Casablanca [1942)

Time goes by.  Time goes by.  Sitting in his own gin joint…stinking drunk.  It’s like Pythagoras is hammering on Bogie’s heart…searching for a certain ratio.  Left to die in Casablanca.  The money is good, sure!  But the heart is broken.

The heart that loves and the heart that fights…these are the same heart.  If she can take it, so can I.  And Dooley Wilson strides into the song.  It was in the piano all along.

The piano…that musical typewriter…where Beethoven wrote novels as much as chiseled sonorities.  Truth is, nobody is listening.  There are those in this world we trust.  At present we wait.

And then she arrives.  And we blow it.  All of that crestfallen love transformed into angst.  She was the most beautiful woman we ever saw.  When Belmondo and Seberg joyride around Paris, it is in tribute to them.  And perhaps Héloïse and Abelard really are buried at Père Lachaise.  Maybe, maybe not.

But when she hummed that tune in the noir shadows…then the piano started to play.  It’s no use.  She’ll never come.  Oh, but she does come.  And then she leaves again.  We begin to wonder whether she ever existed at all…whether Pythagoras ever passed a blacksmith and heard an anvil chorus.  Anytime’s a good time to be born…and anytime is a good time to die.  Harry Partch said that.  And Casablanca’s as good a place for it as any.  Bogie said that.

Ten thousand dollars/at the drop of a hat/I’d give it all gladly/if our lives could be like that.  Bob Dylan said that.  There’s blood on the tracks…greasing the rails…from the concentration camps to North Africa.  Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world…  And now Bogie has to think for all of us.  And he does.

Laszlo had to go all Charles Ives and instead of the Fourth of July, it’s the 14th and “La Marseillaise” is drowning out “Die Wacht am Rhein”…tentatively at first, but ultimately in a rousing rout.

I lost my place…my train of thought.  Rick lost his place…the train from Oran.  It must have been that song…Herman Hupfeld.  Humbert Humbert?  No, that’s more Claude Rains’ department.  Have you tried 22 tonight?  Leave it there.

It’s more Schindler than Schindler…because it’s cinema.  Mostly because it’s Bogart.  The harder they fall…in love.  And so now the piano is silent.  Another proprietor has taken over.  I was always on the side of the underdog…an expensive habit.  Was never much of a business man.

And she flies away.  He remembers the day…the last time.  For me, it was Messiaen.  Turangalîla.  An airport in New Orleans.  I’m not qualified to shine Faulkner’s shoes, but here I am…none the less.

Deep underground is the resistance.  Love.  Maybe.  For now we have cinema…when we can allow ourselves to indulge in such.  We burn in darkened halls…or simply darkened bedrooms on a laptop.  Maybe she has come and gone.  Ingrid, painted so lovingly by Curtiz as she first hears the song again…like the other Bergman…like the overture to The Magic Flute.

I coulda been someone.  I coulda been a contenda.  No, another film.  We merely have our thoughts to cache until the library disappears like mandala sand.  Back to the bottle.  Scorsese gets it!

A lovely day and a lovely actress and Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev with the windows down.  Honey.  He did the right thing.  The hard path.  The road less-traveled.  The true saint.  The golden agitator.  Some say the French invented love.

We’ll always have Paris.  That hour in a van…stuck in traffic.  How very Tati!  There’s Sacré-Cœur…and the Arc de Triomphe from the side.

And then…getting on that plane.  The hardest part.  Like seeing the Eiffel Tower…only on departure.


Passage to Marseille [1944)

The Maginot Line was the greatest “oops” in the history of military strategy.  It’s not often we walk into a movie theater and hear about this relic, nor about the Siegfried Line on the other side.  That is why we must look to classic cinema for these and other lessons.  Make no mistake, this film is not primarily about that ill-fated Titanic of fortifications which was outflanked.

Sydney Greenstreet makes mention of both lines in the fictional build up to real war.  Greenstreet is once again the slippery villain…this time a Major in the French army who would side with Petain and the Nazis.  Peter Lorre, for once, is a good guy (though a pickpocket/safecracker by profession).  Claude Rains is convincing and distinguished as Captain Freycinet, but it is Humphrey Bogart as Matrac who leads the show.

For Bogart’s character Jean Matrac we must look to another chapter of history:  that of Jean-Paul Marat.  Bogart plays a radical journalist who ends up being framed by the government of France and sent to the penal colony at Cayenne, French Guiana.  Sound familiar?  To Francophiles it certainly should.  We must remember Lieutenant-colonel Alfred Dreyfus (another great “oops” of French history).  Dreyfus was wrongly accused of being a spy and sent to (you guessed it) French Guiana [in fact, to the worst part:  Devil’s Island].

And so…we have Bogart and Lorre and three other “convicts” (some legitimately guilty and others, like Bogart, there on dubious charges) escape in a canoe.  I won’t go too much into plot detail in case you feel like actually watching this thing (what a concept!).

The theme, on the other hand, is worth elaboration.  We are dealing with patriotism in spite of corrupt governance.  As St. Thomas Aquinas said (and I paraphrase), “An unjust law is no law at all.”  Another page from history.  Here we see the principle of Natural Law which would attract none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. (who cited the same sentiment in his Letter From Birmingham Jail in 1963).

We now live in a time and (we in the United States) a country which is as dynamic with vile antagonists as was France during WWII.  Knowing history becomes paramount.  Knowledge (as James Madison pointed out) is essential for popular governance.  Facts are weapons.

Bogart ends up worthy of being a subject for Jacques-Louis David by film’s conclusion (I’m being purposefully cryptic), but not before giving the Nazis a good lashing.  Bogie’s character is similar to the one he played in Key Largo.  Matrac’s disillusionment almost makes him become the complete opposite of his former self.  In an instance fit for bystander law, Bogart intercedes on behalf of a young boy.  The young boy revives the national pride in Bogart–that fire for justice.

We in America would do well to remember the Maginot Line when disillusioned with a government we feel no longer represents us.  Even the Prophet Mohammed spoke of the scholar’s ink as superior to the martyr’s blood.  Everyone with a mouse to click is fighting.  Every blog, post, and tweet is a riposte.  Every dollar a vote.

Vive la France!  And long live the United States of America!


Across the Pacific [1942)

Spies, spies; every where, Nor any secret to glean.  Je t’aime… moi non plus

“Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither.”  Ah, Dalí.  Only a man who enjoyed roasted grapefruits as an appetizer would have the twisted wit to turn Western logic upon its head.

Coleridge.  Gainsbourg.  Bogart.  Indeed, the albatross was heavy round the necks of all at this time…not least for John Huston.  We begin with détournement and continue with dérive.

Dear Mr. Huston didn’t even get the chance to complete this film before having his work taken over by Vincent Sherman.  This was truly an age of war.  Hot war.

The original film premise was to depict a Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor…until the Japanese actually did just that.  Oops!  And so it was rewritten to focus on the Panama Canal Zone.  A sabotage incident (which would have likewise sparked off American mass involvement) is the linchpin of our drama.

Sydney Greenstreet once again plays a slippery character (and what is more, referred to again as “the fat man”).  It wouldn’t be too long before Greenstreet’s soubriquet was transposed onto the plutonium bomb which destroyed Nagasaki.  This was no coincidence.

After arriving in Panama Bogart continues his work for Army intelligence by meeting with A.V. Smith (Charles Halton).  On Smith’s desk, conspicuously in plain view, is a calendar and the date:  Dec. 6, 1941.  Time is of the essence.

Bogart’s character is named Rick.  His pal Lee Tung Foo is called Sam.  Sound familiar?

Yes, just two months after Across the Pacific, Casablanca would be released with Bogart as another Rick and Dooley Wilson as Sam the piano player.  Greenstreet had been “the Fat Man” the previous year in The Maltese Falcon (also directed by Huston).  That film had likewise starred Mary Astor who appears in Across the Pacific as Alberta Marlow.  Bogart would go on to play Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ masterful version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946).  It all gets a bit confusing, doesn’t it?  Let’s just call it the fog of noir, shall we?

To keep accounts straight…we should remember that Casablanca was directed not by Huston, but by Michael Curtiz.

Reentering the atmosphere of film criticism proper…this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but not the juggernaut that some Bogart outings came to be.  It is perhaps most of interest as the precipice which our star occupied just before Casablanca.  Though it is less known than The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (among many other Bogie films), it is well-worth watching.