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The AFI Top 100 Films: Casablanca (#2)

Entertainment 150Casablanca (1942)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains
Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch (screenplay); Murray Bennett and Joan Alison (stage play)
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Even at number 2 on this list, I think this movie is underrated. This love story is unlike any other movie I’ve seen before or since, and I can see why so many people have fallen for it so hard. It has one of the best screenplays ever, featuring actors who are at the top of their game. There are no end of iconic moments and quotable lines, and even the ending is one of the most satisfying ever filmed. This is pretty much what a movie should be; perfectly executed in an artless, almost effortless way. Nothing touches Casablanca on that score.

Bogey plays American expatriate Rick Blaine, a bitter man who owns a casino and nightclub that attracts a wide variety of clients. Vichy French, Italian and German officials rub elbows with displaced refugees desperate to get away from the threat of the Nazis — preferably the United States. Rick is a neutral party, and his Cafe Americain is a safe harbor for anyone who can pay for drink and/or games of chance.

A petty crook shows up with letters of transit — papers that allow their bearer safe passage through Nazi-controlled Europe to neutral Portugal and her ports — planning to sell them at Rick’s club later that night. He’s arrested by Vichy Captain Louis Renault (Rains) before he gets the chance; he manages to leave them in Rick’s care before he’s pinched. An idealistic woman named Ilsa Lund (Bergman) follows the letters to the cafe, accompanied by her husband Victor Laszlo (Henreid). They need the letters so that Laszlo can continue his resistance work in America; Nazi officials in Casablanca are there to make sure he doesn’t make it out.

Ilsa and Rick have a history that makes his decision a difficult one. Suddenly, he has to weigh the bitter disappointment of the past against a moral decision that carries severe consequences for him. Can he live down his anger towards Ilsa? Does he break his carefully-maintained stance of neutrality? What does he say to the various forces pressuring him to fall one way or the other? It’s a decision point that not only decides the fate of several people, but determines just what kind of man he is. It’s heady stuff, and it’s a delight to watch Rick work through it.

The story alone is mesmerizing; Rick has to deal with an internal crisis while bearing incredible external pressure. The Nazis want him to do one thing, Ilsa wants him to do the opposite, and everyone from his frienemy Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet, who is just delightful) to corrupt cop Renault have their own ideas. He has to make peace with something he wasn’t remotely ready to tackle, forced out of his shell to engage in a conflict sweeping the rest of the world whether he wanted to or not. Bogart deftly shows us Rick’s broken soul through the cracks of his aloof, smart-alecky exterior. It’s truly extraordinary.

The rest of the film is populated with amazing characters, from torn Ilsa to stoic, moral Laszlo to good-natured, long-suffering Sam. Even the extras bustle in the peripheries of the screen; scenes are established with snatches of dialogue we get from the patrons’ tables in Rick’s cafe. The film moves through dozens of stories to hone in on the one it wants to tell, but it never lets us forget that they’re there. The story seethes with the bits of its fellows encroaching on its borders, and sometimes (during the duel of the anthems, for example) all of them coalesce into a single shared moment.

Behind the scenes, the shooting of Casablanca was fast and loose; I think this imparts an energy that you don’t see all the time with the polished Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s. The tales, true or not, of everything that went wrong with the movie and what the director and actors had to do to make things work just make me love it even more. To make something that looks so effortlessly great is no small feat — it’s even more impressive when the set is fighting you at every turn.

If you haven’t seen Casablanca yet, do yourself a favor and watch it. No matter how many times its scenes have been spoofed, misquoted and imitated, there’s simply nothing like the original. Of the 100 films on this list, this is the one I would say is the greatest — which means I’ll have to talk about why I disagree with the AFI’s anointing of Citizen Kane. That’s an essay for another time.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The African Queen (#17)

Entertainment 150The African Queen (1957)
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn
Written by James Agee & John Huston (screenplay) and C.S. Forester (novel)
Directed by John Huston

There’s really nothing else quite like The African Queen. Set (and filmed!) in Africa, it tells the story of a missionary’s sister Rose Sayer (Hepburn) fleeing the region after Germany deemed her brother a “hostile foreigner”. His hut is burned down and he is beaten so badly that he remains addled for the few days it takes him to die of fever. With nothing left for her at the village she worked in, she decided to leave on the only transport she could, the titular river-boat captained by hard-drinking grump-meister Charlie Allnut (Bogart).

The pair learns of a rather nasty German submarine sitting in a lake nearby, blocking off access to this part of the region. Not content with merely escaping, Rose decides to do her part for the war effort and blow it up with a home-made torpedo or two. At first Charlie isn’t having any of it, but as the pair travels down the river together they grow closer in mind and spirit. They fight over just about everything, even still, but they look past those differences towards the bond that being in such a terrible situation gives you.

It’s the bond between the characters and the wonderful chemistry between the actors who play them that gives the movie it’s charm. Bogart is really in his element here as Allnut, a crude riverboat captain who’s really only looking to do his job and drink a lot. Hepburn channels her steel spine well into Rose, the high-minded religious woman who seeks to drive Charlie to a higher purpose. And through her uncompromising yet mostly genial nature, she herds him there through the distraction of the bottle and “meager” self-preservation.

When she’s able to channel him into a place where their interests align and things flow smoothly, the effect is electric. It’s like sailing a ship into the current, or channeling base instinct towards a constructive purpose. You’re always shocked by how swiftly and efficiently things get done. That’s the magic between these two at work; you see how well they fit together because of their differences, and it makes you believe in the idea of two opposing yet complementary forces. The id and the super-ego joining to propel the individual towards impossible achievements.

They sure do have to suffer a lot to learn that, though. Not only do they have to navigate each other’s personalities, but they have to deal with the very real dangers of the river as well. Swarms of flies, the tricky rapids and currents that lead the Queen into dead spots that must then be dragged through. The scenes of Rose and Charlie dealing with the elements are incredible, shot with a realism that makes you feel terrible for them and horrified at just some of the many delights the African wilderness can inflict on unsuspecting travelers. Knowing that director John Huston and his stars also had to deal with a lot of tough conditions to film on location only adds to that reaction; Hepburn was sick with dysentery for much of the movie, and they used real leeches for a particularly awful scene.

african-queen

Not pictured: nightmare fuel.

Another interesting thing about The African Queen — and one of the things that makes it a bit more timeless than other films of its type — is it really gives you a sense of the unique geography of Africa without diving into the thorny socio-political and racial issues of the time. You don’t see too many African jungle adventures that don’t need to come with the disclaimer of “Some racist things happen in this movie, but that’s just the way people thought at the time.” It was nice to have that.

The final set-piece — when the Queen and her crew finally reach the lake where the German sub is positioned — skews things in a distinctly Hollywood direction, but it’s still quite well done. The tonal shift isn’t so jarring it negates the realism of what’s come before, and both Hepburn and Bogart are so charming they pull it off with a minimum of questioning. The African Queen represents old-school filmmaking at its finest while still offering something unique to this day. It’s a great adventure worth getting wrapped up in.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Maltese Falcon (#23)

Entertainment 150The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and Dashiell Hammett (novel)
Directed by John Huston

Chances are when you think about the quintessential film-noir detective, you’re thinking about Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. On the off chance that you aren’t, the person you’re thinking of owes a great debt to Bogey, who invented the mold. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t the very first film-noir to hit Hollywood, but it was the first one that garnered major attention and inspired an entire movement of style in popular culture. We’re getting to that point in the top 100 where just about every film is a major inspiration or marked a significant turning point in the history of cinema. It’s fascinating to watch these movies; they’re either the skeletons of an entire genre that you can see being built through the films that follow or they’re the fully-formed gold standard, the movie that exemplifies what we’ve come to think of when we say “mob movie,” or “film noir”.

This is a combination of the two; Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, a private investigator based in San Francisco. He’s approached by a woman named Ruth Wonderly (Astor), who hires him to follow a man she believes is involved with her missing sister. He takes the case and his partner decides to do the leg-work; later that night, Spade gets the call that his partner’s been murdered.

The man his partner was following — Floyd Thursby — was murdered too, and now Spade is implicated. He has the motive, certainly, and the means. This is just the gateway into the story of the Maltese Falcon, and soon Spade is caught up in this weird war with three players all vying for a priceless, lost bird. Joining Wonderly — who renames herself O’Shaughnessy once the jig is up — is jovially dangerous Gutman (Greenstreet) and fastidious worry-wart Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). The trio tries to use Spade as a pawn to their own ends, but he does a remarkable job of somehow slipping right through their control. No one’s quite able to get a handle on him; he thinks fast and manages to exploit a lucky turn astonishingly well.

Bogart plays Spade as a wily, cagey bastard who can’t help but needle the people that get on his nerves. There’s no filter between his brain and his mouth, which gets him into quite a bit of trouble in the most amusing ways. Spade is either competent or quick enough to get himself out of the scrapes he causes, and it gives the movie the feel of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Well, it would if everyone smoked cigarettes and adult themes were allowed.

Hold very still, there's something on your nose.

His fist is a metaphor…for violence.

The plot is convoluted, of course, but it’s also fairly easy to follow. The trouble with noir is that the narrative often gets so twisted it’s difficult to keep track of the players in the game or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Even though there are a lot of moving pieces here, crosses and double-crosses, you never quite lose the thread of the story. I think it’s a testament to the writing: John Huston, adapting from the Dashiell Hammett novel that’s been brought to the big screen twice before, really had a great handle on what made the story pop and kept his focus tight on the gallery of characters that would each be engaging enough to remember even with limited screen time.

I think that’s what makes The Maltese Falcon so successful, ultimately. With so much noir (and stories inspired by it), authors fall into the trap of creating archetypes instead of actual characters. So much attention is given to the plot that the characters end up as faceless pieces on the chess board, only there to make moves that bring the story to its endgame. Here, every character is distinctive. They give the impression of a rich inner life beyond the confines of the story, so they’re rather easy to identify. The audience really gets to know them as people, not pieces in service to the plot.

It’s such a surprise that Huston nails this basic truth so early in the genre, and the feat hasn’t been duplicated quite as well since. Of course, since my knowledge of noir is admittedly limited, maybe I just haven’t seen the right stuff. But The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful example of an intricate, twisting plot inhabited by rich and memorable characters. Even though all of the characters feel the tightening noose of fate around their necks, they never seem blind to it. They know when they’re in trouble, and they’re smart enough to try and get out of it. The trouble is, Sam Spade is almost always smarter.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (#30)

Entertainment 150The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and B. Traven (novel)
Directed by John Huston

I felt like I had learned a few things after seeing . One: finding and mining gold is a LOT more difficult than I thought and way harder than it had been portrayed in other movies. Two: that the only reason you would go to Mexico at the time was specifically to find gold. Three: that the allure of overwhelming wealth is far more powerful than just about anyone realizes. Four: “We don’t need no stinking badges!” is a misquote, that actually came from this movie. The last bit, sadly, is probably the knowledge that I will spread most.

Dobbs (Bogart), an American down on his luck in Mexico, meets up with a compatriot named Bob Curtin (Holt). Together, with a grizzled prospector who’s seen a thing or two (Huston), they trek to the harsh and forbidding wilderness in the Sierra Madre mountains for one big score. Once they find it, they’ll have to protect it from bandits, mining companies eager to put a legal claim on the place, other prospectors, and the rising tide of greed within themselves. Combine the constant mental wariness with the back-breaking physical labor, and you just have to wonder how long someone could last in that situation.

The entire first act is a wonderfully protracted exercise in foreshadowing. Howard, the old prospector, makes no bones about telling Dobbs and Curtin that gold-mining is nowhere near as easy or fun as it sounds. There are an awful lot of things that you need to keep track of, and even more that you have to watch out for. The biggest thing to watch out for is greed, however; that’ll take a man over to the point that he’s doing unspeakable things. We watch both Dobbs and Curtin vehemently deny the possibility this could exist in their natures, and immediately we wonder which one of them will succumb first.

Answer: They all do. Or do they?

One of these men turns into a paranoid monster when gold is involved. Guess which one?

We see the character of Dobbs and Curtin quite well in this first part of the movie, and we get a good sense for what kind of people they are. After working on a construction project and being stiffed on their wages, they happen upon the foreman one day and demand their money. When they get it, they have the opportunity to take his entire roll but they don’t. Only the wages they were promised, no more, no less. It’s a great touch; when they have every reason to clean this guy out, they don’t. Their actions back up their words, and you just know they believe themselves to be fair and honest men.

The adventures in the mountains don’t go anywhere near the way the men expect; they have to deal with bandits, of course, and other prospectors sniffing around their claim. They also have to deal with the intense labor involved in extracting the gold from the mountain and the incredibly dangerous conditions they must endure to do so. Howard, who at first comes off as a loony old kook, seems to grow stronger every day he’s out there. He’s in his element, and the wisdom of his years becomes painfully evident.

I don’t want to go too much further into the film than I already have; it was fun watching the action play out in ways that surprised me. But I will say that the destructive nature of our lusts is on full display here, and Howard’s ability to see it coming far down the road and deal with it once it reaches him is truly a wonderful thing to watch. It’s fascinating to watch men break down without the safety net of civilization to guide their actions.

Both Bogart and Huston give great performances here; Bogart because he’s playing against his type, as a man who’s out of his element and in over his head, while Huston thoroughly lives in his performance as a guy who first annoys you, then inspires awe in you. He’s really the reason to watch this movie, and his Best Supporting Actor Oscar is thoroughly deserved.

I’ve developed an increasing fondness for stories in which the ending features the characters looking at the cost they’ve paid to achieve their goals and realizing that what they’ve overcome is so enormous that their original goals seem meaningless in comparison. I’m not sure The Treasure of the Sierra Madre quite fits that mold, but it brings it to mind. Knowing what goes into the search for gold definitely takes the luster out of it, and I imagine living through a claim scours away any romantic notions you may have had once.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies

 

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