AFI #3: Casablanca

casablanca_movie_poster“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

These lines uttered by Rick Blaine set into action events that change the lives of several unsuspecting people who find themselves in Casablanca at the onset of World War II. When you think about it, it’s not much of a plot and it takes place over the course of just a few days…nevertheless Casablanca went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and become one of the most beloved films of all time. A great many films have been about more important subjects and featured far better performances, but there is something about Casablanca that resonates with so many film goers.

It’s certainly a great love story. Rick and Ilsa fall madly in love in Paris but as the Germans roll in she leaves him standing at the train station in the rain. Why? Because the heroic husband she thought long dead has turned up alive. Upon running into each other again in Casablanca, she is torn by her feelings for Rick and her allegiance and love for her husband. At the same time, Rick finds himself questioning everything he believes in, and while he is heartbroken by the loss of Ilsa he knows the choices he must make are far greater than he. Yes, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

It’s also a war movie, and World War II to boot. You have French patriots and Vichy sympathizers and Nazis, who always account for a great war picture! There is a mysterious American and hero of the underground. There are the profiteers like the unfortunate Ugarte and bar owner Signor Ferrari. You have the dueling national anthems. You have the intrigue of the passage to Lisbon and the murder of the German couriers.

But for me what sets Casablanca apart and what lands it not just at #3 on the AFI list but also among my personal top 10 is the brilliance of the screenplay. I know what you’re thinking…of course he likes the words, he’s a writer. But I submit to you that Casablanca is so great because it consists of some of the greatest dialogue ever performed on the silver screen. The wonderful words begin at the very start and continue unabated until the final line of the film. Yes, Casablanca is one of the most quotable films ever, but the dialogue is special even beyond those nuggets. But just for sheer fun, here’s what everyone remembers:

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” — Captain Renault

“We’ll always have Paris.” — Rick

“Here’s looking at you kid.” — Rick

“Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes By.” — Ilsa

“Round up the usual suspects.” — Captain Renault

“I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” — Rick

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” — Rick

But it’s not just these iconic lines. Every bit of dialogue is brilliant. Here’s a particular favorite of mine:

Renault: I’ve often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.

Rick: It’s a combination of all three.

Renault: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

And yes, the performances are enduring. Can you think of Humphrey Bogart and not think of Rick? No matter the great performances, Claude Rains will always be Captain Louie Renault. Ingrid Bergman won three acting Oscars…remember for what films? She was not even nominated for Casablanca. It doesn’t matter, she’ll always be Ilsa Lund.

Casablanca is 102 minutes of movie perfection.

Next: The Godfather

AFI #31: The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is surely one of the greatest American movie stars — and I say movie star because he’s not much of an actor now is he? He’s the classic case of a guy who plays himself on screen and we love him for that, but acting isn’t his strong suit. He was nominated for an Oscar three times in his long career, but won only once late in his life for The African Queen. The AFI definitely loves Bogart as he is the star of four of the films in the Top 100. I say this because I really don’t think The Maltese Falcon is a great film — but it’s a great vehicle for Bogart and because of Bogart and the rest of the cast the film is considered a classic. And I for one love it.

The Maltese Falcon has always had a special place in my heart because, and I know this is stupid, but it’s the only film that has a character named Gutman! Sydney Greenstreet is Kasper Gutman, better known as the fat man. I suppose this is common place for you if your name is Smith or Jones, but it’s always been a point of pride for me. But the real reason I love the film is that it’s classic Bogie. As Sam Spade Bogart plays a tough and smart private dick who uncovers a plot to acquire an ancient jeweled bird potentially worth millions. Spade plays his cards close to the vest as the plot advances until the wonderful ending where he nicely wraps up all the details and even sends the beautiful Miss O’Shaughnessey “over” for the murder of his partner. And he closes the film with one of his most classic lines when the detective asks Spade what the bird is — “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of” he says. Classic.

Some other great Bogart lines from the film:

  • “We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy. We believed your 200 dollars.”
  • “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”
  • “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”
  • “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.”

I’ve never read the novel so I don’t know if these and the other great lines are thanks to director John Huston or novelist Dashiell Hammett, but either way the film is full of great lines. And it’s also full of wonderful secondary performances by Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor whose over-the-top performance as Miss O’Shaughnessey is priceless.

Next: Apocalypse Now

AFI #38: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

It’s funny to me that such a great Western with so many memorable moments and themes is best remembered for a line that really was just a throw in to the plot. But you remember the line, even if you think it’s from Blazing Saddles. “Badges? We don’t need no badges. We don’t have to show you any stinking badges!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a great Western, even though it takes place on Mexico which isn’t exactly Texas. It’s a story as old as time with a theme around what greed can do to a man when he’s desperate. Ironically it’s the same theme of director John Huston’s first great film, The Maltese Falcon. Like the famous Bogart line in that film, when Bogie is asked what the falcon is and he replies “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.” So too is gold, the stuff that dreams are made of in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s the story of down and out Fred C. Dobbs, who finds himself in Mexico scraping by on borrowed pesos. When Dobbs meets Curtin, another American in the same situation, the two uncover a “dream” in a tale of gold told by old timer Howard. Together the threesome set off on an ill-fated adventure to dig for gold in the Mexican mountains where they fight bandits and fight each other for control of the stake.

But really the theme of Treasure is greed, and how different men react to the potential for riches. Howard and Curtin seem to have a good attitude about the strike, happy to take enough out of the ground to ride off rich. But Dobbs wants more, and then his mind starts to run away from him with bouts of paranoia and fear that ultimately lead to his demise. Humphrey Bogart plays Dobbs and he’s a nasty little bugger who is definitely hard to like. While Curtin and Howard seem like decent guys, Dobbs thinks the world is out to get him and at the same time he deserves the riches coming to him. It’s a different role for Bogart, playing the loser if you will. Dobbs is pretty much the opposite of Casablanca’s Rick Blaine. It says a lot about his acting abilities frankly…the viewer really doesn’t like Dobbs!

Treasure is really Walter Huston’s masterpiece though. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Howard, who is a little bit crazy but just sane enough to keep things honest, have a good perspective and stay alive. He also seems to understand the power that riches can bring and the trouble that greed can bring, likely because he’s experienced it all before. The old timer steals the film and is as lovable a character as you’ll find in a film. Huston is an under the radar actor who was nominated for three other Best Actor Oscars! But Howard is his triumph and a role for history. Kudos as well to the great Director John Huston, who delivered so many great films over his career.

Treasure is one of seven “Westerns” on the AFI list and only The Searchers and High Noon come in higher on the list. That being said, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the best Western ever in my book. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre definitely belongs among the greats.

Next: The Best Years of Our Lives

AFI #65: The African Queen

Humphrey Bogart may be the most well-known and revered actor in American film history, but in his illustrious career he only won one Academy Award. Some might say he was a “popular” actor but not necessarily a great actor — to them I say phooey! He starred in one of my top 10 favorite films of all time — Casablanca — and his portrayal of Rick Blaine has been immortalized. Throw in memorable roles in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo…and on and on…he is one of the greatest actors ever. It seems strange then that he finally won an Oscar for playing a drunk and none too bright boat captain in The African Queen, made just a few years before his early death at age 58.

For co-star Katharine Hepburn, her portrayal as the tightly wound church spinster Rose Sayer was one of her least rewarded roles, having won four Best Actress Oscars in her career (On Golden Pond, The Lion in Winter, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Morning Glory). She did get nominated for The African Queen but lost the Best Actress nod to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. By the way, for my money Ms. Hepburn was never better than in The Philadelphia Story, another of my all-time top 10 favorites.

For me The African Queen is simply a vehicle for the two greatest actors of their generation. To be honest, if the film starred anyone else it wouldn’t have made the cut. It’s a bit corny and unbelievable and both Bogart and Hepburn are past their respective primes. But it’s Bogie and Hepburn so you have to forgive the silly plot and the ridiculous love story. What makes the film great is the play between the two icons — they each play over-the-top characters and together they make the film worthwhile. In fact, there are very few scenes in the film that are not simply Bogart and Hepburn together.  There are only nine other actors credited for acting in the film! The rest are African extras.

Next: Network