It was truly a gala evening in the 3,600+ seat theatre of the United Palace of Cultural Arts in Washington Heights. Just two weeks before, a very “intimate” space had been created in the theatre by the closing off all but a small portion of seats for a showing of the Spanish language version of Dracula; tonight virtually every seat was filled and the crowd gathered! In honor of the dress code for Casablanca.
Everywhere you looked you saw elegant women in ball-gowns, sparkling brooches, sparkling heels, brilliant lipstick, and extravagant hairdos, and elegant men in tuxedos! As impresario Mike Fitelson commented, “this many tuxedos had not graced the Palace in many a decade.” We learned a little more about the United Palace tonight. It was constructed to a monumental scale and ornately embellished. The former tenant, evangelist the Reverend Ike, said, “God is a King and we are his people. When we enter into his space, it should be like entering a Palace.”
Thousands of dollars worth of gilding covered the walls which were emblazoned by elephants giving the impression that Ike had definitely created a palace for God’s people. We believe he would have approved of the cultural celebration this evening.
It was a very special evening. Two special guests were invited to speak. Rapper GBK, a battle-scarred guy who had started his career as a rapper at the age of 49 following a rough youth, spoke movingly about his personal connection to the film. A world premiere video of his music video, filmed at the Palace and featuring a tribute to Casablanca, “Bouger” was played to enthusiastic applause.
Lou Lumenick, Chief Film Critic at the New York Post, then described the history of the film. His central point was that this was a miracle film - a film that almost didn’t get made. Sidney Greenstreet, grotesquely memorable as the proprietor, the gigantically corpulent proprietor, of the rival café, The Blue Parrot. A former Wall Street stockbroker, he was just beginning his career in film. Bogart, short, Brooklyn accent and wearing a rug, easily portraying the role of the cynical Rick Blaine, a character actor, had not yet been thought of as a romantic lead. Bergman, at the beginning of her career, was only the third choice for the film’s heroine. And yet their pairing was magic.
And Dooley Wilson, the piano player who plays the song no one can forget, “As Time Goes By,” is described in a contemporary Times interview as an African American “find’ named Dooley Wilson, a drummer and singer who led his own band in the 1920s.
There is no fat in the script. Virtually every line is crisp, frequently humorous without being slapstick, dry, almost throw away; so moving that you don’t’ get some of the choice lines until the third showing. Who could forget Rick, desperately drunk, almost broken, trying to forget Ilsa: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
The characters are virtually all memorable, even the minor characters. Even Yvonne, whose affections oscillate between the Russian bartender, a German soldier, and a Free French Captain Renault, gets to raise her fist in the air during the entire club’s defiant singing of the Marseillaise in the face of the German officers and to shout “Viva la France!” before bursting into tears. All of which somehow exonerates her from censure as a collaborator.
And then there is the androgynous saurian Ugarte (Peter Lorre, who may possibly have been an inspiration for the character and mannerisms of the Lord of the Rings’ Gollum). Bulging, shifty eyes, droning insinuating speech, twisting hands, a slimy intelligence informed by a terrible fear of capture- not many lines but they are stellar. Asking saloonkeeper Rick Blaine to hold for him the letters of transit which guarantee safe passage without exception “Just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.” His screech “Reeeck! REECK! You must help me, REECK!” arouses pity (as did Gollum’s “Massster!”) And it is no more effective – as German soldiers drag him off to a concentration camp.
But of course it’s Bogie and Bergman who are riveting. The character Bogart plays, short and bad rug or not, is indeed a romantic hero, sexy as hell. He is the proprietor of Rick’s Café, a watering hole for a seething polyglot mob of people desperately pawning the family jewels to purchase letters of transit to escape from occupied Europe to Lisbon and from there to America and to freedom. Rick’s own loyalties are ambivalent- he keeps us guessing- good guy or bad guy? Freedom fighter or collaborator? His actions are about equally balanced between compassionate (he aids a young couple to win at the baccarat tables affording them plane tickets to America). and apparently indifferent - he allows Ugarte to be dragged away without protest, saying “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
But it’s his relationship with Ilsa (Bergman) that is hard to decipher. He is clearly bitter that she left him without explanation at the train station when the Germans marched into Paris (“…I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue”) yet he is also clearly not over her. Every scene in which she appears is stunning- dramatic, enhanced by sight and sound effects and – who knows? Vaseline on the screen to create a luminous glow around her.
Ilsa (Bergman) dominates the screen yet she is like a statue- she has virtually nothing very memorable to say. Gorgeous, luminous, but a commodity, whose life is built upon a relationship with one or another man. The second man, a Freedom Fighter, Victor Laszlo, Paul Henried, an icon to Freedom Fighters everywhere but sadly in the film he is rather dull and wooden. But then, neither Ilsa nor Laszlo really need to carry on a conversation or, for that matter, do more than exhibit a personality. With Bergman the sheer force of her beauty – and her exquisite tailoring- fixes the eye. (As Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces then!”) And it wasn’t all that long after the silent, so the stunning pose still had power.
Torn between Laszlo and Rick, Ilsa rediscovers her love for Rick and tells him she no longer wants to be the spouse of the Freedom Fighter but chooses to stay with Rick in Casablanca. Well, we all know how it ends. “You must do the thinking for both of us,” she says to Rick. He does, and adamantly refuses to leave to Casablanca or to allow her to leave the man who requires her presence as a necessity in his work. The soft focus finale at the airport which ends with Captain Renault and Rick conspiring to re-enter the fight for freedom in Europe, ends with the truly iconic summary- and I don’t think it is intended to be a down low scene between two men: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”