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We'll Always Have Casablanca
Spoilers ahead, but then again, who isn't familiar with Casablanca, even if one hasn't seen it?
I've been watching 'Casablanca' over and over again since I bought the Special Edition DVD, and is there any film out there one can watch again and again without ever being tired of it? And does any film appeal to a broader audience? Just everything about it seems to be as close to perfection as it only can be.
But what exactly is so special about it? Is it its great genre mix, never equaled by another film? When we think of 'Casablanca' first, we remember it as a romantic film (well, most of us do). But then again, its also a drama involving terror, murder and flight. One can call it a character study, centering on Rick. And there are quite a few moments of comedic delight, just think of the pickpocket ("This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere!") or the elderly couple on the last evening before their emigration to the US ("What watch?").
But 'Casablanca' is not only great as a whole, it still stands on top if we break it apart and look at single lines of dialog, scenes or performances alone. Is there any other film which has more quotable dialog than 'Casablanca'? 'Pulp Fiction' is on my mind here, and 'All About Eve' and 'Sunset Blvd.' come close, too, but still I think 'Casablanca' tops everything else. And not only is the dialog great, it's unforgettably delivered, especially by Humphrey Bogart ("I was misinformed.") and Claude Rains ("I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here"). Many of scenes have become a part of film history; the duel of 'Die Wacht am Rhein' and 'La Marseillaise' is probably one of the greatest scenes ever shot (the only I can think of that would rival it for the #1 spot is Hynkel and the globe from Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator'), and the last scene is probably even familiar to the few people who've never seen 'Casablanca'. Am I the only one who is absolutely convinced that the film wouldn't have become what it is today if Rick and Ilsa would have ended up as the lucky couple?
About the performances: So much has been said about the uniqueness of Humphrey Bogart's and Ingrid Bergman's chemistry as Rick and Ilsa, about Claude Rains' terrific turn as Renault, about the scene-stealing performances by Peter Lorre (one of the 10 all-time greatest actors) as Ugarte and Sydney Greenstreet as Ferrari and about Dooley Wilson stopping the show as Sam. I'd love to emphasize here two other performances, one that is not mentioned quite as often and one which is blatantly overlooked: Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser had a really difficult task here, as his character is the only evil one, but still Strasser is not a one-dimensional character, and it took more than 50 years until another actor gave an equally (maybe even more) impressive performance as a Nazi, Ralph Fiennes in 'Schindler's List'. But why no one ever mentions S. K. Sakall, who plays Carl, the jolly waiter at Rick's Café Américain, is beyond me. He has definitely more screen time than Lorre, Greenstreet and Wilson, and probably about as much as Veidt, and he's a joy whenever he's on the screen. I simply love his reaction when the pickpocket ("Vultures everywhere!") accidentally bumps into him, or the reaction to the "What watch"-dialog. Or how he says he gave Strasser the best table, "being a German, he would have taken it anyway". His performance is simply criminally overlooked.
So is there a weakest link in 'Casablanca'? Every film, no matter how close to perfection, has a minor flaw or two, so one can find them in 'Casablanca', too, if one really tries hard. So yes, one might ask how much sense the entire mumbo jumbo about the letters of transit makes. One might point out that Paul Henreid, although his performance is certainly good, doesn't come close to the greatness of any of his co-stars. However, the film is so close to perfection that I'm almost ashamed that I'm so desperately trying to find less-than-perfect elements.
So whatever films will come, how many sequels will overflow the screen, and how much junk we will have to sit through, one thing is certain if we're desperate to see a great film: We'll always have Casablanca!
Moby Dick (2000)
Great acting, but boring for the eye
In this one, Orson Welles proves, more than anything else, that he was not only a directing genius but also a terrific actor. He plays all roles himself, and he's doing an excellent job. However, it suffers from being acted on a blank set and filmed almost entirely in closeups.
Sentimental at first, then hilariously funny
Orson Welles wandering through Vienna, remembering "The Third Man" and talking about a city he apparently loves - and then, aided by Senta Berger and Mickey Rooney, he suddenly stumbles into a spy satire and finally performs a magic trick - this sounds maybe somewhat strange, but it's simply hilariously funny.
As funny as Monty Python
Despite his funny performance in "Catch-22", I never quite considered Orson Welles a comedian. "London", which consists of five segments, changed my mind. It opens with a compilation of quotes by Winston Churchill. Very funny, but nothing compared to the rest, as the other episodes would make Monty Python go green with envy. The funniest segment is 'Swinging London'. Can you imagine Orson Welles as a dancing bobby, a one-man-band or the Chinese owner of a strip club? Well, 'Swinging London' has him not only in these three roles, but also in drag: as a disgruntled housewife and as a woman selling violets - and filthy postcards. It's just plain hilarious. Too bad that the sound of the middle segment ('Four Clubmen', all played by Welles, of course) is lost, but that one looks funny, too.
Orson Welles' Magic Show (1985)
Yepp, he would make a good magician.
What does it take to make a good magician? A bunch of good illusions an a lot of charisma. Orson Welles knows a few tricks, and his charisma is incredible! Did you ever feel an actor is pushing you into your seat only by his sheer performance? Welles did so, especially during his first trick.
Very short and very moving
This short bit is the last footage of Welles before he died. He already looks rather ill, but his reading of a passage from Charles Lindbergh's diary, dedicated to a friend of his, is really moving. A last great look at one of the greatest!
La nuit américaine (1973)
Simply the greatest film about making a film ever made!
"Shooting a movie is like a stagecoach trip. At first you hope for a nice ride. Then you just hope to reach your destination."
Early in the film, director Ferrand, played by François Truffaut, says this in a voice-over of 'Day for Night'. A lot of the film illustrates that this is a very true sentence.
In his legendary Hitchcock book, Truffaut says at one point that it would be a nice idea to make a film about making a film, and Hitchcock agrees. Luckily Truffaut liked that idea enough to actually make this film, as 'Day for Night' is probably the best film ever made about making a film.
We are on the set of 'Meet Pamela'. 'Meet Pamela' is a love and revenge story, about a man falling in love with daughter-in-law. It looks very much like a pretty mediocre film. I doubt I would like it. But that's good, as it doesn't distract us from what's happening on the set, from the many characters.
We get to know the cast and crew of 'Meet Pamela': Julie Baker, a second generation Hollywood star whose nervous breakdown she's recovering from causes insurance problems; Alphonse, a very jealous, very neurotic French actor who's so madly in love with a girl he organizes the job of the script girl for her just to have her near; Alexandre, a veteran actor who played many lovers in his life, but is actually a closet homosexual; Severine, an Italian actress with an alcohol problem who used to play opposite Alexandre frequently in her career, but hasn't talked to him in years, maybe because she found out she had no chance to become his real-life lover. From the crew, we especially remember Joelle, the production assistant who almost seems to be more involved in the making of the film than director Ferrand (it is her who has the film's most often quoted line: "I'd drop a guy for a film, but I'd never drop a film for a guy"), Liliane, the girl who got the job as a script girl only because Alphonse wanted to have her around him, who doesn't really seem to be interested in the film - or in Alphonse; Odile, the makeup girl who also got a bit part in the film; Bernard, the prop man, who gives us with his every day work a look behind the scenes of a film; and the unit manager Lajoie, whose wife is always around and at one point shouts at the cast and crew because she just can't understand their 'immoral' behavior.
The film doesn't have a plot of it's own, but it shows us all these characters and their problems, trying to get a film made and getting over one catastrophe after the next, sometimes something as harmless as a kitten refusing to drink milk or Stacey, a supporting actress causing scheduling problems because of her pregnancy, sometimes something more serious as Alphonse refusing to go on acting after Liliane leaves the set with a stunt man, with even more complications to follow when Julie tries to cure Alphonse's neurosis. But not even a lethal car accident can stop the making of the film.
'Day for Night' also has brilliant performances, but three stand out: Nathalie Baye in her first notable performance as the omni-competent Joelle and Jean-Pierre Léaud, who never was better in his life than here as Alphonse, would make it a worthwhile film alone. But it is Valentina Cortese who steals the show as the fading actress Severine. Her scene opposite Alexandre in which she can't remember her dialog and suggests just saying numbers (she did the same when she worked with "Federico") is priceless.
At one point Ferrand says that a director is a man who is constantly asked many questions and sometimes knows the answer, and it is sort of a surprise that the one man who "invented" the auteur theory, which more or less says that a film is the director's work, makes a film that shows how many people's work is involved in the making of a film. But it is not only a film about people making films: Many of the characters (most notably Ferrand, Alphonse and Joelle) are film enthusiasts, and the entire film is a film from a film lover about film lovers for film lovers. It's Truffaut's best and shouldn't be missed by cinephiles.
8 femmes (2002)
These ladies kick ass!
'8 Women' is a rather unique film. On the surface it is the probably only entry in the genre of the grotesque whodunit-musical. But actually, it's a huge playground - for the actresses who get the chance to play with the stereotypes attached to them, and for director François Ozon to toy with the clichés of the whodunit.
Here's the setup: 1950s. A beautiful mansion. A man is found lying in his bed with a knife in his back. The possible suspects: His wife, his two daughters, his sister, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law, the chambermaid and the cook. As these eight women can't leave the estate or call the police, they try to find the murderer themselves. We know this situation from countless Agatha Christie-stories.
But what Ozon makes of this situation is just incredible. It already begins with the casting: Who else could play the gentrified Gaby if not Catherine Deneuve? Is there any actress who would fit more perfectly for the role of the spinsterish sister than Isabelle Huppert? Who else would you want to walk around in that dress of a chambermaid than the most desirable Emmanuelle Béart? The actresses are eagerly playing with the stereotypes that surround them because of both, the roles they played and their private lives.
Then there's the story: All whodunits have those obligatory scenes where the motives of all characters are revealed. '8 Women' takes that formula and deliberately goes over the top with it, it's characters are unfaithful, pregnant, lesbian, poisoners and many things more. And as a final twist, the film stops eight times to give each of its protagonists a chance to reveal her true character in a scene entirely devoted to them - singing and dancing. There is also another scene worth mentioning that is entirely dedicated to the actresses: A scene with a lot of dialog that entirely consists of nothing but a series of closeups - and that for about three minutes.
Cinephiles can enjoy this film on even another level: The film is filled with references to beloved classics. Consider Fanny Ardant's musical number, which pays homage to Rita Hayworth's glove-strip in 'Gilda', and another Rita Hayworth-moment so wonderful I won't reveal it here. Consider Emmanuelle Béarts hairstyle that echoes Kim Novak in 'Vertigo'. Consider the fact that the late husband of the Dannielle Darrieux character was a general, reminding us of 'Madame de...'. Or consider the painting of the young Catherine Deneuve hanging in one room - a replica of a 'Belle de jour'-poster. All this is supported by the rich, colorful cinematography, the art direction and the costumes, that give the entire film a 1950s look.
But attention: If you give this film a chance, don't expect it to be logically consistent. It isn't. But that doesn't matter at all. The murder mystery story is replaceable. The film is entirely devoted to its brilliant actresses and the wonderful, bitchy dialog they exchange. It's great fun and it is getting better with every viewing.
Angst essen Seele auf (1974)
Sad. True. Beautiful.
Munich, in the mid-70s: She enters the exotic bar because it's raining and maybe because she's a little curious what this place with that strange music is like. He asks her for a dance because his friends tell him to do so. He accompanies her home. He stays for the night. The fall in love. They marry.
All that sounds like your average Hollywood romance. But that's only half the story of 'Fear Eats the Soul'. Here's the other half: She, Emmi Kurowski, is a 60 year old, widowed cleaner, mother of three married children. He, Ali, is a black foreign worker from Morocco, 20 years younger than her, speaking a rather bad German (a more faithful translation of the German original title 'Angst essen Seele auf', a quote from Ali, would be 'Fear Eat Soul'). This film is not a cheesy romance, it is the story of two people who love each other and struggle with the rest of the world to be accepted.
But the people around them have problems. The neighbors are talking about them, Emmi's colleagues ignore her, the merchant refuses to serve them, and Emmi's children don't want to understand it - her son Bruno even destroys the TV set in his anger.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder is arguably the greatest German director ever, and with more than 40 films, TV series, TV films plus 16 theater plays he wrote, directed and often also (co-)starred in in a career that lasted only a mere 15 years, he is certainly one of the most efficient directors in film history. His best films are a criticism of German society after World War II by simple, but memorable stories with very well observed characters. And 'Fear Eats the Soul' displays Fassbinder's qualities best. In very simple shots (facial expressions, the use doors to stress the loneliness of his characters), he makes this films very emotional.
The film is sometimes described as naive. That's wrong. Maybe it is naive to believe that a 60 year old widow and a black 40 year old worker will fall in love. But the rest is as well-observed as a film can be: The fact that people's reactions change when they realize that it's easier to accept them and take advantage of them. That Emmi eagerly joins her colleagues as soon as they have found a new victim. That Ali goes to the waitress of his bar to get the two things Emmi can't give him - sex and his favorite dish.
And then the film has some amazing acting. But from the entire cast, Brigitte Mira as Emmi Kurowski stands out. Actually a comedic actress, she shines in this drama as a woman who struggles for acceptance. Her speech outside a restaurant, when all the waiters stare at them but don't serve them, is heartbreaking, her entire performance is unforgettable.
At first sight, 'Fear Eats the Soul' is a small, simple romantic film. But look closer and you'll see it is so much more, it is a comment on subliminal prejudices and selfishness. It shows what a film can do, even if its budget is tiny, if it only believes in the power of its story.
That's what comes from too much alcohol and too few mutual respect
'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' tells the story of two couples that are quite different at first sight - one used to each other for years, the other one rather freshly wed in comparison. Actually it doesn't tell their story, but it displays their relationships.
The film begins on a Sunday morning at 2 o'clock, right after a party, and ends just after the sun rises. In these few hours we get to know these four people better then we might possibly want.
George and Martha are the older couple. He is a history professor, she is the daughter of the head of the university. Their relationship seems to be from hell, full of mutual disgust and humiliation. Their guests are Nick and Honey. He is the new, ambitious biology professor, she is his naive young wive. As all these four characters are more or less drunk throughout the entire film, alcohol works as a catalyst, and we quickly see the different kind of character traits they have: George is a cynic, Martha loves to torment her husband, Nick is an opportunist and Honey is very much a stupid blonde.
The two relationships deserve closer examination: We wonder why Martha and George married in the first place. They keep swearing at each other. Martha can't stop humiliating George, when they are alone as well as when Nick and Honey are there. Maybe there is still a rest of love in them, but there mutual respect has vanished completely. And then there is the strange story of their son, who is supposed to visit on his birthday. They way George and Martha talk about him make us feel that there is something peculiar about him. At the end we get to know more about him, and we can only guess how important the son is for their relationship.
Nick and Honey, on the other hand, seem to be quite the opposite. But, being used as weapons by the older couple, we see that their relationship isn't as perfect as it seems to be, either. Nick didn't marry Honey because he loved her, but because he thought she was pregnant and because of her money. And when Martha tries to seduce him to tease George, he plays the game with her, always in mind that this woman's father is the head of the university. Honey, on the other hand, is much more emotional than her husband, but she also is the most passive character, and the one most affected by the alcohol.
Mike Nichols assembled an outstanding cast for his film. Casting Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Martha and George is a stroke of genius - not only are they terrific actors, but it also heats the imagination of the viewer how much their real-life-marriage resembled the relationship they had in this film. Elizabeth Taylor outshines her co-stars a little. Never was she any better than in this one; although her character is the meanest in the film, she manages that we still feel compassion for her at the end. But Richard Burton, George Segal and especially Sandy Dennis deliver memorable performances, too.
'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' succeeds at something rather difficult: It makes us care for characters we wouldn't want to have anything to do with in real life. And although it actually consist of nothing but four people talking for two hours, it never bored us for a second.