Saturday, October 23, 2010

It turns out Casablanca stunk. And something about Woody Allen

Okay, so, you have this movie, Casablanca. A "classic".

It turns out to be a myth that Ronald Reagan was once slated to star in it, but even if it were true, so what.

John Baxter, in his excellent biography of Woody Allen, pointed out that it was only after Allen's
Play It Again, Sam that Casablanca started appearing on lists of the "ten greatest movies of all time."

I've never been able to sit through the thing.

I felt somewhat vindicated by this article by David Macaray which appeared on the Counterpunch website:

...for all the adoration and praise this movie has received, has anyone actually examined its plot? Has anyone asked themselves what this movie is really about? Because, if they had, they’d realize the movie’s central premise is patently absurd.

Victor Laszlo (played by Paul Henreid) is portrayed as the Nazi’s uber-nemesis. He’s the Czech leader of the European Resistance, an escapee from a concentration camp, a man the Third Reich has been chasing all over the world. As fate would have it, Laszlo, his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), Ilsa’s former lover (Humphrey Bogart), and a contingent of Nazis all wind up in Casablanca, Morocco.

In an early scene, the ranking German officer, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), confesses to the city’s corrupt chief of police, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), that Lazlo has already “slipped through our fingers three times.” The Nazis fear Laszlo because, as the charismatic leader of the Underground with a huge and loyal following, he represents a clear threat to the Reich.

And yet, confoundingly—with the stakes high and the stage immaculately set—we see Laszlo walking leisurely around the city of Casablanca, arm and arm with his wife, spending his evenings at Rick’s CafĂ© Americain (Rick, of course, is Bogart), with the Nazis fully cognizant of his whereabouts, yet making no effort to grab him.

The Nazis didn't want to violate anyone's rights.

...we’re supposed to believe that if Laszlo can somehow obtain two “letters of transit” which are floating mysteriously around the city, he and his wife will be able to leave Casablanca unmolested, with the Nazis powerless to stop them. Why? Because these documents bear the signature of Charles De Gaulle, Free France’s president-in-exile.

More preposterously, these “letters” aren’t even made out in Laszlo’s name. They’re blank. They’re a one-size-fits-all document with the power of a diplomatic “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

Even accepting the notion of a “talismanic” letter, why wouldn’t the Nazis simply scoop up Laszlo before he obtained it?...

In reality, Macaray says, the Nazis would have simply killed him. There was nothing to stop them.

The article ends with a quote from Julius J. Epstein, co-writer on the movie:

“It was just a routine assignment. Frankly, I can't understand its staying power. If it were made today, line for line, each performance as good, it'd be laughed off the screen. It's such a phony picture. Not a word of truth in it. It's camp, it’s kitsch. It's shit!”

Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam

It started out as a play. Allen starred in it on stage. He wasn't trained as a stage actor and had to drink milkshakes all the time to sooth his voice. He wasn't used to projecting.

Bob Denver, TV's Gilligan, replaced Allen when he left.

When they made the play into a movie, Allen didn't want to direct. He had directed a couple of movies already, but they were just a series of gags without a strong plot. He didn't know if he could do something with a beginning, a middle and an end.

That seemed to be a theme in Baxter's biography of Allen. His early works were nothing but a string of gags, which is actually fine. I saw an interview with Jacques Tati in which he praised Allen's movies. Allen was stunned when, early in his career as a playwright, someone told him his play was too funny---it had too many jokes.

He saw the lack of a strong storyline as a weakness and has spent his career trying to correct it. But the truth is that his "earlier, funnier movies" were better cinematically.

Ray Carney has pointed out that, at least in Allen's "serious" movies, "Allen's characters' doubts, hesitations, fears are verbally articulatable (which is why his films are almost completely comprehensible from their written screenplays)." (

On the other hand, you have Allen's "funny" movies, the ones that are a series of gags. The thing is that they work as movies but it would be almost impossible to write a synopsis of one. Try to imagine a novelization of Bananas. They work only as movies. They can't be translated into any other narrative form.

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