Monday 29 April 2013

"Casablanca" and The Other Four Best Movies EVER Made...In My Humble Opinion. Part 1

 My Top Three favourite movies of all time used to be "Casablanca", "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Chinatown". In recent years, however, Frank Capra's timeless Christmas tale has been usurped by one of Howard Hawks' best films, "His Girl Friday". Rounding out the Top Five, then, are the Capra film and Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest".


                                Directed by Michael Curtiz
              Warner Bros., 1942
               Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein,              
                Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
                 and Casey Robinson (uncredited).
                  Based on "Everybody Comes to Rick's"
                   by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.

The story centres around Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American, who runs a casino/bar in unoccupied Morocco during the Second World War. Complications arise when Rick's old flame, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), arrives in Casablanca with her new lover, a Resistance fighter named Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), whose presence unnerves the recently-arrived Nazi Official, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) who is intent on arresting him. Strasser is in Casablanca to investigate the murder of two German couriers who were carrying letters of transit, which allow the bearer freedom to travel throughout neutral territories. These letters of transit are now somewhere in Casablanca and Laszlo is out to get them so that he can carry on his Resistance work.
Rick remains neutral as both the German High Command and the French Vichy Prefect of Police, Renault (Claude Rains), try to get a bead on what makes him tick and where his loyalties lie.
Here's a scene from a transcript of the screenplay. It's one of the beautifully-written exchanges that populate this entire film;

                         I have often speculated on why you
                         don't return to America. Did you
                         abscond with the church funds? Did
                         you run off with a senator's wife? I
                         like to think you killed a man. It's
                         the romantic in me.

               Rick still looks in the direction of the airport.

                         It was a combination of all three.

                         And what in heaven's name brought
                         you to Casablanca?

                         My health. I came to Casablanca for
                         the waters.

                         Waters? What waters? We're in the

                         I was misinformed.
The template for the character of Rick Blaine was described as "two parts Hemingway, one part Scott-Fitzgerald". He was to be smooth and urbane, but with a tough and cynical core. The casting of Humphrey Bogart as Blaine was an attempt by Warner Brothers Studios to distance their star from his usual gangster and bad guy roles and reinvent him as a romantic lead. He was a perfect choice. I have read that Ronald Reagan was slated for the part, but this is, in fact, bogus, and that the role was also offered to George Raft, who turned it down. This, it appears, is also not true. The role of Rick Blaine was always written with Bogart in mind.

                                            Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, owner of Rick's Cafe Americain
I don't know what I could say about this film that hasn't been said better by film reviewers and historians over the years. The screenplay was based on an unproduced stageplay entitled "Everybody Comes To Rick's", written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison and numerous changes were made to the original story by twin brothers Julius J and Philip G Epstein initially, before Howard Koch came on board to continue work on it while the brothers went on to write a propaganda war movie for Frank Capra shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The Epsteins returned to work on the final draft of the screenplay some time later. Some further rewriting was done by casey Robinson, although his imput is uncredited.
Normally, I tend to worry when too many writers are involved in the screenplay because it usually results in a convoluted mess, but this film seemed to have been charmed from the beginning. There's not a bad line in the entire film and every character is well drawn.Warner Brothers was well-known for its high production values and this film has a beautiful look to it, with some great cinematography by Arthur Edison.

SPOILER ALERT (for the six people out there who've never seen this film)

Film director Sidney Pollack once said that the best love stories are the ones where the lovers don't wind up together. I tend to disagree because that's what happens in real life and I want more escapism in my films. However, "Casablanca" has a perfect ending. Rick Blaine wants to end up with Ilsa, but he knows the more noble option is to let her go with Laszlo, since she is the thing that keeps the Resistance leader fighting his cause. Absolutely perfect.


It's easily been about five years since I last watched "Casablanca". I have the 60th Anniversary two-disc special edition on DVD and, whenever I watched it, I'd get a mad craving for a cigarette. I've been off them for a couple of years, but I'm not sure if seeing Rick Blaine in his white dinner jacket and holding an unfiltered Lucky Strike (or even better, a Fatima) may not resurrect the urge for a smoke.
One way to find out. See you in 98 minutes!
100 minutes later...
My God, everybody subsists on a diet of cigarettes and alcohol in this film! I gotta get my butt over to Casablanca. Thankfully, I didn't get the urge for a cigarette while watching this film.
Besides, Bogart did enough smoking in it for the both of us.
"Casablanca" is my all-time favourite film and yet, after this viewing, it's an even better film than I recalled. I've already mentioned Arthur Edison's cinematography. The lighting and composition of nearly every shot in this film is superb and it clearly shows the care and attention that Warner Brothers Studios were renowned for in this era of Hollywood film.
Bogart's performance is multi-layered and there are some subtle shifts in his facial expressions throughout this film that convey Rick Blaine's hurt and conflicting emotions once Ilsa Lund comes back into his life.

Ingrid Bergman's performance is rich and shows the difference in acting styles back then between American actresses and those with European drama training.
                                           Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund
Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo plays second fiddle to Bogart's Rick, but he needs to be seen as both a sympathetic character and also one whom Ilsa would leave Rick for. Henreid does well in his role. He also appeared opposite Bette Davis in "Now Voyager" (Dir: Irving Rapper, 1942) and there's a scene where he puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them both, and then hands one to Bette Davis. It is one of the coolest scenes I've ever seen and, back in my early smoking days, every attempt to replicate the move would end in laughter for anybody watching me. Here it is off YouTube.
HEALTH WARNING- Smoking is very bad for you AND this scene may contain plot spoilers;

                                          Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo

Claude Rains was a great character actor and here he delivers a wonderful performance as Captain Renault. In fact, this film has a beautiful array of character actors throughout, from Peter Lorre's brief screen-time as the oily Ugarte, to S.K. Sakall and Leonid Kinskey as Rick's employees, to Sydney Greenstreet as Ferrari, a shady businessman. And of course, there's also Dooley Wilson as Sam, the piano player at Rick's, whose rendition of "As Time Goes By" has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Although, Barbra Streisand did a great little version of it in "What's Up, Doc?" (Dir: Peter Bogdanovich, 1972).

                                          Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault

As mentioned above, I have read that the screenplay to this film was written in a very haphazard way, due to the working shedules of the writers involved. The Epstein brothers went off to do their patriotic bit for Capra and Howard Koch took over before they returned to the story a month later. It was even reported that whole scenes were being written on the day that they were due to be filmed. Either way, it's a great script, and, in 2006, the Writer's Guild of America named it the best screenplay of all time, and the American Film Institute have ranked "Casablanca" as Number 2 in their list of The 100 Greatest Movies. Probably behind "Citizen Kane", no doubt.

Perhaps it's because I'm a romantic at heart that I consider "Casablanca" to be such a great film. Perhaps it's because this film touches on notions of sacrifice for the greater good over one's own desires.
Perhaps it's because "Casablanca" is a perfect example of moviemaking from a time when story was important and scenes were given time to unfold.
I don't know.
All I know is that I watched it again a few hours ago and it's still in my Number One spot.


Picture courtesy of

                            Directed by Howard Hawks,
             Columbia, 1940
              Screenplay by Charles Lederer
               Based on the stageplay "The Front Page"
                by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
I've mentioned this film before. It's one of the best screwball comedies ever made. I first saw it back in the late 1980s when it screened as a midday movie and I recorded it off tv onto a VHS cassette.
I played this film to death. I watched it EVERY NIGHT at around ten pm for ALMOST TWO MONTHS!
Once DVD came along, I kept an eye out for this film. I've bought two different copies of it on DVD, but the picture quality is not as good as the print that was screened on Channel 7 back in 1988. Why The Criterion Collection hasn't released a restored print of this classic film, I'll never know.
Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart are my two favourite actors from The Golden Age of Hollywood. Back in the '80s, I was seeking out as many Cary Grant films as I could, keeping a lookout in the tv listings for screenings of his movies, hiring other films of his from my local video libraries.
This film was based on a stageplay, called "The Front Page", and had already been made into a movie back in 1931. It starred Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns, newspaper Editor of a Chicago daily, and Pat O'Brien as his ace reporter, named Hildy Johnson. Johnson decides to quit the newspaper game to take a job in advertising and marry his fiancee just as a big story unfolds and Burns tries to keep him around to write the story so that his newspaper can get the scoop. The film touches on issues of race, reason versus insanity, and political corruption as a recently-unemployed man named Earl Williams is arrested for shooting a black policeman and the Mayor is looking to get him a death-sentence in a bid to garner public support for his office prior to an upcoming city election. This is a comedy?
There's more to the story, but I don't want to  ruin it for anybody who hasn't seen it.
This 1931 version is well-regarded,  and the film has since been remade a few times, in 1974 by the great Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and again in 1988 as a dreadful film with Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve. They moved it from a newspaper to a tv news station and it was called "Switching Channels", directed by Ted Kotcheff, but it is the 1940 remake by Howard Hawks that is considered classic.
The main reason for this was Hawks' introduction of sexual politics into the mix. Hawks decided to make Hildy Johnson a woman and this changed the dynamic between the two main characters. It was a master-stroke and the casting of Rosalind Russell as Hildy was perfect.
(EDIT 3/5/13- It was actually screenwriter Charles Lederer's idea to make Hildy Johnson female.)
The other thing that Hawks did was have his two main leads deliver their dialogue overlapping each other. As one neared the end of a sentence, the other would start talking, making for dialogue scenes that moved at a breakneck pace over the 92 minute runtime of the movie. This is a trick that was used often in the tv series "Moonlighting", starring Cybil Shepherd and a younger Bruce Willis, in the late '80s.
Cary Grant is in perfect form as Editor of The Morning Post, Walter Burns, who will stoop as low as he can to get what he wants and Rosalind Russell proves that Hildy Johnson is more than up to the task of deflecting his tactics. Like "Casablanca", the supporting cast is wonderful, with each actor creating a unique character of their own.

ABOVE- Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson. Do you know how hard I tried to find a four-button-functional double-breasted suit with wide lapels like that back in 1989? Impossible, short of going tailor-made, which I couldn't afford.

Here's a snippet from the screenplay (transcript) where Hildy is trying to tell Burns that she's quitting the newspaper game in order to get married.
                              (still interrupting)
                         You've had a better offer, eh?

                         You bet I've got a better offer.

                         Well, go on and take it. Work for
                         somebody else! That's the gratitude
                         I get for --

                         I know, Walter, but I --

                              (ignoring her)
                         What were you when you came here
                         five years ago? A little college
                         girl from a School of Journalism! I
                         took a little doll-faced mugg --

                         You wouldn't have taken me if I hadn't
                         been doll-faced!

                         Why should I? I thought it would be
                         a novelty to have a face around here
                         a man could look at without

                         Listen, Walter --

                              (going right on)
                         I made a great reporter out of you,
                         Hildy, but you won't be half as good
                         on any other paper, and you know it.
                         You need me and I need you -- and
                         the paper needs both of us.

                         Well, the paper'll have to learn to
                         do without me. And so will you. It
                         just didn't work out, Walter.

               WIDER ANGLE

                         It would have worked if you'd been
                         satisfied with just being editor and
                         reporter. But no! You had to marry
                         me and spoil everything.

                         I wasn't satisfied! I suppose I
                         proposed to you!

                         Well, you practically did! Making
                         goo-goo eyes at me for two years
                         till I broke down. And I still claim
                         I was tight the night I proposed. If
                         you'd been a gentleman you'd have
                         forgotten all about it. But not you!

                         You -- you --

She grabs something and chucks it at him. He ducks. The phone rings.

                              (to Hildy)
                         You're losing your eye. You used to
                         be able to pitch better than that.
                              (he reaches for phone)
                         Hello... Yeah... What? Sweeney? Well,
                         what can I do for you?

 picture courtesy of
Grant practically yells his dialogue throughout this film and it further illustrates his bluster and blowhard methods of going about things. Quite a difference from how the debonaire Cary Grant has often been seen on-screen.
I remember a quote from Ivan Hutchinson, who was an Australian film critic, when he was presenting another Howard Hawks film on tv. He said; "Hawks liked his men to be men, and his women to be their buddies."
This is true of this film. Hildy Johnson is seen as 'one of the boys', often referring to herself as 'a newspaperman'. However, it is the fact that she is a woman that lends this film some heart. Walter Burns and all of the reporters on his staff are indeed quite cynical and cold-hearted, but it is made clear early on that the news story that they are covering requires a woman's touch. I've always liked the way Howard Hawks drew his female characters. They were almost as tough-as-nails as the men, but they would always show their feminine side before the end credits.

"His Girl Friday" is a beautifully-shot film too. Cinematographer Joseph Walker lights every frame just right, which is another reason why it's a crime that this film isn't available in a better print. I've read that the rights to this film fell into Public Domain in the late 1960s and this accounts for the poor quality DVDs currently on the market. I think an e-mail to Columbia Pictures may be in order. Or maybe I'll type out a letter on my circa 1936 Smith-Corona Standard. They'll think I'm a crackpot.
There's also an elegance in the composition of the shots in this film. Nothing is accidental in the way that they are arranged.

The scene above occurs in the Third Act and looking carefully, you see that the candle-stick telephones on the table and the overhanging lights in the ceiling mimic Walter and Hildy. It becomes a little more evident a few moments later when they are both making frantic phone calls with their backs to each other and their placement in the shot is no accident. It's a long scene, filled with snappy, rapid-fire dialogue and it's a credit to the talents of Grant, Russell and Ralph Bellamy (as Hildy's small-town insurance salesman fiance, who arrives in the office) and how they seemingly effortlessly deliver their lines over one another and yet we, as the audience, are able to follow every bit of it. Absolutely manic!

I've noticed a shift in comedy films over the last ten or fifteen years. The Farelly Brothers got the ball rolling with films like "There's Something About Mary" (1998) and Judd Apatow has kept things flowing with his films in recent years although, in his defence, he doesn't resort to the same level of crassness. Two-thousand and twelve saw a 'remake' of "21 Jump St", directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and, while the teenager in me found it somewhat amusing, the adult in me thought it struck a few too many low blows and easy laughs with its gratuitous use of foul language (and I swear as much as the next man, maybe more so) and crass comments. Remove the smut and it wouldn't be so funny.
It would be great to see a return to the kind of comedy film writing that doesn't rely so heavily on fart jokes and dirty talk. I'm no prude. It just reminds me of all the fart jokes and dirty talk that I heard from friends of mine back in my twenties.
It's a shame that there's no real middle ground between these types of comedy films and say, something like Woody Allen's output. Although, Allen's films have been a little hit-and-miss of late.
Nobody makes a good screwball comedy anymore. One that relies on clever dialogue that's actually funny too.
Thank God for films like "His Girl Friday".


Well, this post got a little out-of-hand. I thought I would cover all five films, but it looks like I'll have to split it up into parts. And, of course, while writing this, I got to thinking about films numbers six to ten. That's a post for a later date, no doubt. Too many great films. And most of them are in black and white.

Thanks for reading! And stay tuned for Part 2.


Thanks to Wikipedia and IMDB for info on these movies. Further and more detailed info can be found there.

Apologies for the little forward/reverse logo visible in some of the pictures. Saves me trawling the web for photos. Special thanks to those whose pictures I did use. Please don't sue. I'm a movie lover, like you.


  1. I've long been struck by the similarities between "Casablanca" and "To Have and Have Not." They're so similar but the latter is more lighthearted, and the couple is just meeting up. I'd like to know your thoughts on that film. Also, in "Casablanca" a German officer orders French 75's for himself and his date. That's where I learned of the drink - I had to look it up, and it sounded good.

  2. NA, I only saw "To Have And Have Not" for the first time about six months ago. It's a great film, with many plot similarities to "Casablanca", but "Casablanca" just has a certain sheen about it that is just incredible, and Rick Blaine's transformation is greater than Harry Morgan's in the Hawks film. However, I have to say that Bogart and Bacall's chemistry is great in that film, although, in "The Big Sleep" a year earlier, it was positively off the charts!
    I'll definitely have to give "To Have And Have Not" a few more viewings.

  3. You know.. I finally got around to watching Casablanca about 2 months ago, and I have to say - I was mighty impressed! It really is one of the greats.

  4. Can't wait to see what else you have on your list.