Casablanca: The Case for it Being the Best Movie Ever

As a self-professed film geek I often get asked what my favorite movie of all-time is. People are often surprised when I have an answer. I have a long list of favorite movies. But if there’s one movie that represents everything I love about cinema it’s Casablanca from 1942. In this week’s blog post I will make the case for why it is the gold standard of film.

casablanca

1. The Cast

I must confess that my favorite actor is Humphrey Bogart. But it isn’t just his presence that makes Casablanca so great. There’s Ingrid Bergman as Bogart’s former lover Ilsa, Paul Henreid as Ilsa’s lover, Peter Lorre as Ugarte, a member of Casablanca’s criminal underworld, Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari (owner of the Blue Parrot), and Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault. Casablanca featured a who’s who of great actors of the time.

2. It’s the Screenplay, Stupid!

Movies rise and fall with the quality of their stories and the dialogue used to tell them. Casablanca was based on a play called Everybody Comes to Rick’sThe movie is filled with brilliant dialogue. I quote lines from it every day. In fact, there are very few lines in the movie that aren’t memorable. Rather than list them all, this video offers a nice compilation of some of the best.

My favorite? This one:

Rick: Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. 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. Someday you’ll understand that.

It’s heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. If that doesn’t get your emotions going, I don’t think you have a pulse.

3. The Love Story

Casablanca is a story about people surviving during a time of war. It’s also about two people who were in love, parted on not so great terms, and wind up together again in an unlikely place being forced to confront their feelings for one another. Ilsa ran out on Rick in Paris, Rick ended up in Casablanca running the most popular nightclub, and when Ilsa runs into him in his nightclub she is in love with Victor Laszlo, one of the Czech resistance leaders. All of this comes to a head when they meet at Rick’s nightclub. In a lesser movie this love triangle would have been a soap opera or cheap melodrama. But thanks to the talented cast and a brilliant script everyone’s point of view is given equal weight. When Rick and Ilsa see each other for the first time in years Rick’s reaction shortly thereafter is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in cinema. Bogart sitting in his club long after it’s closed for the night drinking himself into a stupor, listening to his piano player play the song he and Ilsa shared when they were dating, and seeing the flashbacks of how they parted ways… It has to be seen to be appreciated. As Bogart says,

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

Casablanca puts romance stories today to shame.

4. The Germans vs. the French in an Anthem-off

There are so many great moments in Casablanca. If I devoted a section to all of them I’d end up rehashing basically the whole movie. However, it’s impossible to discuss Casablanca without the anthem scene. In Rick’s cafe the Germans are singing their national anthem. Rick gives the okay to Laszlo and the resistance supporters to start singing the French anthem. It’s one of the most powerful scenes ever filmed. One of the lasting images of Casablanca for me is the tears in the eyes of the French woman singing and playing the anthem on her guitar. Just watch and enjoy!

5. The Ending

Spoiler alert: if you have not seen Casablanca read no further as this contains spoilers! I really respect Casablanca for having an ending that isn’t predictable/easy/happy. If the film had been made today Rick and Ilsa would have gone off together and left Laszlo to perish. Casablanca is great for many reasons, but one of them is that it shows people having the courage to make the right decisions even when they are difficult. When Rick and Ilsa say goodbye at the end it’s sad, but we know it’s for the best. Ilsa has to go and support Victor as he leads the resistance and Rick has to sacrifice his ticket out of Casablanca. The movie doesn’t give us an ending that’s easy to swallow. But back in 1942 more was expected of movie audiences.

That’s my case. What are your thoughts? I will leave you with a bonus reason: Rick and Ilsa’s song. It gets me every time!

Director Spotlight: David Lynch

“Absurdity is what I like most in life.”–David Lynch

One of the most unique directors working today is David Lynch. Since the release of his first feature-length film Erasherhead in 1977, Lynch has been taking film audiences to places they never thought possible. While many of his films can be best described as bizarre, they are never dull. In this week’s blog entry I will take you through a brief history of this director’s unique career.

In 1977 Lynch released his first film. It was called Erasherhead. It’s a film almost impossible to describe. Erasherheadfor me anyway, is less about the plot than the imagery. On the surface it’s about a man named Henry who is trying to survive living in a heavily industrialized environment and dealing with his crazy family. The real star of the film though is not the actors but the visuals. The lights that flicker on and off in his apartment building, the sight of bowls of water in Henry’s dresser, the lady singing in the radiator, etc. Erasherhead gave us a taste of what was to come in Lynch’s later films.

Then in 1980 Lynch gave us The Elephant Man. This film showed us Lynch’s full potential as a director. It wasn’t just a collection of unique images but a full story. The Elephant Man of the title is a disfigured man who has taken a job as a side-show freak. He is rescued by a Victorian doctor who discovers that under the deformed appearance is a tortured soul. The Elephant Man not only benefits from Lynch’s unique perspective as a director, but from a very talented cast. Anthony Hopkins plays the doctor and John Hurt plays the Elephant Man. The cast also includes Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud. It’s a film about growth and acceptance that has many genuinely emotional moments.

Following The Elephant Man, Lynch would take us to a galaxy far, far away. It was a little movie called Dune. I will let Internet Movie Database sum up the plot for this one.

A Duke’s son leads desert warriors against the galactic emperor and his father’s evil nemesis when they assassinate his father and free their desert world from the emperor’s rule

Dune of course was based on the novel of the same name by Frank Herbert. It starred Kyle MacLachlan, who would become a frequent collaborator with Lynch. It’s the unique vision of Lynch meets the futuristic feel of Star Wars. Dune would go on to win an Academy Award for sound.

While Lynch had been turning heads for several years with his films, it wasn’t until 1986 when people really sat up and took notice. It was because of a little film called Blue Velvet.

Blue Velvet is not a movie I recommend watching before bed or if you’re easily scared. It’s certainly unlike anything you have seen. I still have nightmares from this film and I’ve seen just about every horror film there is. The film starts when a man living in what at first glance looks like Beaver Cleaverville finds a severed in the yard. The man is named Jeffrey and he’s played by Kyle MacLachlan. What follows is an exploration of the dark underworld that exists in this seemingly quiet American town. Isabella Rossellini plays Jeffrey’s love interest and Dennis Hopper plays the villainous Frank Booth. Now, Hopper has played lots of villains in his career, but this is by far the creepiest one. I kid you not! He’s psychotic, depraved, and made me want to take a shower afterwords. Actually, this whole film made me want to take a shower. I admire Lynch pushing the envelope, but Blue Velvet just went a little too far for me. But it’s definitely a film worth studying. I would rather watch Blue Velvet than the remakes and sequels that pollute today’s multiplexes. See it and judge for yourself!

Now I’m going to cheat a little bit and examine a TV show David Lynch brought us in 1990. It’s so unique that I couldn’t gloss over it. You may have heard of this show. It was called Twin Peaks. It followed an FBI agent named Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) who gets sent to the small town of Twin Peaks to investigate the death of a young woman named Laura Palmer. Twin Peaks again shows Lynch peeling the facade off of a quiet town and exposing its dark secrets. Twin Peaks can be described as Leave it to Beaver meets The Twilight Zone with a little spirit of Northern Exposure thrown in for good measure. It’s one of the best serialized TV shows I’ve ever seen. It’s a great crime show and just an entertaining show period. There are certain things in the show that will forever be unexplained (the dancing dwarf for instance), but that’s just Lynch being Lynch. Sit back and enjoy this unique series!

In 1997 Lynch would delve further into crime dramas with his movie Lost Highway. The plot:

After a bizarre encounter at a party, a jazz saxophonist is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to prison, where he inexplicably morphs into a young mechanic and begins leading a new life.

There are crime movies, and then there are David Lynch crime movies. This movie left me kind of cold. I got to the end and had this reaction, “what did I just watch?” It’s like Twilight Zone meets your favorite crime movie. But it doesn’t have the imagination of Twin Peaks or the uniqueness of Erasherhead. That’s just my opinion however.

1999 saw the release of what is probably what is Lynch’s most normal film. It was The Straight Story. While the story is simple and doesn’t delve into the bizarre as is typical of Lynch, it’s one of the most effective stories ever told on screen. It stars Richard Farnsworth as Alvin. Alvin takes a journey across America’s heartland on his tractor to visit and mend his relationship with his brother. That’s it. The Straight Story showed that Lynch could write stories that were character-driven. It’s not just about Alvin and his relationship with his brother, but about the people Alvin meets along the journey to meet his brother. Farnsworth would earn an Oscar nomination for his gripping performance.

The year 2001 would bring about my favorite Lynch movie. It was called Mullholland Drive. Here was a film that for my money brought together Lynch’s knack for nightmarish, beautiful visuals and telling an engrossing mystery. The plot? Internet Movie Database explains,

After a car wreck on the winding Mulholland Drive renders a woman amnesic, she and a perky Hollywood-hopeful search for clues and answers across Los Angeles in a twisting venture beyond dreams and reality.

The film stars Naomi Watts in what I still think is her best performance. Mulholland Drive is a movie hard to describe without giving away many plot points. It’s a truly unique cinematic experience. Mulholland Drive is a journey worth taking. I was really hoping it would finally win Lynch an Oscar. Alas, it was not to be. At least he was nominated for Best Director. I guess it was too imaginative for the Oscar voters.

Well, that concludes my profile of David Lynch. I neglected to include his most recent film Inland Empire because I have not seen it yet. Knowing Lynch it’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on Lynch? Any favorite films of his? Discuss in the comments section!

 

Essentials by Genre: Science Fiction

I’ve done pieces on the essential documentaries and foreign language films you should see. This week I present to you another installment in my essentials by genre series. This week I give you my essential science fiction films. I was raised on Star Trek and Twilight Zone reruns thanks to my unabashedly geeky mother, so this is one of my favorite genres. After careful consideration, here are the essential science fiction films for anyone who wants to be film literate. The list is in no particular order, lest anyone think I’m ranking them.

1. Metropolis (1927)

No serious discussion of science fiction films, or films period, is complete without Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Released in 1927, it is simply one of the most important films ever made. Looking at the massive sets and thought-provoking story, it’s hard to imagine it was made back in the 1920’s. The story is about a society divided by class. The upper class lives in the skyscrapers and the workers live below in horrible conditions. The son of the city’s founder meets one of the women workers who is optimistic that someday a mediator will come along and bring the classes together. This doesn’t sit too well with the city’s founder, who kidnaps her and makes a robot version of her to use against the workers to stop them from rising up. Films like Blade Runner, Dark City, and The Matrix owe a debt to Metropolis, especially in the production design department. Metropolis is a great science fiction film and also a great way to introduce yourself to silent films.

2. Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars. Do I really need to say much more than that? Before George Lucas got carried away with going digital at the expense of characters and dialogue in the prequels (a rant for another day), there was the original film which was a watershed moment in cinema history. By now you know the story is about Luke Skywalker, who teams up with a Jedi named Obi-Wan Kenobi, a smuggler named Han Solo, a rebel by the name of Princess Leia, and a couple of droids to defeat the evil Empire led by Darth Vader. Star Wars gave us Industrial Light & Magic, a special effects studio created for the film when Lucas knew the effects he wanted for his movie would require new technology. Star Wars took us to a galaxy far, far away with some unforgettable characters and amazing action sequences. The opening shot of the Imperial Star Destroyer is a curtain raiser for what is one of the most timeless epics in the history of movies. If you get a chance do see it on a big screen. When the original trilogy was re-released in theaters for its 20th anniversary my mother took me to see it, insisting I be raised on the classics. It’s an experience I will never forget.

3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Director Robert Wise may have won awards for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but he also was responsible for two significant science fiction films. He directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Day the Earth Stood Still to this day is one of the most thoughtful films in the genre. The plot? A UFO lands on Earth after the end of World War II. The aliens tell Earth that they must stop being destructive or it will be destroyed because it is a threat to the galaxy. That concept was radical back in 1951. Today it’s not as controversial and the film holds up over 50 years later.

4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Science fiction is a great vehicle for social/political commentary. One of the best examples is the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A race of aliens plans to takeover Earth by turning its inhabitants into emotionless pod people. As soon as you fall asleep they can absorb your thoughts and memories. You’ll look like you, and sound like you, but you won’t be you. The story was a metaphor for the fear of communism at the time of its release. What makes this film hold up over time is the timeless fear of losing your identity and being forced into conformity. The premise is truly terrifying! An effective remake was made in 1978 starring Donald Sutherland, but the original is still the best.

5. Alien (1979)

Alien is part science fiction and part horror. On both levels the film is a masterpiece. The movie made a star out of Sigourney Weaver, who would later appear in the sequels (Aliens being the best of the bunch) and appear in many other great films. The movie follows the crew of the space vessel Nostromo as they respond to a distress call from an alien planet. They go down to look for survivors and find none. One of the crew is attacked by a facehugger alien. When the person is brought back on the ship terror ensues. Alien gives us a very grungy version of the future so space looks lived in, the opposite of pristine visions of the future seen in previous films. And the alien when you do see it is pretty scary. In the end the plot is about who can survive being trapped on the ship with the acid tongued alien. Alien also has one of the freakiest scenes in any movie: the famous chest-bursting scene. To this day I have nightmares about it. With Alien, director Ridley Scott raised the bar for science fiction.

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001 has a plot that’s rather complex. I’ll let Internet Movie Database explain it.

“2001” is a story of evolution. Sometime in the distant past, someone or something nudged evolution by placing a monolith on Earth (presumably elsewhere throughout the universe as well). Evolution then enabled humankind to reach the moon’s surface, where yet another monolith is found, one that signals the monolith placers that humankind has evolved that far. Now a race begins between computers (HAL) and humans to reach the monolith placers. The winner will achieve the next step in evolution, whatever that may be.

The story is a little convoluted, but the films is worth your patience. The visuals are stunning and the villanous computer HAL is one of the most chilling characters ever put on-screen. Add in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary direction and you have something that’s truly special. Fun fact: there was a score composed for 2001, but Kubrick thought using classical music would be more effective. He was right. It’s impossible to imagine the opening sequence without Thus Spoke Zarathustra playing in the background.

7. Forbidden Planet (1956)

Imagine mixing science fiction with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and you get the genre classic Forbidden Planet. A spaceship and its crew are sent to investigate the sudden silence coming from a planet inhabited by scientists. Upon arrival the crew discovers all but two people are dead. The culprit is a monster that roams the planet. Forbidden Planet has a robot that would go on to be the inspiration for Robbie the Robot on the TV show Lost in Space. The cast features Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and Anne Francis. Not a bad cast for an early science fiction film.

8. Galaxy Quest (1999)

I had to include one comedy on the list. Galaxy Quest starts off as a parody of Star Trek and its fan base. It has fun with that without being cruel or condescending. Then the real story kicks in and it’s a great ride from there. The cast of a cult TV show is brought to outer space to help an alien race under attack. The aliens have seen tapes of their show thinking the actors really are space heroes. The cast of the show are forced to play their television roles in real life. Among the talented cast: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Tony Shalhoub. Sit back and enjoy this parody of science fiction fandoms and love letter to the genre. If you need an extra reason to see it, consider that it was endorsed by Star Trek alum George Takei.

9. Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner is another case where I need help from Internet Movie Database explaining the plot.

In a cyberpunk vision of the future, man has developed the technology to create replicants, human clones used to serve in the colonies outside Earth but with fixed lifespans. In Los Angeles, 2019, Deckard is a Blade Runner, a cop who specializes in terminating replicants. Originally in retirement, he is forced to re-enter the force when four replicants escape from an off-world colony to Earth.

Deckard is played by Harrison Ford in one of his best performances. Blade Runner marks the second appearance of director Ridley Scott on this list. The man has a knack for science fiction. The dystopian future is visually stunning and has to be seen to be believed. Blade Runner was based on the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The author’s work also inspired Minority Report, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau among others. Blade Runner delves further into the question of man versus machine. There are five different versions of the film in existence due to friction between Scott and the studio releasing the film If you want further insight into the tortured production of this classic, check out the documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. It’s really one of the best educations in film making you will ever get.

10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

How do you follow the success of Jaws? If you’re Steven Spielberg you make Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the film, a line worker played by Richard Dreyfuss goes to investigate a power outage. Along the way his truck stalls and he is bathed in some kind of mysterious light. He then starts having visions and five musical notes repeat in his head. He sets out to find what it all means. Of course it involves aliens and humans making contact with them. Close Encounters is effective as science fiction, mystery, and drama. Spielberg would go on to give us another science fiction class: E.T.. This movie gave us a great taste of things to come from one of our most talented directors.

Those are my science fiction essentials. What say you? Discuss in the comment section!