TAKE TWO: Bucket List Films
by Bruce Kirkland
In my 36 years as a film critic, and in the months since retiring from that joyous, if not tumultuous, career at The Toronto Sun, I have repeatedly been asked one question, with two major variations: “What is my favourite film?” and “What is the best film I’ve ever seen?”
Neither version is answerable, at least without caveats, context and waffling. So I am now launching an occasional series in Active Life – films that everyone who loves cinema should have on their bucket list. Watch them at least once, or maybe 100 times if you have the inclination. The titles I have in mind will endure, indefinitely.
My first bucket list entry is neither my favourite, nor near the best ever. However, Casablanca is so damned lovable, so impossibly satisfying, so slyly romantic, so morally fascinating and so mythological that it defies its own limitations and the ravages of time. It is a World War II suspense thriller made hurriedly and haphazardly in Hollywood in 1942. It is set in the Moroccan city during December of 1941, when Morocco was still an uneasy French colony ruled by the anti-semitic Vichy government.
The Holocaust, specifically, and the war refugee issue in general, are both critical undertones, with profound resonance. Some of the support actors (such as Peter Lorre), as well as almost all of the extras were refugees themselves, including many Jews. Thus, it is no accident that the scenes in Rick’s Café Américain are emotionally supercharged, in particular the famous anthem battle. German Nazis, led by Conrad Veidt’s odious Major Strasser, belt out their anti-French, patriotic song Die Wacht am Rhein, only to be drowned out bythe upwelling of the French anthem, La Marseillaise, begun by Paul Henried’s resistance leader Victor Laszlo.
Meanwhile, the romantic themes are pure melodrama. But it’s still cool to see Humphrey Bogart blossom in his first truly romantic lead role as the mysterious American ex-pat Rick Blaine. Initially, his performance is steeped in bitterness after being jilted during a Paris liaison; then he gradually turns selfless after Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund suddenly shows up again, with her heroic husband Victor.
A tease – do Rick and Ilsa share a bed once again? Cloying censorship forced director Michael Curtiz to eliminate direct references, leaving only innuendo. I still regret, in my one interview with Ingrid Bergman, that I failed to ask about Casablanca, about Bogie, about that sexual innuendo, and about her obsession with being filmed from the left side.
The film remains visually arresting for Arthur Edeson’s original black-and-white; for the now adorable cheap special effects (including the model airplane at the end); for the wonky lighting effects (airport lights illogically strafe Rick’s front door); for the performances that produced such memorable, if often misquoted dialogue, “Play it, Sam, play As Time Goes By“; for its complex sociopolitical subtext; and for the seat-of-the-pants denouement showing Rick walking off with the Vichy French police official, Claude Rains’ wonderfully contradictory Louis Renault. It really was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
|Bruce Kirkland’s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.
A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.