Saturday, December 29, 2018

CASABLANCA (1942): Reviewing of a Classic Film

Assessing a film like Casablanca is a difficult task for movie critics.  It’s easy to go along with the other critics and applaud the film.  On the other hand, it’s too easy to label classic films such as this as quaint, overrated, melodramatic and dated.  Obviously, the reviewer is not doing their job by parroting what others say.  But to be fair, a reviewer does need to review such a film on its own terms – whether they praise or criticize the film.

Casablanca appeared right in the middle of World War II while the occupation of France actually took place.  It’s unusual for a film’s message to not completely miss its mark under such circumstances.  That we still watch this beloved phenomenon in 2018 indicates that the directors and producers exceeded their own expectations.

I doubt few people who have seen this movie over and over can imagine the lead parts played by anyone but Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  Bogart is the tough and cynical entrepreneur, Rick Blaine, and who everyone believes is apolitical at a time when it was almost impossible not to take sides.  Bergman plays Ilsa Lund, the beautiful wife of a legendary French resister, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid).  Not surprisingly, both the colorful Rick and colorless (but always virtuous and heroic) Victor love Ilsa almost to their detriment.

In one of those improbable plot twists that you either buy or let destroy the film-watching experience, Ilsa manages to love both men relatively innocently.  For in the flashback, when she has her love affair with Rick in Paris just prior to the Nazi invasion, she is under the belief that Victor died in a concentration camp.  Only right when the Nazis enter Paris does she discover otherwise.  This leaves Rick and his faithful Sam (Dooley Wilson) waiting for her at a train station only to find out she will not leave Paris with them.

Obviously, they meet again in the nation of Morocco on Vichy-controlled soil in the city of Casablanca.  Rick by now owns a successful bar.  Rick tries not to offend those residing in the city trying to avoid Nazi persecution.  He also does not want to offend the Gestapo presence who have the power to shut his bar down.  But though always pretending he will not take risks to assist anyone, Rick manages to scavenge up visas for Ilsa and Victor so that they can fly out of Casablanca and continue with their resistance work.  Rick does this against his own selfish desire to have Ilsa remain in Casablanca with him as the two are still in love with each other.  (As an aside, the Nazis could have arrested Victor at any time in Vichy territory without creating much of a stir.  Also, the visas supposedly signed by de Gaulle, himself, had no authority in Casablanca.  For what it’s worth.) 

Like Rick, also caught up between the evil and good forces is the other most important character in the move, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Raines), referred to by Rick throughout the film as Louie.  Louie must take the side of whoever happens to be in power in Casablanca at the time (and in this case the Nazis) or risk losing his life.  Much more than Rick, Louie is an opportunist.  Yet like Rick, in the end, Louie takes the side of the good by helping make certain Victor and Ilsa can escape, and by helping Rick escape punishment for aiding the fleeing couple. 

Raines, by the way, probably performs the best acting in the film only because his role is more understated.  Bogart gets to utter all the ham-handed and memorable lines in the film.  (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”  “I stick my neck out for nobody.”  “Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but 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.”  And “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”)   Ingrid Bergman gets to shed a beautiful tear at all of the best moments.  It is the job of Raines to not overact and bring some measure of balance and humor to the film.

Music plays an important part in the film.  Sam must again and again play on the piano As Time Goes By as the two leads request him to also sing the song.  Victor directs the band at Rick’s bar to play La Marseillaise while Nazi officers on the opposite side are trying to sing the German tune The Watch on the Rhine. 

There are a number of legends concerning this film.  Allegedly, neither Berman nor Bogart liked the script or the dialogue.  Bergman was in fact taller than Bogart, so Bogart likely wore platform shoes.  Purportedly, many of the characters singing La Marseillaise were actually individuals fleeing Nazi persecution.  And supposedly, the script went through revisions day to day while filming took place.

Short by today’s standards, the film was 102 minutes long.  Other great actors played minor roles in the movie including Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.  And while directing the more than 170 films in his 50-year career as a director, movie watchers will always remember Michael Curtiz best for directing this Hollywood film.

No one would talk about the making of this film, its discrepancies and even controversies in such detail without understanding this was a classic movie.  With the possible exceptions of Gone With the Wind, and possibly Citizen Kane, there’s more commentary on Casablanca than any other film.  It is still watchable and capable of captivating its audience.  Importantly, we still remember the story and its characters more than 75 years after filming.  We want Rick to succeed, and we wish he could remain with his Ilsa – despite knowing in advance that the two cannot remain together.

December 29, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

HALLOWEEN (1978): Early Low Budget Slasher Film

Forty years later, one of this film’s sequels is setting box office records.  Yet the original Halloween cost only $300,000 (though $300,000 meant a lot more at that time), and had a running time of only 93 minutes.  It was also the start of a long film career by Jamie Lee Curtis, cast in the lead victim role as Laurie.  Yet Laurie survived all of the mayhem.

We never figure out in that early film why Michael Myers in his Halloween mask so much wants Laurie dead.  Even Dr. Loomis, the intrepid psychiatrist played so adeptly by Donald Pleasance, can’t ever figure the serial killer out.  All Loomis knows is that Michael Myers should never go free.

Michael ended up in a psychiatric ward when only six-years-old after stabbing his sister, Judith, to death.  Fifteen years later, when Dr. Loomis was already planning on putting Michael away permanently, Michael makes his escape.  Of course, he breaks out just in time for Halloween.

Everyone knows pretty much the rest of the story.  Michael returns to his hometown and virtually kills anyone getting in his way.  Most of his victims are teenagers just a few years younger than himself.  We think many times that Michael Myers is dead.  Yet he keeps coming back to life.  (This trend was to continue through all of the Halloween sequels and remakes – most of them very bad.)

Halloween is superior to most other slasher films because of its director, John Carpenter.  Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis obviously helped as well.  Carpenter not only directed, but he also helped write and create the screen music. He also had an uncanny sense of timing.  Right when he made the audience feel they could relax, something sudden and terrible would occur.  This low-budget film at times can be frightening.  Carpenter also never makes the mistake of trying to pretend this movie was something more than it really was.

The problem with this kind of film is you’d think it has to end at some point.  Yet forty years later, Jamie Lee Curtis keeps making appearance and keeping this sort of film somehow relevant.  And some critics say that the current version of Halloween is as good as this original.  (The fact that critics keep saying such things mean we’re going to see more of the same.  What’s truly astounding is they say the same thing about other movies that are also sequels.)

That the success of this original film was in large part accidental should surprise no one.

October 31, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018

Saturday, September 22, 2018

MISSOURI BREAKS (1976): Or How to Kill All of the Bats

Many of the best movies ever made were low budget films with big stars released in the 1970s.  I’m not being nostalgic in saying that because many of these films were anything but nostalgic.  The Great White Hope starring James Earl Jones came out in 1970.  There was McCabe and Mrs. Miller starring Warren Beatty and directed by Robert Altman released in 1971.  Straw Dogs featuring Dustin Hoffman also came out in 1971.  And Mean Streets with Robert De Niro and directed by Martin Scorsese came out in 1973.
Jack Nicholson especially played in some of the best films.  Nicholson appeared in Five Easy Pieces in 1970, co-starred with Bruce Dern in The King of Marvin Gardens in 1972, co-starred with Randy Quaid in The Last Detail in 1973 (one of my all-time favorite movies), played alongside Faye Dunaway in Chinatown in 1974, and finally appeared with Marlon Brando in Missouri Breaks.  Missouri Breaks may go down as one of the more bizarre and quirky westerns ever made.  And it isn’t Nicholson that gives the film it’s peculiar edge.  That left up to Brando, and the technique of telling the story by director Arthur Penn.  

Nicholson plays Tom Logan, a good-natured horse thief and cattle rustler, who would more than anything like to find a good woman and settle down.  Unfortunately, he has a friend hanged by a large landowner named Braxton (John McLiam).  Tom purchases a tract of land next door to Braxton’s property.  This tract is a sort of meeting place for Tom and his gang of cattle rustlers.  While Tom and his gang are intent on revenge against Braxton, Tom also falls in love with Braxton’s daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd).  His confused loyalty does not prevent his gang from hanging Braxton’s foreman.  This results in Braxton’s hiring of a bounty hunter to take care of all of the cattle rustlers once and for all.

The bounty hunter is none other than the famous Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando).  In all movie history, there is probably never a more eccentric villain than this character.  Clayton will do practically anything to get information about the cattle rustlers.  This includes disguising himself as a preacher and as a grandmother in dress and bonnet.  Clayton can kill a man from a long distance with the rifle he carries.  And he will explain to anyone willing or unwilling to listen that he passes gas anytime he gets too upset.

Clayton knows that Tom is not a farmer, and he suspects him as being the leader of the gang of cattle rustlers.  One by one he kills the rustlers off.  These are all of Tom’s best friends.  Clayton is so effective and single-minded in killing off the rustlers that he even frightens the man who hired him.  Braxton eventually tries to fire Clayton only to find out that Clayton is not interested in whether he does get paid.  All Clayton wants to do is finish his job.  Clayton compares pursuing cattle rustlers to the hunting of bats.  He said that if you gather them all together, you have the “evil buggers” at your mercy. 

But Tom is wily enough to escape Clayton.  In fact, he cuts Clayton’s throat while Clayton is sleeping under the stars.  Tom then wants to leave the area with Jane, but after Braxton feigns having a stroke Jane is unwilling to leave her father’s side.  This elaborate ruse is an attempt to get Tom at close range and kill him.  But Braxton fails to accomplish this and ends up shot himself instead.  We presume at the end of the film that Tom and Jane will someday be together. 

Missouri Breaks is 126 minutes long.  There’s some good action sequences, but there are also some very long scenes where nothing occurs other than listening to the characters talk to each other in a comical and sometimes cynical fashion.  Yet with all that occurs, the two characters who survive in the movie are in their own peculiar ways the most decent characters in the film: Tom and Jane.  There is a sort of happy ending at the end of this strange film.

Many recent critics remain puzzled at why this film never made it at the box office.  This seems especially odd when at the time of its release the movie featured two recent Academy Award winning stars.  But when you see what films do make the most money, it’s really not a mystery.  Most blockbusters fit a formula.  Because moviemakers are frightened that anything new may not bring in money right away, most blockbusters have sequels.  And most blockbusters along with the sequels will make money and be deservedly forgotten in ten years.

The beauty of Missouri Breaks is that one can watch it over and over again, and still enjoy it.  One can catch reruns of the film on late night television.  You can even watch the entire film on YouTube.  It was too unorthodox to ever become extremely popular in the theater.  Yet it’s too original for those who saw it early on to forget it at a later date.

September 22, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018