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Hope and despair

September 1st, 2003


csablanca.jpgIn being asked to write on this topic, we were warned against a “laundry list” approach. But, naming one movie that changed my life is even harder than thinking of one book. What with Kubrick and Welles and Ingmar Bergman and all.

So I’ll cheat a bit.

In 1951 King Kong was re-released, and my mother took me to see it. It was the first movie that knocked me out, and it put me on the movie-slut road. The Marx Brothers laid the foundation for my view of the universe as essentially unknowable, but funny. The Wild One warped my social sensibilities; La Strada and The Seventh Seal introduced me to, ahem, film. And John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes became not just one of my favorite movies, but a test of friendship: if you sat through this movie with me and were still my friend, it was true love.

But, there are two movies — and they work as “films” as well — that informed my world view and politics more than any others: Casablanca and The Third Man.

I have seen Casablanca about twenty-five times, the last just before sitting down to write this. I still find new things to admire about it. It was one of about fifty movies that Warner Bros. produced in 1942 and was not considered a work of art by the studio.

Indeed, despite the machinations involved to get the services of Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid, both of whom were under contract to other studios, it was regular studio product. The character actors in the large cast were WB stock players, director Michael Curtiz and composer Max Steiner were employees.

Bogart was not even the first choice for the part of Rick. George Raft and Ronald Reagan (!) were among those considered. One shudders now at the thought.

The story came from an unproduced play entitled Everyone Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett. It had all of the major plot points in place, except for the ending.

The screenwriters were another story. The Epstein Brothers, twins, were known for their witty dialogue and good ideas. Howard Koch was brought in to punch up and add to the script when the Epsteins were called to work on another picture. They returned in time to come up with the brilliant ending, with a little help from Jack Warner.

The first time I saw it, on TV in my early teens, I liked it because it had Bogie and Bergman, among my faves. The second time I saw it, I began to notice things: the dialogue, the delicious cynicism, the nobility of the sacrifices. I was impressionable, and this hit me in the heart.

About 1965, I saw it again. By this time, there had been Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate. I knew that Rick’s history, told once by Renault (Rains) and repeated by Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt) meant something: he ran guns to Ethiopia and fought on the loyalist side in Spain, not just the adventures of a romantic hero — they were a political statement.

Then I learned that the Epsteins were ratted out to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as “subversives” by none other than that smug bastard, Jack Warner. When asked whether they had ever belonged to a subversive organization, the twins wrote, “Yes. Warner Brothers.”

Howard Koch was also blacklisted for failure to cooperate with HUAC. Bogart lent his name to left causes and became identified with the Hollywood Anti-fascist League, but he backed down under pressure.

Rick, alas, was only a role.

All this information helped form my political consciousness in the Sixties. I had no understanding of the traditions of the left, and of its accomplishments and failures, like the Spanish Civil War. I wondered why the aging survivors of something called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were cheered at peace marches.

Casablanca helped teach me. It embodied so much of the spirit of the civil rights and peace movements: giddy idealism, nobility of thought, personal responsibility, faith in the moral power of the cause. It was the perfect metaphor for our struggle.
I still cry at the Marseillaise scene.

The Third Man is the polar opposite. Despairing, rather than optimistic. Deeply cynical, the cynicism of crushed ideals, rather than the glib, glorified Gallic sarcasm of Louis Renault or Rick’s cynicism, a sword and shield against a sad world, seasoned with the belief that humanity may yet be redeemed.

Where Casablanca was a happy accident of the Hollywood studio system, The Third Man was art from the beginning. Carol Reed, the director, began his greatest work with this film, the screenplay was by the sardonic Graham Greene, and the photography and production design were brilliant. The music, played on a zither, was perfect: the sound of hollow gaiety.

And Reed got Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten to act in the film.

The Third Man limns the state of the world in WWII-ravaged Europe after the cessation of open hostilities. If the deep thinkers in the White House want to know why “old Europe” is chary of war, they might want to look at this film.

I saw it as a kid, but it didn’t make much of an impression. When I saw it again at The Circle Theater in Washington D.C. in 1974, my marriage had ended badly, I was unemployed because of the Nixon recession, and Watergate was playing itself out daily on my TV screen. In short, I was in the proper frame of mind to receive the spirit of the film, the Kinogeist, as it were.

The movie’s message to me was that there was no hope in a world where World War II was possible. You do what you can to survive, and the other guy does the same. People have value to the extent that they can assist your survival. Love means nothing beyond transitory pleasure and doesn’t count for anything when your balls are on the anvil.
Welles’ character, Harry Lime, is presented to us as a kind of eternal frat boy: a happy, drunk, hail-fellow-well-met. Holly Martins, Lime’s best friend, is a hack writer on hard times who is called to Vienna for a possible job with Lime.

Martins, the naive, still-optimistic American, is sucked into a murder mystery, deceived by everyone, even those who wish him well, and finally winds up as a despairing stool pigeon (in a small way, a prophecy of the McCarthy era). The source of Martins’ despair is that his friend has become a vicious criminal, a corrupt dealer in black-market penicillin, diluted to the point where it was ineffective against infection. Many have suffered and died at Lime’s hands.

Welles-as-Lime shows up late in the film, in a brilliant entrance. Martins spends most of the movie trying to meet with Lime while avoiding the police and Lime’s henchmen.
In one of the most famous scenes in film, they meet next to the Prater Wheel, an enormous Ferris wheel with cars the size of small rooms. They take a ride, for privacy. When Martins confronts Lime with his crimes, Lime justifies himself to his friend with an oration of the deepest amorality, lapsing into true evil, and culminating in a speech written by Welles:

“You know what the fellow said: In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

It is hard to admit, thirty years later, that I practically memorized the scene and believed far too much of it. It curdles my blood to hear it now.

So Casablanca and The Third Man, the moral parentheses of the Second World War, are also two touchstones in my life. My heart is still with Rick and the progressive partisans of the Café Américain, drowning out the Nazis with La Marseillaise.

And fortunately my head is, too.

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Goldberg | Link to this Entry


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