Come February 24, the Academy Awards will pop out of the envelopes. And in all these 90 years that the Oscars have been in existence, the gala evening in Los Angeles has surprised and shocked us. There have been many, many upsets as there have been many, many much anticipated wins. And, in all these nine decades, there have been films that have clinched the best picture trophies, but have faded with time, from memory. But there have been winners which have endured the test of time and tide. These movies have never aged , never sunk into oblivion, never been forgotten. They have remained beyond time, timeless so to say.
One of them is Michael Curtiz- helmed Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid. It opened in 1942, coinciding with the Allied invasion of North Africa in the closing years of World War II. Fast-paced deeply emotional drama and romantic to the core, Casablanca in black and white was set in the Moroccan city, which was then under the independent French Vichy Administration.
Loosely based on the unproduced American play, Everybody Come's To Rick's, Casablanca was never shot in Casablanca. And how could it be – with the War on? So, an elaborate set was built in Hollywood to resemble the city. Years later, this became a talking point at Cannes. At a Press conference, the enfant terrible of European cinema, Lars Von Trier, was asked how he could have made films set in America like Manderlay and Dogville when he had never been there (a flying phobia has confined the auteur to travel within Europe). Von Trier shot back: “But did they go to Casablanca to make Casablanca!”
True, but Casablanca, despite this lie or trick, became a classic not long after it hit the theatres in 1942/43. In the movie, the Moroccan city becomes a point of salvation for all those Europeans fleeing Nazi tyranny. There they could hope to buy “Letters of Transit”, which would allow them to fly to Lisbon – and then to the New World or America.
The film begins at Rick's Cafe Americano – a saloon in Casablanca run by Richard Blaine or Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart). People flocked to the cafe to have a good time and maybe to get hold of the Letters. And in walks Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech Resistance fighter. She sees Sam, the cafe's pianist, and implores him to play “As Time Goes By”. He says he does not remember the song. “Play Sam, Play As Time Goes By...” she insists. And he plays. Rick is shocked to see Ilsa.
An emotionally charged love story unfolds against the raging war, and Rick, all drunk and depressed, tells Sam that night “Of all the gin joins in all the towns in all the world, she has to walk into mine”. And we are led into the past, in Paris, where Rick and Ilsa had met earlier – an Ilsa who thought her husband, Victor, had died in a German concentration camp. There is telling scene of the German cannon sound in the distance with Rick and Ilsa looking out of their flat window in Paris. A wine glass in hand, he toasts: “Here's looking at you, kid”.
This line, which is said again and again, became a huge hit and, who knows, must have brought millions of lovers together.
But strangely, Bogart hardly ever spoke to the “kid” off the movie sets. He was a loner, a chain smoker, who kept to himself in his vanity van when he was not facing the camera.
As for Bergman, who looks ravishing and whose performance was nothing short of extraordinary, she was completely confused about her role as Ilsa Lund. She had no clue whether she was to be in love with Victor or Rick. Every time, she asked Curtiz, he was vague. He himself was not sure, and ended up shooting several climaxes: one where Ilsa would get on the plane to Lisbon with her husband, and another, where she would stay back in Casablanca with Rick. There was a third ending: of Rick and Ilsa flying away.
But with the Allied invasion of North Africa in mid-1942, Casablanca producers rushed to have it released to take advantage of this crucial war development. They thought that since Casablanca was set in North Africa, the film could be a big hit.
And Casablanca chose to go with a bitter-sweet end -- which was shot and ready. Victor and Ilsa get the Letters of Transit from Rick and go away to Lisbon. At the airport, a teary-eyed Ilsa looks up at Rick and asks him what is to become of them. “We'll always have Paris”, he tells her.
And as the plane takes off, Rick walks away with Captain Louis, the French police chief, ( an unforgettable performance by Claude Rains, whose wit and sarcasm were mind-blowing), the saloon-keeper says: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship”.
Well, we do not know what happened to Rick and Louis. There has not been a movie sequel. But a 1998 book, As Time Goes By, penned by an American author, Michael Walsh, acts as a prequel and sequel to Casablanca. The novel alternates between the early life of Rick and what happens to him after the plane goes away. Walsh's work made no great mark. It could not come anywhere close to Casablanca, did indeed forge a beautiful relationship with generations of cinema goers. And As Time Goes By, the love story has not just endured, but also grown into unbelievable experience.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)
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