Friday, February 26, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Casablanca (1942)

One of the most enduring of all movie classics, Casablanca is the kind of a film that finds a way to stand out, even amongst a catalog of so-called "perfect movies". As a writer, I can tell you it's the kind of movie I will watch, and be crushed by. The reason for that is that the screenplay, in particular the dialogue, is so completely and perfectly achieved that one cannot imagine anyone ever writing anything better.

Every word that comes out of every character's mouth for just about the entire running time is an absolute joy. Based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison's play Everybody Comes to Rick's, Casablanca is a marvel in that, at the time, it was not treated by Warner Bros. as anything special. It was one of the many flicks that were put on the WB assembly line in 1942, and got no special treatment. Twin brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, along with Howard Koch, were brought in to adapt the play, and that was that.

Granted, the Warners did bring on one hell of a director. Michael Curtiz was fresh off Yankee Doodle Dandy, for which he had been nominated for the Oscar. He had also been nominated three other times, for Angels with Dirty Faces, Captain Blood and Four Daughters. He was no run-of-the-mill Hollywood hack, to be sure. And he was able to take that magnificently adapted screenplay and translate it into on-screen gold. In fact, this would be the one that finally netted him that coveted statuette.

Of course, he also had some help in this regard with one of the most enviable casts ever assembled. Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari (reportedly the inspiration for Jabba the Hutt, of all things); Peter Lorre, perhaps the finest character of his age, as Ugarte; Conrad Veidt, a star of German expressionist cinema in his earlier years, as the Nazi Major Strasser; the always delightful Claude Rains as the cynical yet lovable Capt. Renault; and of course, Ingrid Bergman, a classic leading lady if ever there was one.

And then there's Bogey. A rising supporting player for years during the 1930s, Bogart had become a big star the previous year thanks to The Maltese Falcon. But in Casablanca he achieves absolutely immortality. As Rick Blaine, one of the most famous characters in movie history, he owns the screen. His world-weary brand of leading man would become a touchstone for generations of actors. Not an actor of classic good looks, he made up for it with performances of an excellence that appeared to come effortlessly. Casablanca may feature the very best of these.

With Bogart, Bergman and the rest on screen, reciting the lines written in that unbelievable script, there is a level of artfulness achieved that is fairly awe-inspiring. This is typically the go-to film that people mention when referring to or even thinking about films of this era, and when you watch, you can understand why. Again, the writing is so spot-on, and the actors dispatched to bring those words to life are beyond reproach.

So many things work so well, in so many scenes. The chemistry between Bogart and Rains is especially enjoyable, with its ceaselessly wry and witty repartee. The classic climactic scene at the airport between Rick and Ilsa, perhaps quoted more than any movie scene, ever. The general boldness of staging such a frank film about World War II, during the actual war itself, which maintains its integrity and casts the Nazis in an appropriately disapproving light, without devolving into crass jingoism.

Of course, we also have "And Time Goes By". To discount that song as a major part of what makes the film work is to really miss something special. Ironically, the song was not written for the film, and had actually been floating around for nearly a dozen years, a minor Rudy Vallee hit of the early '30s. In fact, by the standards of the great American songbook, it's probably nothing particularly special, but for some reason, when used as the main leifmotif of this film, and when performed on screen by Dooley Wilson in the role of Sam (as in, "Play it again, Sam") it achieves something very special. Thanks to this film, it's become one of the most famous songs ever written.

Casablanca is the type of film in which the actual niceties of the plot fade into the background. You're so caught up in the power of the characters, the music of the dialogue, and the boatloads of atmosphere, that who did what to whom becomes less important than the way it's done. Perhaps this is what has given the movie its longevity--it holds up to repeated viewings over decades, because it's not about the destination, but the marvelous journey.

By the 1940s, the Hollywood system had gotten the whole movie-making thing down to a fine science, and Casablanca is the ultimate example of this. It is a beautifully burnished gem of a motion picture. It is, simply put, the ultimate romantic motion picture. It is what American cinema is all about.

NEXT UP: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Citizen Kane (1941)

Well this is certainly an intimidating one, isn't it? What more could I possibly add that hasn't already been said? You will, I trust, bear with me if I cover some well-trod ground here. But to put it simply, Citizen Kane is often called the greatest motion picture ever made, and that may very well be the case.

Sure, it's been said so many times that there is sometimes a bit of a backlash, with people questioning if it really deserves such a status. And while I'm not sure I'd indisputably agree, I can certainly see where those are coming from who make that claim. Orson Welles' masterpiece is moviemaking at its finest--the ultimate product of a distinctly modern art form.

There are several reasons for this, but first and foremost, I believe the source of Citizen Kane's greatness comes from a technical standpoint. For one thing, there is a level of cinema verite achieved in this film that was unequaled up to that point--a level of realism in the acting and in the script by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz that was a sign of things to come, following as it did upon the 1930s, a decade in which the art of the sound picture was still being perfected.

The camera work by Welles' cinematographer Gregg Toland is astonishing. Anyone who's ever taken a basic film class has probably had things pointed out to them like the deep-focus shot in the Kane cabin at the beginning, or that classic image of Kane walking across the hall of mirrors. Yet as oft-repeated as these things may be, they continue to ring true. This is a film that visually engages you, and never lets go from beginning to end.

The opening newsreel sequence is another example of the realism at work here, as it plays out very much like the actual newsreels of the day, without feeling as if it were staged or created for a movie. Here, as also with the aforementioned cinematographical gymnastics, the editing plays a major role, and Welles' editor was none other than future director Robert Wise, obviously a man of prodigious gifts.

And yet even in a film of such technical prowess, we find dramatic performances of exquisite power--this is another testament to Citizen Kane's greatness. Welles had to be monumentally proud of what he was accomplishing--one can tell in his confident, multi-layered portrayal of Charles Foster Kane. Joseph Cotten, who won an Oscar for his efforts, is the McCoy to Welles' Kirk, if you will permit me a geeky comparison. The southern gentlemanliness of Cotten the actor may not jibe all too well with the supposed New Englander he is portraying, yet the authenticity of the part comes through in spades nonetheless.

I'm always especially struck by the campaign speech scene, perhaps because more than any scene in the film, this one for me most effectively combines the power of the film's technical proficiency, and the awe-inspiring power of Welles' dramatic performance. It does what movies were invented to do--overwhelm the viewer completely. Seeing it on a big screen intensifies the effect immensely.

Citizen Kane is a film which is the very definition of the word "epic", the type of event picture that fairly signaled that the motion picture as an art form had officially been perfected. If the 1920s and '30s was an age of experimentalism and trial and effort, Kane sets the tone for the slickness and masterful technique of the 1940s and beyond. This is Orson Welles' magnum opus, and watching it, one gets the feeling that more care and unadulterated passion was put into it than any other film of its era.

A big part of this is due to the fact that Citizen Kane is very much an auteur film, foreshadowing the director-as-visionary phenomenon that would really take over some 25 years later, after the collapse of the studio system. It was Welles' pet project, realized on a level few ever are--and yet unfortunately, fallout from the picture, whose main character was a fairly negative portrayal inspired by William Randolph Hearst, one of the chief media moguls of the day, would stymie Welles' career, which would never be quite the same again. Ironic for the man who made what may be the greatest movie of them all.

To those who have heard about it for years and find its reputation intimidating, I urge you to strip away all the academic hoopla and critical baggage the movie carries. Come to it as cleanly as you can; approach it as you would any other film. You will find that, on its own merits, minus the ponderous rep, Citizen Kane still has the power to move and astound. It is a timeless film, one of great richness and depth, and it also happens to be one which just might be the very finest film ever made.

NEXT UP: Casablanca (1942)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Bringing Up Baby (1938)

When it comes to film comedies of the "golden age" of Hollywood, I usually go in for the classic comedy teams--Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, etc. But there's one major exception for me, a movie that completely epitomizes the "screwball comedy", and one which is proof positive that romantic comedies once had souls and were actually quite funny.

Bringing Up Baby is an utterly charming and arresting film starring two unassailable legends of the silver screen, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. And arguably, you have them both at the height of their powers here: Grant, cinema's ultimate leading man to this day, and Hepburn, easily the greatest film actress who ever lived.

What amazes me about them both is how adept they are at selling this movie as a laugh-out-loud comedy. Here you have two performers who were literally just as comfortable doing comedy as they were straight drama--and had just as much talent for both. Grant is at his zany, eye-popping funniest here in a performance that's right up there with his turn in Arsenic and Old Lace.

And Hepburn is the comedic glue that holds the whole thing together, playing the perfect flighty, wacked-out foil to Grant's straight man. In fact, I'd say that Cate Blanchett's pportrayal of Hepburn in Martin Scorsese' s The Aviator was more or less an impression of the actress' role in Bringing Up Baby.

The director is Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood's finest craftsmen of the period, and a man who was also be responsible for such gems as Scarface (1932), Sgt. York (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and even the original horror sci-fi favorite The Thing (1951). Talk about versatility! At this time he was just building his reputation, and does a fine job of doing just that with this wonderfully filmed comic masterpiece.

This film is literally the blueprint for the screwball comedy, and a film I often recommend to those who have a hard time getting into comedy pre-1960, and/or are looking for something to give them a genuine laugh. Grant and Hepburn prove that romantic comedy doesn't have to be dull, cliche-ridden, phony and predictable. It can be genuinely hilarious, bold and irreverent. And a whole lot of fun.

It also has that great song going for it, Jimmy McHugh & Dorothy Fields' "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", one of the most irresistible of Depression-era pop standards. It's sung repeatedly throughout the movie by the characters, mainly referring to Hepburn's pet leopard, Baby--a source of much of the film's outrageous comedy.

You really don't need me to tell you this, but Grant and Hepburn play off each other so well, and that really is the key to this film's magic. When you watch them feeding off each other on screen, you are watching two consummate pros. Hepburn's is a one-of-a-kind presence like no other, infectious from the moment you see her, and building with every word she speaks and move she makes. And Cary Grant... only an actor so sure of himself and his art could so successfully portray someone so completely exasperated and unsure of himself. They are both perfection.

I came across this picture as a teenager, renting it with my then-girlfriend (now lovely wife), and not expecting much more than a fun little comedy flick. What I got was one of the true laugh-out-loud movie-watching experiences of my life. And there are not any comedy films that can really and truly elicit that effect in general. There are many other classic screwballs of the era, films like It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story. But for me, this one will always be the best.

And here's another recent review of Bringing Up Baby at the fine blog, The Moon is a Dead World...

NEXT UP: Citizen Kane (1941)