The wow finish: “Casablanca” (1942)

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By Scott Ross

Probably the moviest of all movies, Casablanca was created in both control and chaos; its screenplay was a mishegoss, yet the picture is considered by many the prime exemplar of Hollywood studio system product.

What’s made is still product, of course — indeed, has never been more obviously so — but there are enough gullible cineastes out there who swallow the “only directors matter” argument, and enough annual spectacles of millionaires handing each other awards, that many when assessing an obvious slick franchise picture still invoke the word “art,” if only for the (usually shoddy) special effects. Casablanca was no less a sausage than 99 per cent of the movies made in Hollywood in 1942, and definitely no more individualized than any factory film of the period. (The Magnificent Ambersons may be the only genuinely idiosyncratic, personal movie made that year, and it’s very much to the point that it was mutilated by its studio for “accessibility” before release.) Professional auteurists can never admit to the simple fact that, however gifted or influential a movie director of the studio era was, the system was streamlined; it depended on enforced collaborative effort, even among the few writer-directors of the time, just as it still does. Anyone who, as Steven Spielberg does on the 2012 Casablanca Blu-ray, goes into rhapsodies over Michael Curtiz is nakedly, and rather desperately, trying to justify his own position because the fact is, direction is less vital than screenwriting, acting and producing, and most directors know it. A competent assistant or second-unit director has enough talent to put together an entertaining movie, and it’s no coincidence that one of the best and most perceptive books ever written on movies is Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, which (surprise!) named producers as the presiding geniuses of the factory.

In the case of Casablanca, the man most responsible for the picture was its producer, Hal B. Wallis. Yet even he, with all the accomplishment and organization he brought to the movie, was not, ultimately, what made the picture an exceptional event. Nor can even Wallis’ exceptional oversight fully account for what the movie became — what it means, and has meant, to succeeding generations of its admirers. Casablanca transcends everything: Its filmmakers, its studio, its moment in history and its original status as a superior popular entertainment. (Not to mention some of its more risible romantic dialogue.) It’s tempting for the neophyte who has read a little (usually not the best) movie history to assume that the picture’s specialness began in the early 1960s when the Brattle Theatre in Boston ran the first of its now-annual Humphrey Bogart festivals during exam week and students in the city discovered, and embraced, the actor generally and this movie in particular, leading to the Bogie cult of the late ‘60s. But Warners, which made the movie, knew the picture was special long before that. Why else make a pilot for a television series in the ‘50s? Umberto Eco said of Casablanca that it “is not one movie; it is ‘movies,’” and I can think of no other picture of World War II, or about that war, that enjoys the kind of resonance Casablanca has; it’s a movie very much of its time, yet somehow oddly timeless.

Casablanca - Bogart, Raines, Henried and Bergman resized

Perfection: Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman

A great deal more credit than is traditionally given for this belongs to Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the authors of the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s upon which Casablanca was based and which James Agee in his contemporary review in The Nation nastily and without foundation referred to, without having perused it, as “one of the world’s worst plays.” (It was unproduced when Warner Bros. purchased it, for a record price, so Agee couldn’t have seen or read it. But then, personal ignorance of a work of popular art didn’t stop him from sneering at, for example, Oklahoma! as phony folk-art without having seen it, which, living in New York in the ‘40s, he could easily have done.) Much of the structure of the eventual movie was in the play, and the characters, and even a lot of the memorable dialogue, were also in place. Casablanca’s screenwriters refined these elements, expanded on and deepened them; certainly the twins Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein were responsible for much of the movie’s verbal wit, it is well known that Howard Koch punched up the politics, and the intrigue and the uncredited Casey Robinson beefed up the romance — sometimes to its, and the movie’s, detriment.

        The genius of the system: Howard Koch, Casey Robinson, Julius J. Epstein
                                                        and Philip G. Epstein

It’s in the speeches, and the occasional monologues, that Casablanca reveals itself as one of the most adult Hollywood movies of the Production Code era. There are moments, such as when the desperate young Hungarian (Joy Page) who is about to sleep with Claude Rains’ Vichy official Captain Renault to obtain an exit visa for herself and her immature young husband (Helmut Dantine) comes to the saloon-keeper Rick Blaine (Bogart) to determine whether the Captain is trustworthy, that are almost disconcertingly risqué by the standards of their time:

Bogart: How did you get in here? You’re under age.
Page: I came with Captain Renault.
Bogart: I should have known.
Page: My husband is with me, too.
Bogart: He is? Well. Captain Renault’s getting broadminded.

It must be obvious to anyone in the audience above the age of 10 what the pair is discussing, and that Rick’s jest is a nod to a ménage à trois. How Wallis managed to get this stuff past the Breen Office, I can’t imagine. Rick’s saving the girl from prostituting herself presumably redeemed the scene, yet studio pictures routinely ran afoul of the censors for far less, and in fact Casablanca did as well. Take Rick’s searing, drunken rebuff of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when she comes back to the club after unexpectedly meeting him earlier and he, shattered by that confrontation, has drunk himself into a state of bitter insobriety… and after we in the audience have seen in flashback what happened in Paris:

Rick: How long was it we had, honey?
Ilsa: I didn’t count the days.
Rick: Well, I did. Every one of ’em. Mostly I remember the last one. The wow finish. A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look in his face because his insides had been kicked out.
Ilsa Can I tell you a story, Rick?
Rick: Has it got a wow finish?

Ilsa: I don’t know the finish yet.
Rick: Go on and tell it. Maybe one will come to you as you go along.
Ilsa: It’s about a girl who had just come to Paris from her home in Oslo. At the house of some friends, she met a man about whom she’d heard her whole life, a very great and courageous man. He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals. Everything she knew or ever became was because of him. And she looked up to him, worshipped him, with a feeling she supposed was love.
Rick: Yes, that’s very pretty. I heard a story once. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard a lot of stories in my time. They went along with the sound of a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs. ‘Mister, I met a man once when I was a kid,’ they’d always begin. Well, I guess neither one of our stories is very funny. Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the kind that tells?

Casablanca 6 resized

Again, there’s no question what Rick is referring to (a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs) and his bitterness towards Ilsa (“Or aren’t you the kind that tells?”) is exactly as explicit as it needs to be. She certainly knows what he means; it’s the line that drives her from the café. I don’t know whose work this is, the Epsteins’ or Koch’s or Robinson’s, but it’s just about perfect. It expresses better than tears the nearly unbearable pain both Ilsa and Rick are experiencing, and his hostility, while cruel, has the ring of intoxicated verisimilitude. And that “wow finish”! Vaudeville slang applied ironically to the moment of Rick’s most acute agony. Ridi, pagliacci, ridi.

Robinson was highly esteemed but, perhaps owing to his Mormonism, a man of deep conservative prejudice — he referred in a memo to the black Sam (Dooley Wilson) urging Rick to get away from a potential entanglement with Ilsa as “Darky superstition” when Sam’s concern is quite obviously for a friend and employer seemingly poised to drown in the dangerous emotional currents that once nearly destroyed him. He also cobbled the movie’s worst lines, dialogue that makes audiences groan now and doubtless caused derisive laughter in 1942. It’s Robinson’s writing that dates Casablanca most, and (if only briefly) removes viewers from their otherwise pleasurable identification, making them derisively aware of its cornball elements. The Paris flashback is largely his, and so are cringe-inducing lines like Ilsa’s “A franc for your thoughts” and the picture’s biggest howler, “Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?” No wonder the actors were laughing at the script on the set.

Fortunately, there are few such clinkers in Casablanca, which otherwise boasts one of the strongest, smartest (and wittiest, not always the same thing) screenplays of its time. Whatever the conflicts that existed then, or later arose, between Koch and the Epsteins, and bearing in mind what in it came directly from the play, their patchwork script is a minor miracle of observation and satisfying narrative. And it takes nothing away from them that what is arguably the best sequence in the picture, the defiant singing of the “Marseillaise,” was Murray Burnett’s. The collaborative nature of the movie is a large part of what makes it so remarkable. Auteurists would have us believe that anything good in a movie springs from the director, anything bad from others, usually the scenarists. Casablanca is the perfect refutation of that; almost everything in it is good, and once Wallis had a script he felt he could proceed with, Michael Curtiz was assigned to it.

Bogart, Bergman and Michael Curtiz

I don’t wish to seem to be attacking Curtiz. He was a good journeyman filmmaker, and made some enjoyable pictures: The Errol Flynn vehicles Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) as well as The Sea Wolf (1941) starring Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield. But he was a competent studio craftsman, no more, and to ascribe some sort of stylistic genius to the man who directed such crowd-pleasing Hollywood pap, however agreeable, as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mission to Moscow (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), Night and Day (1946), Life with Father (1947), the Danny Thomas Jazz Singer (1952), White Christmas (1954), The Egyptian (1954), We’re No Angels (1955), King Creole (1958) and The Comancheros (1961, completed by John Wayne) is taking auteurism to a preposterous extreme. Curtiz’ direction of Casablanca is very fine — fast and exciting. It’s a good, workmanlike job of direction, with some nice dolly work and thick slabs of tasty atmosphere, and I doubt Curtiz can be blamed for such lapses as that terrible little model plane in the opening sequence. He and his remarkable director of photography Arthur Edeson, a master of shadow who also lit The Maltese Falcon (1941) evoke a fantasy vision of North Africa, filmed on soundstages and the Warner back lot, filled with the wonderful faces of immigrant actors. Appropriate enough, given that Casablanca is a movie very much about migration, and it’s moving now to see so many European émigré actors for whom not only was reestablishing lost European stardom impossible, just getting a walk-on could be a challenge: S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Madeleine Lebeau, Marcel Dalio, Helmut Dantine, Corinna Mura. They more than enrich the picture — they give it its almost palpable texture. Who can forget Lebeau singing “La Marseillaise” with tears in her eyes? Who would want to?

Casablanca - Madeliene LeBeau resized

 


An aside: Apart from the immense pleasure it always bestows, what prompted me to watch the picture again was my recent reading of Noah Isenberg’s oddly titled We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, [sic] and Afterlife of Hollywood’s [sic] Most Beloved Movie (Norton, 2017). The author didn’t need that third comma, and his subtitle likewise inadvertently suggests that the picture is beloved in or by Hollywood and nowhere else. But this stylistic confusion, as one discovers while reading, is de rigeur for Isenberg, who — rather frighteningly — is a professor and so, one presumes, has influence over the thinking and writing of young people. He frequently peppers his overview with smug little identity-politics eruptions of an especially numbing, knee-jerk variety: Of Wilson’s career, post-Casablanca, for example, he writes, “he returned to the New York stage, playing — with tragic irony — an escaped slave in Bloomer Girl,” an important Broadway musical he mis-identifies in his index as a “musical film.” What is either tragic or ironic about that? Bloomer Girl, set in antebellum (and bellum, and postbellum) America, is concerned with such typical musical comedy concerns as feminism, undergarments and enforced captivity, and the love plot hinges on the abolitionist heroine’s refusal to marry her Southern beau unless he frees his slave (played by Wilson.) Moreover, the actor got a rich score’s best number in the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg “The Eagle and Me,” a glorious ode to freedom. One can only assume Professor Isenberg is entirely ignorant of all of this; his citing of Wilson’s Bloomer Girl role is merely a convenient peg upon which to hang a reactive, faux-scandalized (and, moreover, ill-defined, badly expressed and ultimately meaningless) observation about an actor’s race.

Casablanca - Dooley Wilson

Alas, the entire book bubbles with such little bons mot. Of Rick’s observation to the desperate young Hungarian who asks him what sort of man Captain Renault is, Isenberg ascribes to Bogart’s response (“Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so”) “a wink and nudge,” as if the line was being uttered by Eric Idle, when of course it carries no such macho implication. But that spurious “wink and a nudge” permits the author to impute to the line a smirking, smarmy attitude by a man (boo!) towards a woman (yay!) I’m only surprised the paragraph doesn’t also carry a strategically-placed hashtag trailed by the words “Me Too.” What I chiefly object to here, aside from his poor writing, is Isenberg’s shamelessness. I picture him at his desk, constantly looking over his shoulder as he writes in hopes that someone will notice just how “woke” he is.

Isenberg is ever keen to spot an opportunity for societal trendiness: He writes the old newspaper phrase “burying the lead” anachronistically, as “burying the lede,” for example, and of the movie’s occasional whiffs of possible homoeroticism, the author murmurs that this is “of course” a 21st century issue, when most of the commentary — much of it specious — that drew attention to it was written in the 1980s and ‘90s, if not before. When Robinson remarks in a memo on the memorable sequence in Casablanca in which Ilsa comes to Rick’s apartment over the café in hopes of obtaining the letters of transit everyone knows (but cannot prove) he possesses, “This is a great scene for a woman,” Isenberg loses no time in hitting the fainting couch, rushing forward to condemn this observation by a screenwriter about an acting scene as “his shameful views concerning the perceived nature of women”(!)* Well, goddamnit, it is a great scene for a woman… which is what an actress is. And Ingrid Bergman, it will shock no one to learn, was both.

We’ll Always Have Casablanca does not pretend to be a “making of” tome, for all that it draws extensively on Aljean Harmetz’s indispensable 1992 Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca — Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. I doubt any such volume on this movie will ever replace Harmetz’s, just as no subsequent book on The Wizard of Oz has surpassed her 1977 study of it. But the professor draws so extensively on Harmetz, and his own observations about what Casablanca has come to mean to the world are so trivial (when, that is, they aren’t wrapped self-consciously up in current, jingoistic identity equations) one wonders what a major publisher saw in the book. Still, it’s sobering to read such ineffable tripe about an enduring American picture, and to know that this is the best we can expect now in the realm of popular movie scholarship, particularly when it receives a cover blurb from Sam Wasson saying of it that its idiot author writes “with equanimity, grace and delectable insight.” Where Wasson saw any of that in Isenberg’s manuscript I can’t imagine, but whatever its flaws (and, as opposed to Isenberg’s book, they are minimal) a movie as fulsome, as delicious, as emotionally plangent, as satisfying — as much fun — as Casablanca deserves better than this sort of reactive drivel.


Conrad Veidt and The Joker resized
The faces in Casablanca, and the pleasure they provide, are no small part of the picture’s appeal, and not just the leads. (Or were they “ledes”?) Conrad Veidt, who died in the spring of 1943 and was before that perennially typecast, due to the War, as a Nazi in Hollywood, had more long-term impact on American culture than is commonly supposed, and not merely for his appearance here. He was the wicked Vizier in the 1940 Thief of Bagdad for Alexander Korda, and his likeness was copied pretty assiduously for the Disney Aladdin in 1992. But his most important, and lasting, influence as far as pop culture is concerned, was as Gwynplaine in the 1928 The Man Who Laughs, which directly inspired The Joker of the Batman comics in 1940. Although at least one of the men who participated in the character’s design disputes that, Veidt’s look — the swept-back hair, the heavily marked eyes, the long tapering nose, the almost artificial looking grin and the dark, painted lips, and even the long ears — is too close to the Joker’s for the resemblance to be mere coincidence. As Major Strasser, the Third Reich representative, his sibilance (which he also used as the Vizier) indicates the character’s sinister, Übermensch nature as readily as his thin, pursed lips and pencil-thin mustache.

Casablanca - Bogart, Lorre

Sydney Greenstreet has a much smaller and less decisive role here, as the black marketer Signor Ferrari, than he did as Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, just as Peter Lorre’s appearance as Ugarte is far briefer than his Joel Cairo in the Hammett, but both give value for money — especially Lorre, whose short scene with Bogart in the casino constitutes a tiny master-class in making the most of the little you’re given, notably in the diminutive actor’s use of his large, expressive eyes. I also don’t think Lorre ever looked better than he does in Casablanca, trim and almost beautiful.

I remember being shocked in my youth to realize that the actor who plays Henreid’s underground contact Berger is the same man who appeared as Muley in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and whose choked-out monologue so memorably illustrated the emotional toll the Dust Bowl took on its farmers even before the banks took their land. (“That’s what makes it our’n — bein’ born on it… an’, an’… workin’ on it… an’ dyin’ — dyin’ on it!”) The shock, I think, comes from Berger being so soft-spoken and obviously educated when we’re used to seeing and hearing John Qualen as a pleasant but scarcely intellectually formidable Swede, or as an untutored peasant like Muley. Watching him this way, in a non-stereotypical role, you wonder why someone at one of the studios didn’t see his range while he was exhibiting it.

Casablanca - Henried and Qualen

If Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo comes off as a bit of a pill, it’s really not his fault. Laszlo is one of those characters over whom a halo is forever suspended and with which no actor can do much, even Brando. (Talk about no good at being noble…) The writers let him down, which may have been as much the fault of the times as anything else; for a world in flames, cinematic heroes had to be stalwart, and without a flaw much more damning than a certain stodginess — or at least so the Hollywood studio bosses believed. Henreid was given a nice scene with Bergman, before she goes to Rick to plead for the letters of transit, in which he apologizes for not being what a young woman deserves and which at least indicates that he’s not entirely a heroic automaton. But if Lazlo’s thoroughgoing decency at the end is a bit too good to be true, Henreid occasionally cuts an inspiring figure, as when he commands the band at Rick’s to “Play the ‘Marseille’ — play it!” that helps mitigates such groaners as Bergman having to implore, “Victor, please don’t go to the political meeting tonight!”

Casablanca 6 - Rains and Bogart resized

Claude Rains had enjoyed excellent movie roles before Casablanca and would have a few good ones after, but I don’t think he was ever as relaxed and genial — and funny — as he is here. As the cheerfully corrupt Renault, Rains seems well aware he’s got, if not all the wittiest lines, the lion’s share, and relishes them appropriately. Yet nothing about his performance is studied; he lobs his epigrams lightly, almost carelessly, as if for Renault one witticism is no more important than any other, and where it came from there are plenty more. Rains expresses Renault’s affection for Bogart’s Rick without ostentation, or any even particular favoritism; he’d arrest him if he had to, and regret it, just as he knows at the climax Rick will shoot him if he must. Renault’s conversion at the end (in the play Rick is arrested) would strain credulity but for three related items: He’ll never be able to satisfactorily explain Strasser’s killing, he’s already admitted to Rick his loyalties “blow with the prevailing wind,” and he’s made enough barbed remarks about the Germans to indicate that, for all his alleged neutrality, he’s not quite the complete Quisling he pretends to be. You get all that and more from Rains’ performance without his ever pushing any of it.

Casablanca-Ingrid-Orry-Kelly

Although she is every bit as beautiful now, encased in the time-stopping amber of film, as she was in 1942, it’s probably impossible for younger viewers of Casablanca to appreciate just how breathtaking Ingrid Bergman was, and why she had the enormous impact she did at the time. She claimed to work naturally, without make-up, but of course she did wear it; you have to, to be photographed properly under those arc-lights. Bergman just used a lot less of it. There was a freshness about her the camera loved, and unlike those famous Nordic and Teutonic femmes fatale who preceded her — Garbo, Dietrich — she wasn’t vague, or cool, or above it all. She was direct, and passionate. She wasn’t seductive, but neither was she the girl-next-door. She was a lovely, somewhat earnest young woman, and her quiet intelligence was obvious. Bergman was emotional instead of commanding, and while she wasn’t exactly soignée, she looked good in almost anything. Orry-Kelly’s costumes for her as Ilsa, along with her thick, lustrous hair, soften her slightly hard facial features appealingly, and when she wears one of those cleverly designed, strategically tilted picture hats Bergman is a dream of romance. She has a pair of bookended moments during the “La Marseilles” sequence that illustrate just how wonderfully expressive she could be while doing very little. In the first we see her at her and Victor’s table: Her eyes are averted from the scene, wide and staring into the middle-distance, and in her terror she’s breathing hard, trying to steal herself for her husband’s arrest or assassination. In the second, she’s looking up, at Victor, and allowing a smile — of pleasure at the scene, then of deep pride in him — to spread slowly across her face. It’s then we understand just what he means to her; Rick may have Ilsa’s erotic passion, but it’s a safe bet she’d never feel about him as she does, at that moment, about Laszlo.

Casablanca - Bogart drunk

Casablanca is a collection of such little moments, and small gestures, that convey deeper emotions and greater meanings for its characters. They may be in the service of melodrama but they have a cumulative power, and most of them are either Bergman’s, or Bogart’s. After ordering Sam to play “As Time Goes By” and listening to it for a few bars. Bogart turns to him, starts to say something, and stops himself. “That’s enough,” is what we assume he’s about to say, but in his advanced state of drunken anguish the effort is too great, or he’ll have to say more than he wants to… and anyway, why waste all that masochistic pain? The scene is almost the sequel to Bogart’s misery as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon as he contemplates throwing Brigid O’Shaughnessy over for his partner’s murder. The actor is so right in this sequence that Rick’s pain transcends his gender even as it also comes to stand for the anguish of every man who ever loved, and lost, and found he couldn’t weep over it when he needed to. When you watch him helplessly drowning in Rick’s bitterness, you know how good Bogart could be.

The scene would lose its impact, however, if we hadn’t seen Rick from the beginning of the picture as unflappable and unemotional — a witty embodiment of sang-froid — at which Bogie was especially adept. Rick isn’t a man of action, he’s a man of self-imposed inaction, and you can feel the tension in Bogart between what Rick is, and the image he’s cultivated over his scars. It’s there in his carriage, which seems languid but isn’t, quite; in the white tuxedo that sets him apart from his patrons (except, interestingly, Ugarte); in the clipped speech he affects with some (although not all) of the people around him; and even in the ready wit he displays, itself a form of self-protection. It’s the sort of characterization Bogart was master of, and even when he lets us in he’s seldom emotionally naked, the way Brando could be: There’s always a patina of reserve there, which is why the “Of all the gin-joints” scene is so visceral and shocking. It doesn’t only shatter Rick’s stoicism, or Bogart’s — it obliterates the traditional masculine preserve.


There are a million other little things to notice, and to comment on, in the picture: The way each of the other major characters refers to Rick differently, for example (Ilsa: “Richard”; Renault: “Ricky”; Sam: “Mr. Rick”; Laszlo: “Monsieur Rick”); that Code-defying dissolve from Ilsa and Rick in his apartment to Rick smoking a post-coital cigarette in the window; how overbearing most of Max Steiner’s score is; the rightness of so much of the dialogue and the wrongness of a little (Wallis’ dopey “Beautiful friendship” line at the end, for instance, which now excites idiots to make claims on Renault’s sexuality, and Rick’s.) But you don’t have to justify everything you love as “art,” or even as popular art. Your love is enough. Casablanca isn’t a work of art or even especially important — not in the way Orson Welles’ movies are important, or some of Ford’s, or Renoir’s, or Coppola’s, or Kurosawa’s, or even Oliver Stone’s. We don’t have to tie ourselves into knots trying to make the picture relevant, or blow air into it to inflate its value the way Norman Mailer tried to justify his unrequited lust for the dead Marilyn Monroe by making absurd artistic claims for what was essentially an overly voluptuous body, a certain dazed vulnerability and a nice aptitude for comedy.

I suppose some people might argue that criticism itself is a form of justification, but I think of it more as an explanation than a defense: This is a good performance or a bad picture, and here’s why. In any case, it isn’t necessary for us make extravagant claims for Casablanca in order to cherish it. Bright people who saw it in 1942 or ’43 knew a lot of it was hokum and didn’t take it seriously but probably also recognized at the same time that it was markedly better than the average, written with wit, acted with panache and made with a decent amount of flair. There are all sorts of reasons to love the picture now, but if it resonated especially then, it likely did so most with those who’d endured goodbye scenes of their own, or would soon, with a young man who might not come back. For those couples (and fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and friends) there were no artfully written speeches, and the ache of parting was not mitigated by thoughts of higher purpose.

Maybe, when you get right down to it, Casablanca gave its original audience some laughs, a couple of thrills and a good cry — any one of which might be the best payoff for a wow finish.

Casablanca - Bergman


* This sort of nonsense is now so close to Victorianism I’m surprised Isenberg doesn’t call Robinson an unspeakable cad and offer to horsewhip him for besmirching a woman’s honor.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Sitting under the gallows: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

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By Scott Ross

Late in John Huston’s just about perfect adaptation of The Maltese Falcon Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade tells his unreliable paramour Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) that they have to get their stories straight for the police who will arrive within minutes. In Spade’s memorable phrase, “We’re both of us sitting under the gallows!” Huston in his memoirs maintains that he saw no particular continuity of style in his work — an unconscious echo of Andrew Sarris’ typically rash condemnation of him — and while this may be true on a purely technical level, yet Huston had a theme peculiar to him and to which he returned again and again in the screenplays he adapted from the novels of others: What I think of as group excursions toward failure. In picture after picture Huston’s characters are sitting under the gallows… and, one way or another, they usually hang.

Sometimes the “group” is two people (Prizzi’s Honor) and occasionally the failure falls on a solitary figure only (Moulin Rouge, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Under the Volcano, Wise Blood, The Dead). But in nearly every movie John Huston directed, whether he wrote (or co-authored) the screenplay, and whether the tone is dramatic, comic, serio-comic or satirical, his protagonists do not succeed. It is a motif as obvious, and as pervasive, as those of disguise and deception in Billy Wilder’s movies, or loneliness and loss of innocence in Orson Welles’. Only when the movie is a romantic adventure (The African Queen and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a “biopic” (Freud), an adaptation of a play (Key Largo, The Night of the Iguana) or a fantasy of one sort or another (Victory, Annie) do the central characters succeed… and even then, their triumph is usually muted and may even seem like punishment. Does Richard Burton’s Reverend Shannon look overjoyed at the end of Iguana when he says he may have some trouble “getting back up the hill” and Ava Gardner’s Maxine ripostes, “I’ll get you back up, baby. I’ll always get you back up”? Huston famously argued with Tennessee Williams over Maxine during the shooting of the picture; the playwright saw her as a spider, and she is. Shannon is her fly, and he knows it. But then, the director regarded Williams’ attitude as a misogynist/homosexual response to an earthy, sensual heterosexual woman. That Williams was forever wedded to the many sympathetic portraits of women in his work (including, along with the neurotic, some notably erotic ones) and that Huston’s own misogyny is legend, puts paid to the argument between them.*

Maltese Falcon - Huston and his stars

Huston and his principal Falcon cast: Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart, all in character.

While one would have to be a trained psychologist perhaps to comprehend what in Huston’s weird mind drew him to his principal theme, or identified it as important — perhaps, as with his colleague and friend Orson Welles it was disappointment at finding himself a mediocre painter — one has only to think of the prospectors of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; the criminals in The Asphalt Jungle (co-written with Ben Maddow); the adventurers and criminals in Beat the Devil (Huston with Truman Capote); the mariners of Moby-Dick (Huston with Ray Bradbury); The Misfits (Arthur Miller); the spies of The Kremlin Letter; and the hopeful imperialist duo in The Man Who Would Be King (both by Huston with his associate Gladys Hill), to see the pattern.

So it is entirely in character that John Huston should end the screenwriting phase of his career with High Sierra, whose doomed ex-con Roy “Mad Dog” Earle both enhanced Humphrey Bogart’s profile and set the downbeat standard for Huston’s more mature work as a writer-director (and, later, director of others’ scripts.) His major weakness, as Lawrence Grobel pointed out in his mutli-generational biography The Hustons,† was his predilection for second-rate literature — for W.R. Burnett and Rudyard Kipling as opposed to, say, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder (although he got to Wilder just before he died). Of course it can be argued, and indeed I have done so elsewhere, that the greatest prose resists transmigration to another medium, which can only reduce it to the bare outlines of dialogue and plot, whereas a canny adapter can make art out of the third- and even fourth-rate; ergo, while Huston foundered on Malcolm Lowry and Flannery O’Connor he soared with C.S. Forester and Noel Behn. Indeed, only twice, with the very fine but studio-mutilated The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) and the sublime The Dead (James Joyce) did John Huston do full honor to a great work he admired. (As his final completed work, The Dead did honor to him as well.)


The Maltsese Falcon had already been filmed, twice at Warner Bros.’, first under its own title in 1931 (it was reissued later as Dangerous Female) and then in 1936 as a comedy-mystery starring Warren William and Bette Davis (Satan Met a Lady). Huston, and Henry Blanke, his producer, felt that the studio had not gotten the book’s values on the screen, and the directing tyro was on the right track when he asked his secretary to re-type the novel in standard script form: It’s a book of dialogue as much as of plot, and damn good dialogue at that. Except for Sam Spade’s paraphrase of Shakespeare at the end, nearly every line spoken in Huston’s movie comes directly from Hammett, or is a slight variation. His deviations are largely for the sake of telescoping, although rather less explicably he omits the sequence in which Spade tosses Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s flat. She assumes it was either Joel Cairo or the young gun-thug Wilmer, and without that scene we make the same assumption. It may be that Huston couldn’t find a way around Hammett’s frame (Spade slipping out while O’Shaughnessy sleeps in his bed) that would satisfy the censors. He had also, perforce, to delete the moment in which Spade forces Brigid, whom he suspects of palming a thousand-dollar bill, to submit to a strip-search. Perhaps such sops to conventional morality were a ruse, or acted as one, because what the screenwriter did get past the Production Code is jaw-dropping. Take, for instance, the moment in the novel in which Spade and Brigid first become intimate. Hammett’s Brigid wonders explicitly if she can buy the detective off with her body; Huston’s Brigid asks, anent Spade’s mention of money, “What else is there I can buy you with?” and his Spade instantly kisses her, roughly, stroking her cheekbones with his thumbs, not caressingly but as if he’d like to raise them just a bit and use them to gouge out her eyes.

Maltese Falcon - Lorre with cane

Sometimes a walking-stick is just a walking-stick: Lorre as Joel Cairo.

Even more astounding, however, is that Huston served up a cinematic mystery in which the genteel culprits are comprised almost entirely of homosexual men, and one rather promiscuous dame who’s a pathological liar. And if Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo is less flagrantly gay than as described by Hammett — in the book he’s depicted as a mincing, thin-armed, heavy-bottomed fairy — he is nevertheless introduced by a gardenia-scented calling card (lavender in the novel) and, as he talks to Spade, sucks briefly at the tip of the decidedly phallic handle of his walking-stick. If that wasn’t eye-popping enough, Huston retains just enough of the dialogue in which Cairo and O’Shaughnessy snipe at each other over a boy in Istanbul she couldn’t make and he did that when she lunges at him, you know precisely why. Cairo’s sexuality is also on display later when, after he and The Fat Man (Sidney Greenstreet) have sold the gunsel Wilmer out and Spade has cold-cocked him, Lorre hovers over Elisha Cook, Jr. like a mother hen. The movie’s Kasper Gutman, like Hammett’s, is more ambiguous — the more so for Huston’s omitting Gutman’s duplicitous young daughter, who pretends being drugged to waylay Sam in his search for Brigid — but it’s hard to miss the implication that Wilmer is not merely the man’s bodyguard but his kept boy, particularly in Gutman’s, “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son.” And where Hammett invokes the term “gunsel” a single time only, Huston uses it repeatedly; the movie’s Spade rarely calls Wilmer anything else.

And here we pause for a lesson which seems increasingly necessary… and is seldom, if ever, heeded. I’ve tried myself, more than once, but here goes: Chiefly I think because of this movie, the word “gunsel” (Yiddish, literally “gosling”) has come to mean a cheap hood when it was used in Hammett’s time exclusively in reference to the passive young partner in homosexual union with an older man: A bottom. That’s the reason Bogart’s Spade uses the word so often in his needling of Wilmer, and why the boy gets so angry when he does. Huston’s very knowing employment of the epithet for a gun-toting kid has, unfortunately, given rise to know-nothings casually tossing it off to indicate a gunman of any kind. Thus we get such howlers as Dennis Lehane, in his otherwise excellent crime novel Live by Night, evoking the unintentionally hilarious image of “an army of gunsels.” Not exactly the Spartan 300. Well, Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon is both a gunsel and a cheap hood.

Huston may not have been able to let Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) refer to Cairo as “queer”; permit his Spade to sneer, when Wilmer reacts against Cairo’s physical solicitude, “Lovers’ quarrel”; or do more than indirectly imply the situations, but as in the book there is clearly something going on between Wilmer and Joel in the movie, and the imposed ambiguity is an asset. Huston also upped the ante when Spade twits the police lieutenant, Dundy, repeatedly referring to him as Detective Polhaus’ “boyfriend” or “playmate.” I like to think that it tickled Huston to throw so much “sex perversion” at the Breen Office in one movie, and for that largely Catholic censorship organization to miss it all.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart and Cook

Gunsel and cheap hood: Sam Spade confronts Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) in the lobby of Cairo’s hotel.

Of greater impact in The Maltese Falcon than these matters is the visual style of the picture, one of the progenitors of what post-war French critics deemed film noir (literally, “dark film”) and which was and remains so misunderstood. The shadowed look was, usually, of necessity on below-B movie budgets. That the chiaroscuro effects aided the storytelling was something of a happy accident, but low-key lighting was most often used to camouflage cheap sets with modest light sources. Even Orson Welles and Gregg Toland resorted to these tricks on Citizen Kane, not a “B” picture but one made at a cost-conscious studio with every reason to be nervous, and Kane is now, like Falcon and Double Indemnity, considered by many as one of the de facto early noirs. (Although, again, Indemnity was an “A” project from the outset.) And while Kane had not begun its theatrical run when Falcon was shooting — it was delayed by the contretemps with Hearst — I suspect Huston had seen and admired it, as his movie debut as a director also, like Welles’ and unusually for the period, favors visible ceilings and close, low angles.

Huston’s San Francisco is a city not merely of fog but of night. Only two, brief, outdoor sequences occur during daylight hours, and even the short scene (the murder of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s business partner) imposed on the picture by nervous executives for the benefit of patrons who can’t piece something together even when it’s discussed in detail, while directed by someone other than Huston, takes place on a fog-bound, deserted street in the hours just after midnight. The Maltese Falcon is a movie of dark rooms with drawn shades (only Spade’s apartment has diaphanous curtains, and, perhaps significantly, his windows are almost always open.) Huston’s cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a master of light who also shot the Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad, All Quiet on the Western Front, Mutiny on the Bounty and three James Whale projects (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man). He also, coincidentally, lit Satan Met a Lady, and a year after Falcon he would produce the sumptuous photography for Bogart’s vehicle to immortality, Casablanca. This was a man who understood darkness, and how to exploit it.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart in shadow

The dark night of the soul is sometimes two a.m. rather than three: Spade after learning of the death of his partner.

Speaking of Bogart brings us to the fourth reason for the picture’s lasting appeal beyond Hammett’s story, Huston’s compact screenplay and his subsequent stripped-down direction: The movie’s superb cast. Although a far cry from the green-eyed “blond Satan” of Hammett’s description, Bogart is in every other way the ideal Sam Spade — indeed, the one who defined the role forever, as he did five years later with his Philip Marlowe, and after whom (pace Howard Duff) no others need apply. “Spade has no original,” Hammett once wrote. “He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” You can take Hammett’s words about Spade and apply them equally to Bogie. Nearly every man in the 1940s wanted to be him, or to at least possess his self-assurance.

And Sam Spade was the role Bogart had been waiting for. After years of supporting parts, thankless inanities and almost-leads he’d burnished his reputation considerably playing “Mad Dog” Earle for Raoul Walsh (and scenarist John Huston) and Spade was, for the actor, a definite step up: This time he wasn’t a criminal, and although emotionally wounded, he at least didn’t die in the end. Bogart won the role after George Raft, who was possibly Hollywood’s least precise chooser of roles, passed, largely because Huston was, as director, an unknown quantity. Raft made a habit of turning down parts that paved the way for others, especially Bogart: The gangster “Baby Face” Martin in Dead End, Roy Earle, Spade, “Gloves” Donahue in All Through the Night and, allegedly, Rick Blaine in Casablanca, the part that cemented Bogart’s stature as not only a bankable star but a desirable, even sexy, leading man.‡ Spade calls forth from Bogart a unique set of attitudes. He is, on the one hand, a detached observer and, on the other, and in his own fashion, passionate about justice. A pitiless cad (he’s carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife, and, throughout the picture, treats her with barely disguised contempt) yet despite Brigid’s… I believe the polite phrase would be “unreliable veracity”… he’s genuinely shattered at the end by his own decision to surrender her to the police. He seems to be every bit as avaricious as the casually murderous gang he’s drawn into assisting — note the manic gleam in his eye when he unwraps the falcon, and the dark glee with which he exclaims to Lee Patrick as his secretary Effie, “We’ve got it, Angel! We’ve got it!” — but remaining on the level is ultimately of more interest to him than treasure-hunting. Nor does Bogart tip his hand; we’re unsure until the finish just how far he’ll go.

There’s also remarkable equanimity in Bogart’s performance; although he needles Wilmer mercilessly (and not without reason) he’s more amused by than contemptuous of Cairo when the perfumed dandy holds him up a second time, and his startled laughter at the little man’s audacity feels absolutely real. The same holds true when, exasperated by the Fat Man’s intransigence, he smashes his drinking glass and gives the old chiseler what for; the rage is incandescent, yet when he exits Gutman’s suite he’s grinning at his own performance, even unto the hand he suddenly notices is shaking in the aftermath of his outburst. And when at the climax he explains to Brigid why he’s sacrificing her, he looks absolutely poleaxed by the whole thing. That haunted gaze of his, staring at nothing as he tries to make Brigid understand what she cannot begin to comprehend, marks Spade’s emotional wounding as surely as the faraway look in his eyes when, after Polhaus (Ward Bond) asks him what the black bird is he replies, “The, uh… stuff that dreams are made of.” It’s a dream he’s trying to shake, and we sense there will indeed be as he suggests to Brigid “some rotten nights,” and a lot more of them than he lets on.

That is, I think, one hell of a performance.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart and Astor

“We’re both of us sitting under the gallows.”

The casting of Mary Astor as Brigid is truly inspired. In the Hammett novel, she is, altogether improbably, a girl in her early 20s. With the more mature but no less alluring Astor in the role, the character’s lies and evasions take on both greater believability and a peculiar resonance: Brigid becomes a woman with a past, and a sense of desperation that goes beyond her fear of violent death.§ It’s a tribute to Astor’s fulsome performance that we are never quite certain, even after repeated viewings, where the lies end and the truth begins; when she breaks down at the climax, is her reaction wholly to the certainty of life behind bars, or even hanging, or does she perhaps actually love Sam Spade, at least a little? He can’t tell, and neither can we. The final shot of her, behind elevator door bars that creepily evoke the cell waiting for her at Tehachapi, is as devastating as Astor’s shell-shocked gaze.

As Cairo, Peter Lorre beautifully illustrates why in Berlin he was considered one of the finest young stage actors of his generation. The baby-fat he’d exhibited as the child-murderer in M was long gone by 1941 (although, at least in part due to morphine addiction, his heaviness would return) and the leanness of his face becomes Cairo as much as the curled hair that suggests the Levantine of Hammett’s novel. And despite the clear implications of a homosexual persona, there is nothing prissy or effeminate about Lorre’s performance, merely a weary sophistication alternating with an excitability that just verges at times on hysteria. Although Cairo is amoral, we somehow don’t dislike him, as it is nearly impossible to dislike Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, no matter how threatening he may seem. His avuncular jocularity somehow skirts being tiresome — an improvement over the novel, in which the character is both repetitious and, ultimately, exhausting — and the figure becomes at once unknowably malign and irresistible. He is not, incidentally, called “The Fat Man” in the novel. That moniker was one of Huston’s most apposite additions.

Maltese Falcon - Greenstreet, Lorre and Bogart

The supporting roles are no less impressively cast. Lee Patrick does wonder-work with Effie Perine, showing none of the masochistic hurt of the character in the novel that makes her seeming to push Brigid on Spade so perverse. Gladys George’s Iva Archer is nicely judged, as is Ward Bond’s ambivalent Detective Polhaus, and Barton MacLane gets the right measure of surliness in Lieutenant Dundy, soured by the prospect of Spade’s not being a killer. (Walter Huston also shows up, unbilled, as a walking corpse, a role he undertook to give his son some needed confidence on the first day of filming.)

Although Elisha Cook Jr.’s Wilmer is not the pretty boy of the novel, the actor clearly read the book; when attempting to shadow Spade on the street he keeps his eyes shaded by his lashes just as Hammett describes the character. Cook also has an effective scene in Spade’s apartment when, knowing he’s being sold out, he threatens the private detective through barely controlled tears. He understand at that moment that he is indeed only a boy, not the hardened thug he pretends to be, and that the ease with which he’s murdered at least one man in imitation, one presumes, of the gangsters he’s seen at the movies has finally caught up with him.

The Maltese Falcon is one of those rare movies one can see again and again with complete happiness, ever succumbing to its mesmeric blandishments, always finding something new. I initially saw it, at a library screening, when I was perhaps 11 or 12 (it was my first Bogart picture), have watched it repeatedly in the years since — including twice recently in preparation for writing this — and know that I will revisit it many times in the future. It would be a masterpiece of its kind had it been written and directed by an old pro with a couple dozen such pictures under his belt. For a novice to have made it is almost beyond belief.

Huston’s people may be doomed, but when they’re this good, they are indeed the stuff that dreams are made of.


*Huston was comfortable enough with gay men as long as their public miens comforted his bigotry, as with Capote. It was only when confronted with a homosexual man (Montgomery Clift) whose persona eschewed the flamboyant that he couldn’t handle it.

†Along with illuminating the lives of Walter and John, Grobel takes in as well the youths and early careers of Angelica, Tony and Danny.

‡Raft also said no to Double Indemnity, to Billy Wilder’s relief. About the only good role he said yes to was that of Spats Columbo in Some Like it Hot. Would The Maltese Falcon be half the picture it is with him? Would High SierraDouble Indemnity? Care to see Raft in Bergman’s arms? His complacency was American cinema’s benison.

§In one of the essays that accompany the published screenplay (in the Rutgers Films in Print series) one Ilsa J. Bick refers to Astor, absurdly, as “matronly.” I wonder how old Bick was when she wrote that.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross