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"You've always struck me as a hopeless romantic, even if (maybe especially if) you have a penchant for f--ked up love stories."
Top 50 Films:
1. In a Lonely Place 2. A Matter of Life and Death 3. His Girl Friday 4. Vertigo 5. The Royal Tenenbaums 6. Five Easy Pieces 7. Cleo from 5 to 7 8. Chinatown 9. L'Eclisse 10. Almost Famous
Best of the Rest 2046 25th Hour Ace in the Hole All the Real Girls Apocalypse Now Before Sunset Blow-Out Brief Encounter Carol Children of Men Citizen Kane City Lights Il Conformista The Cranes are Flying La Double Vie de Veronique The End of the Affair Elevator to the Gallows A Face in the Crowd Far From Heaven Half Nelson Holiday House of Mirth It's a Wonderful Life The Godfather Part II La Jetee Jules and Jim The Lady Eve Last Tango in Paris Letter From an Unknown Woman Lola Montes Melancholia The Naked Kiss Only Angels Have Wings Paris, Texas Rear Window Reds Shadow of a Doubt Shoot the Piano Player! The Small Back Room Some Came Running Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans The Tarnished Angels Two for the Road Two Lovers The Thing They Live by Night Vivre sa Vie Wild River Wings of Desire Zodiac
Un coeur en hiver (1992)
In a Lonely Place
As with THE SILENCE--and, really, most of Ingmar Bergman's best work--this is a film of quiet grace, a subtle film that takes patience but is ultimately deeply rewarding by the end. It's a love triangle of sorts between two friends, a bachelor Maxime and his quiet friend Stephane who are business partners running a violin repair shop. Maxime begins a relationship with the beautiful violinist Camille, who soon becomes attracted to Stefane, who does not overtly return her advances. Stefane is really a voyeur who belongs in the same group as Harry Caul, L.B. Jeffries and Damiel the angel, all people who are flawed or broken in some way on the inside and feel compelled to look at others only from a distance, refusing to become involved. They seem to understand from behaviorism the depths of other people but can barely conceal their own loneliness or broken relationships--Stefane correctly states that he can never give Camille, or any "normal" woman, what she deserves. He deliberately pushes her away when he feels pressured into intimacy. He loves music and handles his violins (which can be argued are shaped like an ideal female body, revealing Stephane's asexuality) the way Maxime and other "normal" men handle women. Director Claude Sautet has a gift with letting human drama unfold, and he carefully studies the behavior of his characters, who come alive without force or question, so much that the audience feels like a you're listening on close friends fighting. Then a real-life couple, Emmanuel Beart and Daniel Auteuil are stunning (such a great, unique romance for a real-life couple--you couldn't ever imagine Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie ever tackling this together), hitting all the right notes (pun intended) with the precision and understanding of great actors, and even better human beings. Auteuil in particular is spectacular because of Stephane's deep introvert nature, and Auteuil has to allude to so many conflicting emotions that are barely visible beneath the surface, and he does so much just with his eyes, which flutter with happiness and fall with regret with perfect grace.
Bigger Than Life (1956)
What happens when the American Dream become a nightmare?
When the 1999 Best Picture winner American BEAUTY came out, its marketing campaign stressed for the audience to "look closer" at the typical American family; while I still enjoy Sam Mendes' debut film, I wish people had taken the film's famous tagline more to heart and sought out this obscure gem of a film, because it's both a time capsule of its time and it's one of the most ageless films of all time. James Mason delivers possibly his greatest performance under Nicholas Ray's trusted, fatherly direction (the master auteur also worked wonders exposing the surprising depth of Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), Cyd Charisse and Robert Taylor in PARTY GIRL (1958), Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) and of course the trio in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) as a man going insane from 1950s repression. It's one of the greatest American films ever made that few Americans have actually seen (as of this writing it's not on Region-1 DVD), though Jean-Luc Godard, who named it one of the greatest American films of the 1950s and briefly referenced it in his film CONTEMPT (1963), and Martin Scorsese, who has written of its power and included clips in his great documentary A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH American MOVIES WITH MARTIN SCORSESE (1995), are big fans of this film.
Nicholas Ray's CinemaScope masterpiece was criticized and neglected upon its initial release after his smash hit REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). What did they expect from a filmmaker whose titles of films, especially his previous one, defined his existence? BIGGER THAN LIFE is his subtle, scathing attack on the suffocating 1950s conformity and the empty promise of the American Dream--to the hip indie crowd, this is the 50s answer to HALF NELSON (2005). Like his Humbert Humbert of LOLITA (1962), Mason plays a British intellect who falls from grace in America. On the surface this film is an attack on Cortisone (and to the publicity department at 20th Century Fox, this film refused to place blame on the doctors, instead making the whole film look like Mason's fault with such captions of a doctor saying "I prescribed it--HE misused it!"), but what came first, the drug or the social claustrophobia? The Cortisone didn't create Ed Avery's psychosis, it only highlighted it, and it certainly won't cure it (Ray once wryly said that the film "is about a miracle drug. I don't believe in miracles"). Even as he eschews religion ("GOD WAS WRONG!") and the school system ("We're breeding a race of moral midgets!") during his bouts of heightened egomania, some balancing on horrifyingly awful and terrifyingly true, he's never free from his repression, which makes the film's seemingly Hallmark Happy Ending all the more disturbing.
It's a masterpiece of repression, innocence lost, and, more simply, amazing film-making. I cannot stress how badly this film begs to be seen and rediscovered by a newer audience, not unlike how Hitchcock's VERTIGO received the respect it deserved after its initial lukewarm reception. God was wrong. Nicholas Ray was right.
They shoot classics, don't they?
In the background in one shot of Sydney Pollack's great film, one can see the poster for MGM's all-star GRAND HOTEL. This places the film around 1932, when Busby Berkeley was beginning to put on his kaleidoscopic, dreamy dance numbers and Marlene Dietrich was gliding on the other side of the gauze-filtered camera. These are the films that were popular distractions, one which Jean Harlow lookalike Alice Leblanc (Susannah York) probably flocked to see. THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? (TSHDT) is closer in tone with the gritty noir films starring Paul Muni, I WAS A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG and SCARFACE, deeply black portraits of a world gone crazy--films which the strong-willed but brittle Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda in one of her greatest performances) surely would've tipped her hat off to. TSHDT is closer to the latter, though the contestants are deceived by images of the former, with females hoping to be noticed by talent scouts or directors in the audience. This false sense of hope is what causes them to be put through an inhumane dance marathon (which includes dancing for 10+hour stretches and three-legged races) that really makes the contestants closer to cattle than humans, bet on for sport and by the end hoping for a way out. The marathon will eventually break the spirits or minds or bodies of almost everyone involved in one shape or form, leading to a finale that may be downbeat, but all the same I feel that there's really no other way this film could've ended.
There are flaws in the late Sydney Pollack's depressing Depression-era masterpiece, the first being the flash-forwards that take us out of the action and try to make it be a murder mystery that really doesn't matter (I feel Pollack was trying too hard to make Robert, Gloria's dance partner, likable), and the second is Michael Sarrazin's bland performance next to the ferocity of Jane Fonda's amazing performance as the brave but breaking spirit Gloria, the quiet explosion of Susannah York and Gig Young as the ringmaster who knows he's manipulating the contestants. But Pollack's film is tonally assured--one can almost feel the exhaustion of the parade of desperate people who become human race horses, agreeing to be part of a non-stop dance contest in the blind hope of getting a $1,500 prize money. And yet even before the downbeat and unresolved ending, we never really care about who wins the contest--not because we aren't fascinated by the characters, but because already we can sense that there will be no happy ending (trust me, this ain't Capra) for these survivors struggling not to lose themselves to their environment. Maybe the bigger reason for doing the contest isn't the money--maybe it's the need to have hope in something.
Watch this film closely in the last hours of heroes lives...
Did Andrzej Wajda predict the modern horror film? Or was he merely acting on--and manipulating--our fear of the big, scary monster? There are many shots in KANAL where the camera will simply stay on a passageway seconds after the survivors leave the shot. As a modern audience who has lived through horror films, we expect a Nazi or a monster to slip into the frame in the background, but it never does. KANAL truly is a horror film, but what's unbearable to us and the sturdy group of Resistance fighters isn't the Nazis above the sewers or the metaphorical monster, but it is the solitude and emptiness that drives them to insanity, death or a bitter end.
KANAL is Andrzej Wajda's dirty, bloody valentine to the heroes of the 1944 Warsaw Resistance as the film follows the last hours of a band of heroes in their ultimately futile attempt to escape the Nazis through the labyrinth of underground sewers. We are first introduced to them as strong, willful humans trying to survive in a world that's falling to ruins (One could also argue that Andrzej Wajda also created the first post-apocalypse film). They laugh, they love, they play music in the last happy moments of their lives. After they enter the sewers, we expect and want them to come out even more strong-willed than ever--how many people can face dead bodies floating in the water of a dirty sewer with the same calm defiance? But as time goes on and the group gets separated, it becomes more and more inevitable that these heroes are not meant for a Hollywood's movie's happy, redemptive ending.
Andrzej Wajda, like Roman Polanski, was a real survivor of the Nazi invasion of Poland during WWII, and both became filmmakers who brought their experiences to films, as Polanski did with Oscar-winning THE PIANIST. However, Polanski's film, though absolutely profound, doesn't have Wajda's eye for details--the scenes of ruined Warsaw, for example, seem almost CGI'ed and it's obvious that he's trying to go for more, while Wajda will focus solely on the dirty ground, the debris blowing in the wind, or the flames of a burning building in the background. With Wajda, less is much more effective. If there is a situation more dirty, awful, lonely, scary or haunting than these people making their way through the labyrinths, I have yet to see it.
The Marrying Kind (1952)
Third time's the charm for Cukor and Holliday!
George Cukor has made a film about inconsistent narrators. As Florence "Florrie" (Judy Holliday) and Chester "Chet" (Aldo Ray) are about to get a divorce, both bicker and biasedly argue over details of their time together, their memories of love and bittersweet loss. However, the audience is lucky to have George Cukor as a reliable tour guide into the 7-year marriage of Chet and Florrie, for along with A STAR IS BORN, this is his most emotionally raw and truthful film. Some have complained that Aldo Ray seemed better fit for a war movie, and both actors had very unique speaking voices that typecast them, but I like the fact that Holliday and Ray are both a bit off; Unlike the very similar-plotted PENNY SERENADE, neither really had the aura of a huge superstar like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and they feel like real people, which is essential to the roles and neither felt like they were two actors playing dress-up (or down), and their flaws and insecurities are so human and real. Their fights don't feel scripted, but rather the audience is interrupting their neighbor's loud argument. The tragedies are not manipulative or forced unlike PENNY SERENADE but instead infused with honesty and a painful eye for details of the way a married couple acts and reacts like Stanley Donen's TWO FOR THE ROAD. Cukor's two screenwriters, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon brilliantly use flashbacks and voice-overs to show how memories can be biased and that people can be cruel to try to avoid getting hurt, but that the truth (the flashbacks that we do see) is more bittersweet in its objectivity. Florrie and Chet may argue constantly and bicker to cover up their own vulnerability, but that's what makes them so perfect for each other, and why Florrie believes so much in Chet's ambitions and how Chet knows that Florrie brings out the best in him. The best movie couples are the ones whose respective films acknowledge the frailties of human beings--and also realize the potential to grow and evolve with love and redemption, which is what THE MARRYING KIND does with a refreshing sense of candid accuracy; this is a marriage straight from real life, not the Hollywood version of it.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Who ever said becoming was better than become?
It's an unwritten rule that in superhero movies, the sequels rarely to never live up to the standards of the original--how many of us were spellbound by THE MATRIX only to be jilted by its disastrous sequels? THE DARK KNIGHT squashes any presumptions that nothing could ever surpass the original, whose wholesome darkness, originality and excitement made it possible for comic book adaptations/blockbusters to become more than the sum of its genre. Christopher Nolan has outdone himself in every way possible.
BATMAN BEGINS was about Bruce Wayne's roots and his journey to becoming Batman. Very interestingly, the emotional arc of THE DARK KNIGHT is not on Batman (though Christian Bale is still solid as both charming Bruce and his darker alter ego), but rather on Harvey Dent's (an excellent Aaron Eckhart) crusade against corruption and how own eventual dark journey that, by either chance or choice, will shape him into a hero or a villain. The love story between Dent and Rachel Dawes, who cannot wait for Bruce anymore, is also what supplies THE DARK KNIGHT with its human heart, and what makes the film's dark turns all the more poignant and suspenseful.
Everything about THE DARK KNIGHT is edgier, from the music (the screeching buildup is at times unbearable) to the violence (the Joker's disappearing pencil trick will shock you). A great deal of this is indebted to Heath Ledger. If Ledger hadn't died tragically young last January, the sold-out midnight/3 am/6 am showings probably wouldn't have been as momentous, but the kudos for his performance still would've been higher than the skies. To say that his performance is majestic isn't enough--it transcends Brando and Cagney and de Niro and Malcolm McDowell's astonishing performance as Alex de Large. A film critic for Entertainment Weekly once wrote about Christian Bale in RESCUE DAWN that "I've never seen the actor look more at home with his own taut charisma." That praise has to be passed on to Ledger, who seems so comfortable with his madness it's truly terrifying; When I was in the crowded theater I thought, "this must've been what it was like back in 1955, when REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE came out, just after James Dean died." Ledger will become a cult figure, there is no doubt. This will be his biggest hit, it is inevitable. But once you surrender yourself to his exquisite madness, you're able to forget the fact that Ledger is gone and that the ghost on-screen is the last of what will remain.
The only quibble I have about THE DARK KNIGHT is the recasting of the Rachel Dawes character. Katie Holmes got a lot of unfair publicity during BATMAN BEGINS because of the media firestorm around her relationship with Tom Cruise. She even got a Razzie nomination. She is not this generation's answer to Bette Davis, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually the better actress of the two. But having already set up this character who is very crucial to Bruce's life, it's awkward to have another actress cast in that role. It's like trying to imagine anyone else but Ingrid Bergman falling in love with Humphrey Bogart during the Paris flashbacks of CASABLANCA. However, the role, already small and somewhat insubstantial, is a more diminished in this film than its predecessor, and it's only a minor annoyance to a practically perfect movie.
This is the film we've all been waiting for, and it's the film we deserve. I hope you all take in the unforgettably exciting atmosphere of the crowded theater, and remember the greatness of Heath Ledger that is lost, but with this film, it'll never be forgotten.
Ball of Fire (1941)
I'm gonna show you what Yum-Yum means...
Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder were so similar--both had a cynical sense of humor, both directors could master any genre, both occasionally worked with the same actors (including Bogart, Monroe, Stanwyck and Cooper). This is the two masters' only joint collaboration (Wilder wrote, Hawks directed), and though Wilder complained about his script being misinterpreted (as he usually did before breaking out as a director of his own scripts), the result is one of the most delightfully entertaining comedies ever made.
Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) and 7 other professors are working on the definitive encyclopedia that will most definitely give substantial space to the man who invented the electric toaster. Just when they believe they are on the home stretch, Potts realizes he knows little to noting about modern slang and sets out on a research expedition, where he runs into Sugarpuss O'Shea, a captivating burlesque dancer. When Sugarpuss's gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) gets into a jam Sugarpuss must hide out to avoid a subpoena and finds refuge at the professors' house, where worlds collide to hilarious results.
If it's possible, this film is both childish and mature at the same time; it's based on a fairy tale and the professors' acting is animated, yet Wilder's script is wild with double entendres and innuendos. It's a brilliant combination that blends swimmingly. Likewise only Charlie Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS could more perfectly blend slapstick with sentiment. Humor from either Hawks or Wilder isn't the least bit surprising, but the moments of genuine tenderness between Sugarpuss and Potts is unexpected from the two directors who were known for their cynicism. Even more surprising is to find genuine suspense in some moments, such as a perfectly edited sequence in which the professors are taken hostage and must use their knowledge to get out (to go any further would be spoiling the scene). And I'll throw one last shock your way: while most comedies aren't usually raved for their photography, there's pretty amazing cinematography by Gregg Toland, who famously revolutionized deep focus with CITIZEN KANE. Using deep-focus and a noir-like sentimentality with shadows and light, there are moments that are disarmingly sensational.
Gary Cooper had worked with Howard Hawks just earlier with SERGEANT YORK. Cooper won Best Actor and Hawks received his only Oscar nomination in his long and brilliant career, but the film's fared badly over the decades and both should've received their accolades for this film. Cooper has more of a challenge in this film, and like Cary Grant's similar role in Hawks' BRINGING UP BABY, it could've been so easy for him to break character, but Cooper keeps a straight face even when it looks like he's having a blast. He's also very convincing as a socially awkward scholar who's constantly correcting other people's grammar. Before I saw Barbara Stanwyck in this film I found it incredible that the Oscar nomination she received in 1941 *wasn't* for her wickedly sexy turn as a con artist in Preston Sturges's comedic masterpiece THE LADY EVE, but when I saw this I understood. Both roles are similar, about a conniving woman who uses a dim-witted intellect and then falls in love to comedic results. I think she's a bit sharper in Sturges's film but her character is more likable in this film, because it's obvious that she becomes a better person when transformed by love. In fact, BALL OF FIRE is possibly the sweetest paean of falling for a nerd ("He looks like a giraffe-- and I love him!"), and both characters truly evolve with love for each other--Potts is rejuvenated by Sugarpuss's pizazz, and her hardened crust (Stanwyck herself was a born New Yorker with a rough childhood, which only adds to her perfect interpretation of Sugarpuss) is melted by Pott's brain, heart and eventual courage.
In other words, this is Yum-Yum stuff.
A Star Is Born (1954)
Don't let's ask for the moon--we had Judy Garland's star...
I quoted Andy Warhol in my review of Cukor's IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU!, who once said that everyone will be a superstar for 15 minutes. Cukor's earlier Judy Holliday vehicle scratched the surface of the pitfalls of celebrity, and here he is given a much bigger canvas to paint with, and he runs with it. His flawed masterpiece (it was a little too long, then savagely cut 30 minutes by the studio, some characters are overwhelming, and the famous centerpiece "Born in a Trunk" works better as a Judy Garland showcase than for plot reasons) nakedly displays the nightmare of the Dream Machine, which is almost terrifying in its honesty. But the film is as much about the mores of Hollywood as it is a tragic love story about the strengths and weaknesses of a couple living and loving on dangerous ground. Judy Garland and James Mason are phenomenal as Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine, a young up-and-coming singer who comes to the aide of his aging and fading star, and will continue to do so long after she achieves the status he once had. Their love is so selfless and so full of goodness in its potential it's truly painful to see the inevitable downfall that comes.
Hollywood isn't kind to its inhabitants, and Cukor doesn't hold back any punches in his portrayal. Using his widescreen cameras, every detail and every damning characteristic of the town is put in deep focus--the casualness of how Esther's name is changed to the more marquee-friendly Vicki Lester; the lies the publicity managers feed to the newspapers to pretend everything's smooth sailing; the hoards of crowds at times of mourning just to get a glimpse of the star attraction. This film is perhaps even more unsettling if you even know an iota of Judy Garland's life; one almost wonders if Norman Maine was written with Garland's life story for inspiration.
Even though it's really Garland's show, James Mason more than equals her vibrant intensity and naked vulnerability. Norman Maine may be sinking lower into self-pity, but he never loses his charm, his wit, his undying love and pride in his wife Esther. Mason's portrayal of a man who knows all too well that he's falling apart is at times painful to watch because of its truthfulness, which are both matched and contrasted with his romantic scenes with Garland--their love is so powerful because both Esther and Norman are so willing to make sacrifices for each other, and because Garland and Mason bring out the best parts in each other and their slightly self-deprecating but tender humor is so perfectly matched. Even the way Garland touches Mason's face with her hand says more words of honesty and love than any of the film's dialogue.
In the film Esther/Vicki wins an Oscar for Best Actress. It's a prediction that should've come true and Grace Kelly's Oscar win for THE COUNTRY GIRL over Garland remains controversial to this day. Both were playing essentially the same roles, as the long-suffering wives to a struggling, alcoholic entertainer. I never considered Grace Kelly a great actress by any means (she only came alive under Hitchcock's direction), but you have to give her credit for being ahead of her time--she won an Oscar for dolling down, wearing little make-up, sporting glasses and a frumpy wardrobe in 1955--all of which is the perfect recipe for winning an Oscar today. However, her role (and the film) is repetitively downbeat with no hints of life, and she only seemed to walk in Georgie's shoes. Judy Garland may have been falling apart off-screen but she was a stronger actress than Kelly any day because her poignant fragility and energetic smile were combined with such an amazing grace. It helped that she had an amazing voice, but she could've--and would've--made it on talent alone. She will be immortalized with "Over the Rainbow" from 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ, and she showcases many memorable performances in A STAR IS BORN, from the famous 15-minute mini-epic (if slightly overrated) "Born in a Trunk" to the quietly piercing "It's A New World" to the whimsical "Someone at Last," but I think her finest is earlier in the film, with Norman hiding, listening from the shadows to the towering "The Man that Got Away," shot in a single long take of Judy and her soaring voice that quivers with fragility to the happy possibility of hope. One has a feeling that that was the essence of Judy Garland: smiling through the tears, putting on a smile even when her heart was breaking.
Oscars were never meant to be taken seriously, and since the greatest performances of each year are so often overlooked, it's almost a requirement for film buffs to take each award with a grain of salt. And yet, one wonders if Judy had won the golden guy, maybe she would've emerged triumphant from the film's disappointing box-office receipts and would've found both good work and the strength to continue making forceful performances. On the night of the awards ceremony, people were sure she was going to win that they build this tower outside Garland's hospital room window (she had just given birth to her son) so that she could still give a speech when her name was read. When to everyone's shock Grace Kelly's name was said, the cameramen cleared out before Kelly even reached the stage, without so much as a goodbye. Judy would later shrug it off with her usual self-deprecating humor saying that she left the hospital with something better (her newborn son), but it's clear that it was the end of the rainbow for one of the brightest stars who was in the sky for just a little too long.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
The Greatest Show on Earth? Hardly.
The late critic Gene Siskel once had a test to see which movies were deserving of a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and it all boiled down to one simple question: Is this movie more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch? Well, even if Cecil B. DeMille had a made a documentary about either the Barnum and Bailey circus or the same actors having lunch, that wouldn't make this film redeeming enough to merit the Best Picture Oscar it won over "The Quiet Man," "High Noon" and the un-nominated "Singin' in the Rain."
I'll admit that the stunts are inspiring and it actually is pretty fascinating to see all the trouble that goes into putting that huge canvas tent up, but when DeMille tries to go for drama he's pretty clueless, for to call the acting by Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde hammy would be an insult to Christmas dinner; even the reliable Jimmy Stewart is covered in clown make-up for the whole. Entire. Movie. The all-too familiar love triangle only makes the audience feel jerked around, and it's trite ("He tried to save me! He loves me!" Twenty minutes later to suitor #2: "His arm is paralyzed and he didn't want to tell me! He loves me!" Lather, rinse, repeat for three hours). The only performer who's reliable for laughs and relief is the underrated Gloria Grahame, spunky as usual. De Mille thought he was making a circus movie. I think he made a train wreck.
You Must Remember This
It's almost unfair to lavish praise on CASABLANCA, for such universal praise comes the expectation of the masterwork of an auteur such as Welles or Hitchcock. The result could not be farther from that expectation, and indeed it is difficult to describe just how and why CASABLANCA remains such a beloved film. Here is a film that nobody wanted to make (especially the stars, who only bonded when trying to get out of the film), that was saddled with production problems from day one due to the incomplete script, and somehow has turned into the most brilliant accidental masterpiece in American cinema.
Humphrey Bogart stars as a cross between a Hemingway anti-hero and Jesus in a waiter's outfit. Richard Blaine, American, age 37 with questionably brown eyes and a sketchy past, runs a popular nightclub in Casablanca during the early days of WWII that attracts a rainbow of diverse characters from Italian thieves to bickering Frenchmen, from desperate refugees to German officers. Rick has all the right things to say (courtesy of the brilliant dialogue via the Epstein Twins, Howard Koch and Casey Robinson) but is deeply flawed, a cynical, selfish man with clearly no respect for himself or other people save the French officer Louis Renault and best friend, the piano-playing Sam. Just as the audience is wondering what made Rick such a complex character, the answer comes in the form of the beautiful Ilsa Lund (the ethereal Ingrid Bergman), who of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, walks into Rick's and turns his life upside down. As the woman he once loved and got away for unexplained reasons, it becomes clear that Rick still bears the scars of her leaving him--and that Ilsa still loves him. Now married to Czech resistance fighter Viktor Lazlo (Paul Henried), the couple try in vain to acquire exit visas and, believing that Rick has two letters of transit that would allow anyone to leave Casablanca without question, Ilsa and Viktor try to crack his outer crust, and Rick must choose between his love for Ilsa and his idealistic interior he only thinks he can hide.
When one looks objectively at CASABLANCA, there isn't a lot to rave about, and yet everything comes together so seamlessly. Michael Curtiz's fine knowledge of how the camera told a story was put to excellent use here, from the sweeping shots that pass through imaginary walls to the delicacy of Ingrid Bergman's face. The script, written by at least four different screenwriters while shooting was taking place, should've collapsed under the weight of its own multiple genres and chaotic preparation, but the actors say their lines with a conviction and believability it's difficult to realize that nobody wanted to be there in the first place.
Above all things, it's the characters and performances that make CASABLANCA what it is today. As Roger Ebert pointed out, all the characters are so good, and even the ones that are meant to be ambiguous (such as Renault) or crooks (such as Ugarte), they are so interesting and lively the audience feels compelled to follow them out of Rick's and see where fate takes them. At the center of all this is Rick and Ilsa's tortured love affair. Unlike almost all other love stories, the audience never knows how Rick and Ilsa first met. Unlike almost all other love stories, it doesn't matter; the audience doesn't need a meet-cute scene within the Paris flashback--we see it all in the way Bogart and Bergman look at each other with such love and understanding, and we feel their pain of witnessing their awkward encounter almost two years after Ilsa ran away from Rick. It is a testament to the actors yet again that makes a rather conventional love story so interesting and involving. The role of an anti-hero is one Humphrey Bogart could've sleepwalked through, but under Michael Curtiz's direction there's an understanding just beneath the surface that breaks through. And Ingrid Bergman more or less disowned the film that cemented her in film history (and objectively speaking Ilsa is a very underwritten character), but she was above all things a professional; she did her job and she did it so well she was never able to escape the praise that followed her to her death. Her most celebrated scene is perhaps when Curtiz lets the camera linger on her gorgeous face while Sam plays "it," and memories of love and pain come rushing back. Any other actress would've overplayed it, but Bergman is almost doing what another famous Swedish import had done 9 years earlier, when Greta Garbo made a blank face and let the audience interpret the final close-up of QUEEN Christina, even though the audience *does* know what Ilsa's thinking, and it's all the more poignant for Bergman's performance.
How CASABLANCA has survived for over 60 years is a miracle, and it'll continue to inspire for another 60 years, because it's still the same old story: a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die. All great literature and films are still relevant because of their universal themes; in this case, the world will always welcome a great love story, terrific acting and classic storytelling as time goes by.