Caesar and Cleopatra (1945): Born to Rule

post“You are very sentimental, Caesar, but you are clever. And if you do as I tell you, you will soon learn how to govern.”

—Cleopatra

If Vivien Leigh were alive today, she would be 100 years old. In reality, she lived barely over half that long. Like many astronomically gorgeous women, Leigh endured a nasty amount of disparagement by critics who claimed she used her looks to compensate for her acting.

Which is why I wanted write about Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Leigh gave us the best celluloid incarnation of Egypt’s legendary queen, a role that rewarded both her beauty and her brains. Her monarch of the Nile is no royal cipher, no myth, and no parody, but a flesh-and-blood girl—a creature more tantalizing and paradoxical than a sphinx.

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George Bernard Shaw (on whose play the film was based) disliked Vivien Leigh’s performance, according to film historian Kendra Bean, webmistress of Viv and Larry. Upon previewing the completed film, Shaw moaned, “she’s ruined it.” But—and I write this with profound respect for Shaw’s literary genius—to hell with his opinion. He had some pretty dodgy opinions in his time. Acute observation may often be called cynicism, but not all cynicism deserves to be called acute observation.

After all, if this white elephant of a film holds up, it’s due in no small part to Leigh. Many of us drown in the fountain of Shavian wit. But who can’t relate to Cleopatra as Leigh plays her?

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Thanks to her interpretation, the audience senses that Cleopatra’s quavering reluctance and savage exhibitionism—flip sides of the same coin—hold the potential of greatness. When we first meet the teen queen, her flippant outbursts, her tyrannical gestures of rebellion, and her cutsey manipulations all strike a remarkable balance between annoyance and enchantment. She beguiles the viewer into recognizing that tremendous opportunity sleeps in her whimsy. In one lyrical shot, as Cleopatra snoozes in her virginal bed, the camera tracks over her towards the sea, as though destiny were keeping vigil over her, waiting with certainty for her character to ripen.

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Terence Rattigan once referred to Vivien as “one of nature’s grand Duchesses.” He meant that somewhat pejoratively, since her innate majesty limited her range, in his estimate. By contrast, I would argue that this quality brought out an added facet of many of her roles.

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Hoary old men of literature seem to enjoy the archetypes of the downtrodden or silly woman. However, I personally cannot help but find it refreshing that Vivien Leigh radiates grace and dignity at all times, even in the gutter. In her, substance and coquettishness aren’t separate. They fuse. The beauty of Leigh’s performance as Cleopatra elevates girlishness to a form of latent power.

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In On Acting, Laurence Olivier zeroed in on a basic flaw in the original play’s dynamics: “Shaw makes the most brilliant comic role for Cleopatra in the first act, but after the middle of the play she doesn’t get one laugh. He loses interest in Cleopatra and fastens his interest on Caesar; he just adores Caesar.”

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Spot-on, Larry. Shaw wanted to give us a witty play about education, a paean to the transformative effects of quasi-condescending, platonic relationships between world-weary middle-aged men and much younger women. Rather one-sided, isn’t it? Once Cleopatra proves a somewhat incorrigible pupil, killing traitors and not knowing how to handle the mess, Shaw seems to throw up his hands and reveal the work’s true purpose—letting Caesar preach the Zen of politics, the kindly non-governance that governs best.

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I suspect that Shaw resented Vivien’s efforts to counterbalance this swing of focus. If anything, her Cleopatra grows more fascinating in the second half. And although she obviously benefits from Caesar’s guidance, she was never a tabula rasa, a pretty, childish lump of clay for the conqueror to mold.

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Is it best that we should all be wise, steady, and a little jaded? Perhaps. But there’s something to be said for those youthful, uncivilized qualities that our elders try to break us of. Cleopatra’s vanity, her jagged energy, her impetuousness, her passionate nimbleness of mind, and even her egocentric spite come across as somewhat positive traits, though Shaw no doubt didn’t want them to.

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Vivien Leigh seized on the universality and charm of her role, awakening a side of Cleopatra that disturbs Shaw’s through-line. Just as Cleopatra learns from Caesar but discards the least practical bits of his wisdom, Leigh works with the architecture of Shaw’s play, but takes her performance in a different direction, one rather ahead of its time.

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Watching about twenty different expressions and deductions passing across Leigh’s quicksilver face in a minute, the modern spectator recognizes the strong, but confused girl-woman so prominent in today’s society. Why, you could plunk Leigh’s Cleopatra down in the midst of any gathering of bright millennials and she’d be right at home, with her curious blend of irrationality and competence, arrogance and insecurity.

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There’s enormous strength in girlishness, as Leigh shows us. Girlishness shocks scruples and overcomes the virtue of restraint—a virtue once you’re in control, but not necessarily a habit of highly effective people on the trip to get there. Most political strategy requires a kind of childish boldness, as suggested by Cleopatra’s lines like, “It is not that I am so clever, but that the others are so stupid.”

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The camera aids and abets Leigh’s interpretation of a Cleopatra who holds her own against Caesar’s dreamy equanimity. We might not want to feel the rush of intoxicating cruelty as she chases a slave around in her palace in long shot, her little veiled figure flitting and dancing around like a mischievous fairy, but I’d wager that most of us do.

She scampers up to her throne and raises her arms skyward, announcing, “I am a QUEEN!” The glorious self-absorption of this moment serves as both a warning and gratification, the initial glee triggered by a perception of absolute power. (Sadly, it was while filming this scene that then-pregnant Vivien slipped and took a fall that caused her to miscarry.)

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 As the Roman legions enter her palace, the film medium conveys Cleopatra’s erstwhile courage in a way a stage play never could. We witness her trembling anxiety in a number of tense reaction shots, as the soldiers get closer and closer. Rather than presenting a dramatic spectacle, the film offers up Cleopatra’s experience of bravery as the concealment of fear.

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Towards the conclusion, the film uses another close-up of Leigh to signify a key shift in the plot and to meld it with an emotional turning point in Cleopatra’s coming-of-age progression. When Cleopatra cowers over the body of her nurse, killed as a consequence of the Queen’s own meddling, she stares towards the camera with a blank look. The darkness of the murder scene slowly dissolves to the white-hot sands of the desert as Leigh’s face lingers, superimposed, over dunes, as troops march off to war.

Through the transition, it’s as though Cleopata’s wide, horrified eyes were seeing through the scene of a single death to witness a bloody battle, threatening imminent death for thousands of men. We recognize that a major upheaval has taken place in her consciousness. Touched by death, she grasps the stakes of this game.

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Now, I have chosen to devote my attention to Vivien Leigh today, but I cannot praise Claude Rains’s performance enough. Rains may be the first man since antiquity to successfully exude authority while wearing a metallic mini-skirt, possibly because he performs all those Roman gestures with a nod of rumpled humor.

More importantly, the audience can feel the pit of loneliness in the heart of this conqueror. The miracle of his voice, like a well-tuned orchestra, rescues so many of Caesar’s philosophy lectures from oblivion. Rains captures the mixture of affection, mentorship, and wariness in Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra, infusing his performance with the barest hint of attraction for his protégée.

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In one of the most splendid scenes of the film, Caesar, Cleopatra, Rufio, and Apollodorus sit around a dinner table in the rosy sunset glow of the palace rooftop. The camera tracks back from an inscrutable idol to reveal the four revelers, lounging around after the meal. The moment that follows is the closest to romantic intimacy that the eponymous pair will come, and it aches with yearning.

Certainly, Shaw’s florid prose evokes this throb of desire, as Caesar dreams of discovering a new land with Cleopatra. However, the coziness of the two-shot between Caesar and Cleopatra, reclining in waning light, translates the might-have-been into an image of palpable closeness. By default, the audience wants a couple. The chemistry between Rains and Leigh deepens this longing. But it’s not to be.

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Caesar and Cleopatra’s opulence devoured a budget that could’ve paid a king’s ransom: 1.3 million in total. In fact, it was the costliest British studio production up to that time. When the film flopped at the box office, Gabriel Pascal’s career as a director fell on its sword. I admire this film for presenting a total antithesis to every other movie about the Queen of the Nile. Devoid of gratuitous sex and violence (actually, make that all sex and almost all violence), the cerebral tenor of the movie begs to be appreciated like a fine wine.

Ultimately, though, a drawing room comedy can be rolled over one’s palate and not cost a million pounds. Pomp and intellect are ill-yoked partners. As Cecil B. DeMille knew, temples and pyramids upstage fragile thoughts, which is why an epic needs only a central clash and a few morsels of elemental ideology.

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Much as I mourn for the failure of this experiment in the intellectual epic, I do find the film too long, padded here and there by unnecessary bits of business and well-written, but ultimately uncinematic speeches. No matter how much Technicolor eye candy Jack Cardiff and company lavish on the audience members, the film tests their patience.

I become easily exasperated with Caesar’s romantic wisdom. His collection of tolerant aphorisms wears thin on me. Not that I don’t agree with his open-minded doctrine of pragmatic clemency, but he shows this philosophy enough by his actions without having to articulate it over and over and over. A leaner screenplay might have saved this adaptation from its sanctimonious belches.

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Here again, the blood is on Shaw’s hands, given the playwright’s refusal to allow his source material to be significantly cut or modified. You’d think the Oscar he won for Pygmalion (1938) would’ve opened his eyes to the specific demands of the cinema and demonstrated how a successful adaptation can negotiate these challenges.

Despite the quixotic shortcomings (or longcomings) of the film, I recommend it for the sumptuous visuals and spot-on lead performances. Watch it and rejoice in the Queen’s transcendent brattiness. Like Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh was born to rule.

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(My) Top 10 Shots in Casablanca

posterSo many people have written mind-blowing thematic analyses of Casablanca that I decided to go another route. This movie invites you into it—and invites you to take souvenirs from it: favorite lines, cherished scenes, fragments of tunes and soundtrack music, and, of course, images.

Casablanca encourages you to turn it into your own personal collection of memories and does so more successfully than any other Hollywood film. So here’s my collection of its most meaningful, mythical, and tantalizing shots.

10. Casablanca Noir

If you were to show me this shot and say, “What’s it from?” it would take me more than a minute to realize that it’s from The Greatest Hollywood Movie of All Time (according to some people, though I don’t like those kinds of judgements). Here, Ilsa is watching Victor as he risks his life by going out to the Free France meeting after curfew. The low-key lighting, the venetian blinds, and the obscured face all scream NOIR.  The image clearly plays with our genre-recognition abilities. This noirish quality, largely thanks to expressionist-influenced director Michael Curtiz and director of photography Arthur Edeson (also the DoP for Frankenstein and The Maltese Falcon) consistently add a palpable ominousness to what could’ve been a frothy, unbelievable quip-fest.

9. In the Shadows

Now, this isn’t a shot that slaps you across the face with its importance. It occurs very early in the film when Captain Renault warns Rick not to help Lazlo. The shot doesn’t last particularly long. However, I think this moody shadow silhouette of Rick serves a key function of insisting on his dark side… the dark side that we’re about to see when he coldly watches the Nazis nab Ugarte. This film only works if we believe that Bogie (who, leading up to Casablanca, had played some pretty vicious guys) might actually let Victor Lazlo die because of a grudge against Ilsa. That ugliness needs to lurk in him to counterbalance the sentimentality. And this shot knows it.

8. The Airfield Two-Shot

We all know the famous two-shot of Rick and Ilsa saying goodbye, but there’s a marvelous swooping crane-in movement on the pair which we would also do well to recall with fondness. It adds to the shock, tension, and pathos of Rick’s noble switcheroo as Ilsa copes with the fact that she’s going, not staying.

7. The Nazis are Coming

How brave was it, in 1942, to include a shot like this? Raw, grainy, obviously the real deal, and totally terrifying. Not only does this footage of a genuine Panzer division ripping through the French countryside lend psychological weight and menace to Conrad Veidt’s sinister Major Strasser, but it’s also the scariest shot in the film, for my money, because it reaches beyond the diegesis to frighten us. For the people watching this in 1942, it might have felt like a coming attraction. And not a pleasant one. As Strasser asks Rick, can you imagine the Nazis in New York? I bet Casablanca‘s audiences could, in their nightmares.

6. The Weeping Letter

How many times have we seen letters in movies as a short-hand for plot revelations? And how often does it feel flat and lame? Well, apparently, just add (rain)water and the ink bleeds and weeps into instant devastation. The words cry the tears that tough-guy Bogie can’t and infuse the scene with an ineffable feeling of loss and things falling apart.

5. Trouble in Paradise

Ilsa tries to enjoy her last moments with Rick, but this tight framing tells us that some mysterious inner struggle is killing her. It’s pure agony and irony—since Rick blithely has no idea. The Paris dream is about to come crashing down.

(Note: Nick Ray would later copy this tight framing for the nightclub scene in In A Lonely Place, again, with Bogie, but it’s much more effective here, I’d argue.)

4. The Penetrating Searchlight

The beam scans the night sky as peaceful harps sing on the soundtrack, telling us what really happened between Rick and Ilsa. As Rick later admits to Laslzo, “She pretended she was still in love with me… and I let her pretend…” One of the most alluring, evocative ellipses of all time. Thanks, Joseph Breen and your blue-pencil brigade, for being a real pain and burning this remarkable hole in the narrative!

3. La Belle Aurore

One shot encompasses all of the frames above. We get a tilt up from the shadow. Rick’s at the bar. A dolly movement follows him over to the piano. He pours some champagne as Sam plays the then-untainted “As Time Goes By.” Instant nostalgia.

Do you ever have a memory where you see yourself? Like you’re watching a movie of your past in your mind? Then you think, “Wait, I can’t see myself in real life. I must be embellishing this…” This lyrical long take captures that sensation of a romanticized remembrance, colored and enhanced by longing. Nothing could ever be this perfect and beautiful and romantic. But, then again, it’s broadcast to you from the mind of a drunk, lonely saloon owner. Of course it will look pure, friendly, intimate, and untouchable—the antithesis of his own saloon.

2. The Last Shot

This crane shot contains the paradox of Casablanca. How can I be a good person, one who cares for others and, if necessary, makes sacrifices for them, and still be an individual instead of another senseless follower? Won’t my drama get lost in the drama of a world in crisis? As the shot rises, Rick and Louis look small, but their voices stay more or less the same. No matter how immersed they are in the tide of history, the force of their personalities, their desires, and the uniqueness of their goodwill gestures maintains their integrity as characters.

Integrity has many forms and many representatives, including venal bureaucrats and sad-eyed bar owners—idealized Lazlo isn’t the only option. You don’t have to lead the Resistance to stand out in a sea of change, we realize, as Rick and Louis walk down the runway mist which shimmers around them like a starry firmament.

1. Ilsa x 2

It really is true. No matter how many times you watch Casablanca you discover some clever detail that you hadn’t noticed before. Just before this shot, Victor shows up at Rick’s and Ilsa is hiding in Rick’s room. Now, as much as I admire Ilsa’s spirit and decency, I confess that, as a character, she annoys me personally. It took this image to set her free in my mind. Because here she’s doubled, split, divided.

This image translates the forked path of destiny, so central to Casablanca, a movie about not just one choice, but many choices. It’s a tale of possibilities and “what-ifs,” and therein lies the key to its beauty and resonance.

Casablanca is a story that doesn’t know its own ending. In my opinion, that is why it is such a great story.

Now, I know that the claims that the cast were kept in the dark as to the dénouement practically until they filmed it (because the screenwriters were scrambling to wrap it up) have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, even the characters persistently talk about this up-in-the-air conclusion. “Does it have a wild finish?” asks the nasty, inebriated Rick. “It’s still a story without an ending,” he later observes to Ilsa. In that scene, when she comes for the letters of transit, they finally unburden themselves of their misunderstandings by figuring out the exact chronology of their own story.

Without the slightest bit of “meta” cynicism, Casablanca manages to unravel the complications of storytelling—not in an artistic sense, but in a human one. The fact that Warner Brothers produced it during the war means that, of course, the entire world had to agree with Rick: “It’s still a story without an ending.” The epic of World War II wasn’t over yet. But, then again, when is anything really over? Even Casablanca’s ending is a beginning and the characters’ relationships open all kinds of room for our imaginations to fill in the time before the beginning of film. Still, on an even more universal level, Casablanca touches the viewers by reminding us of all of the loose ends in our own lives.

Casablanca endures because it dwells in these big little questions. What’s going to happen to me? Will we always be together? What will the future bring? How are we to make sense of all the encounters and losses that life sets, like landmines, in our path? Nobody knows the way it’s going to be.

Those twin visions of Ilsa peering at us suggest that every reality is teetering on the brink of not one, but several futures, several possible endings. And we don’t know which until it happens.

Honorable Mentions: 

Because, really, I’m a little screenshot-happy. What movie blogger wouldn’t be?

Waiting in Casablanca

Every time I think about this film, this long sweep over the huddled masses, gazing upward towards the plane, sticks out in my memory. The fatigued faces and the hope in their eyes reminds me of the American immigrant experience and, within the story, suggests the stakes of getting the Hell out of Casablanca. This shot also tells us of a multitude of stories that we won’t have time to hear in this film, but which are just as valid, poignant, and personal. Casablanca is not an egocentric film. It realizes that for every story told, there are millions more worth listening to.

Everybody Goes to Rick’s

In those first shots of the nightclub a whole era of between-the-wars escapism comes alive. The textures, the smoke haze, the silky gowns, the pierced, lacy screens, as though to filter out the harsh light of truth—it’s all there, inviting and numbing.

O.K. Rick

One of the best character introductions of all time. Champagne cocktail = sophisticated, drinker. Cigarette = cool. Chessboard = thinker. Alone = lonely. Shadowy background = noirish badass with a knack for decorating. Any questions?

The Foursome

When Rick sees Ilsa for the first time in Casablanca, we get a few very overwrought close-ups. If we had to linger in their reunion, the scene would descend into bathos. Fortunately, Lazlo and Renault arrive—and the tension is palpable as the four of them crowd this shot with their worries and surprise. It’s gonna be a bumpy night.

Face-Off

Rick and Lazlo bump into each other in the doorway of the Blue Parrot… as the shadow of a belly dancer’s arm undulates over them as a reminder of the love versus lust aspect of the plot.

Shoot Me

Umm… did I miss something? Did my DVD cut to Double Indemnity? In all seriousness, this indelible shot drives home the risk of losing one’s humanity to war—even far from the battlefield. If Ilsa shot Rick, she would be just as bad as Major Strasser.

Okay, maybe not quite, but you see my point. According to the logic of this film, you can’t fight for principles by abandoning all principles. Ilsa can’t bring herself to shoot Rick, which is why she does triumph. She’s still human. She’s still filled with love for Rick, love that reminds him of his own humanity, of that time before his insides got kicked out. However, she comes mighty close to pulling that trigger—which allows Curtiz to show us that war is indeed Hell. Divided loyalties turn almost every relationship into a noirish collision course.

Vol de Nuit

Escape and loss, relief and regret—inscribed on the image. It will haunt my dreams. I’m sure that it’s haunted dreams for 70 years. And will do so for many more as time goes by.