kowtowing to German authority or subverting it. “Casablanca” is one of the rare films with a script where every line feels deliberate and faultlessly placed. Arthur Edeson’s cinematography offers stunning backlighting for a script like this, with his palette of blacks and grays surrounding Bogart — the lighting in Bogart’s drunken scene with pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) is masterful — and special lighting used to envelope Bergman in a hazy cloud. Details like this do more than set the mood; they provide a look for the characters that is potently unforgettable.

The performances, too, are the kind that don’t fade. Bergman’s Ilsa is innocent  and yet has seen too much, sagged under the weight of the mistakes she’s made. Her beauty is ethereal, undeniable, but it’s her spirit and her will, dented though not broken, that beguiles us. She’s bewitching, and still she finds her match in Bogart, an actor renowned for his ability to play cynics ready with a quip and a cigarette. He deserves more attention for what he can do with his face, at once handsome and remote and amazingly expressive. Every time he says “here’s looking at you, kid,” those eyes make it different. Just as every time we see “Casablanca” it is different. It is never less incredible.

(Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait 10+ years to watch “Casablanca” again, discover it’s awesome and have to revise your Top 100 list. Again.)

Review: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a consummate gumshoe. He has the ability to spot a liar from a mile away, and he knows he’s found one when Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) saunters through his door. He pegs her as trouble on a pair of stunning gams, but he cares more about her $200 than her honesty. In truth, her lies are what hold his interest. When she confesses her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and claims she’s done things “worse than you could know,” he doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” Good thing he doesn’t charge extra for the witty rejoinders.

Sam’s unflappability and lack of warmth make him something of an anomaly as a “good guy” in John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Bogart churns out quips like an assembly line, and while they’re canny or downright comical they serve a greater purpose: to create distance between Sam and everyone else. He wants things on an even keel, and emotions have a way of mucking up the peace. So he’s an off-putting choice for a traditional hero. Then again, there’s not much about “The Maltese Falcon” that plays by any cinematic rulebook. If anything, Huston’s taken the book, ripped it to shreds and then written a new one. Huston’s noir film, based on Dashiell Hammett’s thorny detective novel, was a game-changer. Whether “The Maltese Falcon” is the first noir film is up for debate, but there’s no denying the movie’s impact on Hollywood. Few noir films since have boasted ensemble casts or cinematography this good, femme fatales as slinky and devastating as Astor or leading men as exquisitely droll as Bogart. This was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of directing, writing, filming and acting.

“The Maltese Falcon” would lose immeasurable impact if Bogart were even one inch off in his timing and delivery. He isn’t. From the minute Sam Spade appears onscreen, Bogart makes it plain he’s a hard nut to crack. He barely has to say anything; just the sight of him behind that desk, cigarette smoke swirling, is enough. Along comes Brigid and the drama begins. She wants Sam and his partner Miles (Jerome Cowan) to find the dangerous man who has kidnapped her sister and taken her to San Francisco. Miles tails the would-be kidnapper and ends up with a bullet in him. When his widow (Gladys George) shows up, Sam wastes no time putting the moves on her … something he started doing long before Miles died. But despite his lack of compassion, Sam has principles, and they dictate that he find the man who killed his partner. The investigation will prove rocky because of Brigid’s sheer inability to tell the truth. She has many faces that she counts on to fool everyone, since most fall for her knockout looks. Sam’s immunity to her charms is the one thing she didn’t count on.

And so “The Maltese Falcon” starts unspooling. Every lie is followed by another, and more unsavory characters appear: “dandy” Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); the ominous Frank “Fat Man” Gutman (a pitch-perfect Sydney Greenstreet); and Wilmer “Little Boy” Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.), Frank’s flunky. The only commonality is their desire to find the Maltese Falcon, a mysterious and priceless artifact. Convoluted as it is, the plot, ultimately, isn’t the point, just like the falcon statuette isn’t the point. These are merely devices to lead all these characters to the same place: the unavoidable showdown. It’s coming and we know it, but those final 20 minutes are thrilling to behold, a showcase of fine acting. Greenstreet, in his first film, exudes a quiet menace that catches us by surprise (particularly in the scene, so subtly filmed and acted, where he drugs Sam; in the end, he still seems kinder than Sam. Lorre kicks in the comic relief, and Astor is a tempest of an actress (a precursor for Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois), whirling from sobs to doe-eyed swoons with alarming speed.

Still, all roads lead back to Bogart. He’s tough, diamond-hard at the edges, yet lets us see that somewhere deep in there, there’s a reason for all of it. That he won’t reveal the “why” makes his performance all the more powerful. It’s the stuff Oscars are made of.

Grade: A