Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 11

Film noir is a term that resonates far beyond the specific set of movies it originally described. Although fans, critics, and filmmakers alike bandy it about these days, we ought to remind ourselves every now and then that the people who actually made the great American noir classics didn’t think of them that way. Like many artistic styles or movements, noir needed critics to recognize, define, and name it.

Here’s how the ever-curious and inquisitive Joan Crawford discovered the phrase “film noir”:

“The first time I heard the words film noir was in New York. I was being interviewed by a critic of the cinema, which, as you might know, has nothing to do with the movies. He kept talking about this film-noir style and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. When it came up again sometime later, I called Jerry Wald and said, ‘Darling, what is this film noir they’re all talking about?’ He explained it to me, which made me appreciate the film even more.”

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Guilty Pleasures: 5 Reasons to Love The Unsuspected (1947)

frenchWhen we first see Victor Grandison’s face, it’s upside-down—a reflection in the desk of the woman he’s just strangled. The arresting shot flashes across the screen for a fleeting second in one of film noir’s best and eeriest opening sequences.

Like almost everything else in The Unsuspected, that shot, reprised several times throughout the film, suggests a world of frightening inversions.

Goodness bores and badness intrigues. Wrongdoers insinuate themselves into circles of normal people without tripping alarms. As Grandison intones for his rapt radio audiences “The guilty must go on and on… hiding his evil behind a mask, the calm and smiling mask of the unsuspected.”

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Plagued by a tight budget and abetted by an elastic conscience, beloved mystery raconteur Grandison kills his niece for her money then disposes of his secretary to silence her. Soon after, a shady stranger shows up at Grandison’s palatial estate and vows to uncover the truth behind the deaths. How high of a body count will Grandison rack up to protect his inheritance and his secrets?

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A forbidding, dreamlike majesty infuses this undeservedly overlooked noir. Although it lacks the raw, hardboiled impact of Warner Brothers’ finest forays into the genre, The Unsuspected compensates with a haunting cynicism and an ambiance of hypnotic dread. The characters, like chess pieces moved by the design of a remorseless grandmaster, wander through a manor of glittering black-and-white contrasts. A chain of guilt and betrayal binds everybody together, leaving no life unblemished by the consequences of lust and greed.

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Fair warning: don’t watch this movie expecting originality, at least not story-wise. I mean, if you don’t see the plot similarities to Preminger’s Laura, released three years before, you’re simply not trying hard enough. According to magazines of the time, Dana Andrews was even the first choice to play the romantic good guy in The Unsuspected.

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I mourn for that missed opportunity, because the replacement, Michael North, displays all the eye shadow of a 1930s Cagney role and none of the charisma. Well, what do you know? The Unsuspected was North’s final film.

The frozen North aside, this oddly little-known thriller serves up enough noirish guilty pleasures to satisfy any classic movie lover. Here are a few…

1. Claude Rains stars as one of noir’s most deliciously destructive tyrant figures.

Should the devil ever show up in hopes of persuading me to sell my soul, he’d be well advised to assume the form (and voice) of Claude Rains. I mean, who could resist?

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He doesn’t get enough screen time, but Rains is at the height of his suave, Mephistophelean powers in this movie. In one of the film’s most amusing exchanges, Grandison chides a gun-wielding killer as though he were talking to a toddler, “Give me that ridiculous weapon. Give it to me, I say, before I lose my temper.” Lesser demons and myrmidons step aside. Because Grandison commands in that sonorous baritone that cannot be wrong, the thug has no choice but to comply. Guns, poisons, nooses, none of Grandison’s weapons are quite as dangerous or disarming as his voice.

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Radio personalities—preferably with pompous surnames like Lydecker and Hunsecker—are invariably evil in film noir, a tendency no doubt fueled by the way radio could threaten moviedom’s popularity. And you don’t need to be Maigret to realize that the radio tyrants of Laura and The Sweet Smell of Success are up to no good.

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Rains’s Grandison, on the other hand, lives up to the movie’s title; affable, witty, and outwardly kind, he doesn’t arouse suspicion. Most creepily, he shares his home with his niece for years all the while plotting her demise (and, quite possibly, obsessing about her in an unhealthy way, judging by the huge portrait he hangs in a place of honor). He executes his wicked schemes with such élan that I find it difficult to condemn him. Even at the end, he stages his own unmasking as a self-glorifying coup-de-theatre. At the risk of spoilers, I won’t disclose any more, but the conclusion has joined the ranks of my favorite Claude Rains scenes.

2. Woody Bredell delivers some of the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography I’ve ever seen, period.

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The director of photography largely responsible for the look and feel of Christmas Holiday and Phantom Lady, Bredell imparted an otherworldly glow to the noirs he worked on. Instead of evoking matter-of-fact grittiness or stark tension, this master opted for something more luminous and mysterious. He coaxed light and shadow into singing a ghostly duet.

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For instance, consider Grandison’s entrance to his surprise birthday party. As he opens the door, the guests stand in the hall of his home as still silhouettes, like revenants come to accuse Grandison of his hidden crimes. In that beat, you can sense the horror that the killer feels, as though his guilt were confronting him. It could’ve been an uninspired shot, a continuity bridge, but through Bredell’s artistry the moment acquires a spooky significance and strengthens the movie’s primary theme of festering guilt.

3. Audrey Totter perfects her tongue-in-cheek femme fatale image.

“The bad girls were so much fun to play,” the late great Totter confided to the New York Times in 1999. You can certainly tell that Totter is having a ball as the decadent Althea, Grandison’s penniless ward who keeps herself tricked out in couture gowns on the strength of her personality. And what a personality it is!

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Althea summarizes her life goals when she tosses a cocktail glass into a fireplace and giggles, “I like to break things.” Glasses, hearts, schemes: Althea delights in wrecking anything she gets in her funeral-lily-white clutches.

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Milking her wide eyes and perpetual pout, Totter plays the juicy role with a childish naughtiness that diverges from the deadpan demeanor of many femmes fatales. Totter handles her drinks and her cigarettes with a theatrical self-indulgence that even Bette Davis might’ve envied. As Grandison says, “You were always my favorite… so charmingly unscrupulous.”

vlcsnap-2014-11-01-12h16m48s1014. Michael Curtiz does double duty as director and producer.

For my money, Curtiz was the greatest director who’ll probably never be celebrated as an auteur. With this irate Hungarian at the helm, material didn’t matter: bring on swashbuckling adventures, films noirs, cult horror flicks, melodramas, musicals (and some empty horses for good measure, to borrow a famous Curtiz malapropism). His Warner movies practically all turned out to be at least entertaining and at their best downright sublime.

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By 1947 for about two decades Curtiz had been contributing to Warner Brothers’ reputation for movies that wasted nary a frame of precious celluloid. With The Unsuspected, Curtiz formed his own production company and shouldered a new role. He would go on to produce a handful of other films, among them another terrific sleeper noir Flamingo Road and the Doris Day musical My Dream Is Yours.

The Unsuspected has some major soft spots, like a zigzagging plot (despite experienced screenwriter Bess Meredyth, Curtiz’s wife and all-around secret weapon, working on the script) and a bland juvenile lead. Still, it took guts for Curtiz to exercise more autonomy—and produce a commercially successful film to back it up. vlcsnap-2014-11-01-11h54m28s15

The director peppered The Unsuspected with some of his specialties, like shadowy compositions to spice up dialogue scenes and a tautly-paced action sequence, as the heroine races to save the good guy at the end.

Curtiz laced my favorite sequence with his characteristic expressionism as the camera roams to discover three characters we haven’t yet met. As one of Grandison’s grim broadcasts fills the soundtrack, a dissolve transports us to a train passing in night where the vengeful good guy sits smoking in his compartment.

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The camera then glides from the moving train to a grimy city street, probing into a seedy hotel room where a thug lies on his bed listening to the radio. As the unknown hatchet-faced man takes a drag on his cigarette, a portion of the flashing hotel sign outside winks in at him: “KILL”.

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From there, Grandison’s sepulchral voice bridges a cut to a series of letters on a desk, being sorted by a dagger-like opener. The camera tracks out slightly to reveal an upside-down face in the desk. Grandison? Why, no it’s actually one of the good guys, a police detective, presented the same way as the lethal radio host. I admire the conviction that it took to fashion such a surreal, disorienting, counterintuitive introduction to three key characters, linking the good and the bad together, practically equating them, through the restless wanderings of the camera.

5. You can bask in the assembled star power of the impressive supporting cast.

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Constance Bennett does her best Eve Arden impression as a sassy career woman. Hurd Hatfield bitterly philosophizes as a drunken painter. And Joan Caulfield radiates delicate goodness and Gish-esque femininity as… well, I’d better not say. Any one of them would give me grounds for checking out The Unsuspected, but all three of them together? Why, thank you, studio system.

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In his 1947 review, the ever-cranky critic Bosley Crowther dissed the supporting cast as “patly artificial as the plot.” If this be artifice, I’ll make the most of it.

The Unsuspected is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Technicolor Nightmare: Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

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Florence: Listen, Joan Gale’s body was swiped from the morgue! Have you ever heard of such a thing as a death mask?

Jim: I used to be married to one.

Florence: Then it came to life and divorced you. I know all about that.

It says a lot about pre-Code Warner Brothers that the studio couldn’t even make a horror movie without throwing in a couple of wisecracking reporters, a coffin filled with bootleg hooch, and a junkie.

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And, I, for one, couldn’t be happier about that. I revel in Mystery of the Wax Museum for the sublime, unintentionally postmodern jumble of a film that it is. This 1933 thriller vividly stands apart from every other horror film of that early talkie cycle.

Even if you were to imagine Night Nurse remade by Robert Wiene or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by William Wellman, the result probably wouldn’t be as mismatched and entertaining as this crackling, genre-bending spine-tingler. We’re basically dealing with Gold-Diggers Go to Transylvania.

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The pen is mightier than the sword—satirical scribes Voltaire and Florence.

Before we go any further, folks, don’t say I didn’t warn you about plot holes that could conceal an elephant. You should also brace yourself for one of those irritatingly conservative 1930s denouements.

However, it’s all worth it to hear Glenda Farrell casually ask an unsuspecting cop, “How’s your sex life?” [Insert spit-take here.]

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Part newspaper screwball comedy, part Gothic terror, Wax Museum pits one of the most refreshing horror protagonists I’ve ever encountered against the most endearingly clichéd of horror villains. A gutsy platinum blonde sob sister, Florence Dempsey, thwarts the sick fantasy of a disfigured, deranged sculptor, whose name is… Ivan Igor. (You can practically hear the screenwriters arguing whether Ivan or Igor sounds more evil, before deciding to go with both!) It’s like watching two different movies, two different casts, whimsically spliced together. And, in my humble opinion, it works pretty well on the whole.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should really explain why Warner Brothers, known for their brassy comedies and hard-hitting crime dramas, made this flamboyant foray into horror. In 1932, to get their share of the audiences flocking to Universal’s monster hits, Warner Brothers, the sassy studio of the people, launched their own prestige sci-fi/horror thriller.

To give it a real edge, Warner had Doctor X filmed entirely in two-strip Technicolor. Following close on the heels of that shocking fright-fest, the studio tried to replicate the success with Mystery of the Wax Museum. With characteristic tracking shots and panache, Michael Curtiz helmed Doctor X and Wax Museum, which both also star Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

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I consider the latter film superior and I’ll give you three guesses as to why. (Hint: Glenda Farrell, Glenda Farrell, Glenda Farrell!)

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Horror films of the 1930s spent an awful lot of time trying to cope with the disturbing power of images and/or the idea of some process that preserves life while ironically destroying it. I’m not one to attest that every film is actually “about the cinema.” Still, I dare you to watch this film without pondering the parallel between Igor’s wax museum as a macabre attraction and Mystery of the Wax Museum itself as a macabre attraction.

It would make sense that the filmmakers working on nightmare pictures in the 1930s were some of the first people to grasp the inherently uncanny nature of film, how reproduces reality. How cinema can, in a way, resurrect dead things. Nevertheless, no matter how convincing or complete the likeness is, it’s never the original. Just as a lifelike wax figure cannot move and speak, a film painfully recalls to us the reality of the past without ever letting us live that reality or be with those people we see on the screen.

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In Mystery of the Wax Museum, Igor longs to duplicate human beings through what are essentially wax mummies. He doesn’t just want to make wax figures that resemble people—he needs those figures to be existentially bonded to the people they represent, molded around their bodies, like a death mask. And, to paraphrase the great French critic André Bazin, what is film if not another kind of embalmment? The cinema is 24 death masks per second.

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Where am I going with this? Well, what interests me about Wax Museum is how Igor chooses his victims. On the surface, these choices seem logical: he seeks individuals who look like his wax statues of historical figures that were destroyed many years ago. For instance, when he meets Fay Wray’s character, Charlotte, we see her through Igor’s eyes as she morphs into his long lost Marie Antoinette.

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But what really intrigues me is that Igor spares no interest at all in his primary opponent, Florence, even though she persistently asks him questions and threatens his whole project. Is he that clueless?

Interestingly enough, when Igor first spots Charlotte in his museum, Florence, who had been standing right beside Igor disappears in the following shots. Eventually we realize that Florence has sneaked off to investigate the suspicious waxworks. However, her sudden dematerialization strikes me as more than poorly cheated staging or a continuity error. It insinuates an absence into our midst. Whether we recognize this or not, a part of our mind subliminally picks up on something missing. It’s an uneasy spatial ellipsis.

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She’s there…

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Then gone…

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Then there…

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Then gone…

Why doesn’t Igor pay more attention to Florence? Because Florence’s best attributes cannot be rendered in wax. As viewers, we intuit this. The crux of Igor’s obsession reveals itself in his reactions to the divergent charms of Florence and Charlotte—and, more broadly, of Glenda Farrell and of Fay Wray. Fay Wray possesses the classic, serene beauty of a cameo. Glenda Farrell, although no belle, hits you with the force of a cyclone. Her most precious qualities—her verve, her celerity, her personality—lose their value when stilled into silence and inertia.

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Igor resents Florence because her very existence refutes his concept of human beings as wax figures—and of wax figures as humans. It speaks volumes about Igor that his cherished masterpiece was Marie Antoinette, an icon of stiff, stagnant materialism. By contrast, Florence’s spark of life and mobility saves us from the idea of people as little more than glorified set pieces.

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Wax, that lesser embalming fluid, might capture the loveliness of Fay Wray. Yet, it takes the superior mummification of celluloid to deliver Glenda Farrell’s you’re-gonna-need-Dramamine charisma to spectators eighty years later. Her modernity demands a modern medium. And two-strip Technicolor was as modern as it got in 1933.

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Today’s spectator, in particular, cannot ignore the eeriness of Mystery of the Wax Museum. We spend most of the film trying to accustom ourselves to the incongruity of seeing what we’re used to seeing in black-and-white transpire in color. The obvious unreality of black-and-white cinematography can serve as a quaintly distancing device. The illusion of presentness furnished by early Technicolor emerges with unexpected power.

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Like Igor’s creepily lifelike wax statues (actually thickly made-up extras!), two-strip Technicolor leaves us spellbound and a little alarmed. I remember tweeting along with this film on #TCMParty last October; almost every participant remarked on the strangeness of watching a pre-Code film in such phantasmagoric shadings. I think, on some level, we modern viewers tend to forget that the world wasn’t black-and-white back in the 1930s!

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Rather than using two-strip Technicolor as a pallid imitation of real life, Curtiz amplifies the creepy otherness of the early color process, giving each shot the look of a sun-faded painting. A sickly symphony of mint greens and shades of peach sherbet achingly hint at what the actors and sets look like, yet fail to furnish the true realism that we crave.

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The limitations of representation become more apparent as they approach zero. The closer you get to the thing-in-itself, the farther you feel. To quote an original poster for the movie, “Images of wax that throbbed with human passion! Almost woman! What did she lack?” Igor’s statues are identical to their subjects, but you can sense the missing souls. Two-strip Technicolor brings a now-dead cast to life more fully than black-and-white could and thus paradoxically emphasizes our distance from them.

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As you watch Mystery of the Wax Museum, notice its breakneck pace and its abundant smash cuts. Bodies are being stolen from a morgue—cut to: a newsroom. A junkie begging for dope—cut to: a Christmas tree in a police station. What the…? The urban velocity of this film gives us a startlingly heterogeneous breed of horror by grafting Gothic elements onto everyday city life. By contrast, the stolid 1950s remake House of Wax regressed back to pure Penny Dreadful stuff and lacks all the pre-Code genre-scrambling that made the original so memorable.

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Keep an eye out for oodles of smart visual touches. For instance, get a load of the long crane shot that moves back from a vat of boiling wax to the operating bed where victims will lay to the spout from which the scalding liquid will spew… to the villain entering his lair with a new victim. This camera movement (remember how hard this would’ve been in the early talkies!) tersely shows us the gruesome fate of anyone selected to be immortalized in wax. Once again, Curtiz highlights an absence; we never see the human-to-wax-figure process, but he morbidly implies it with this graceful shot.

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The operating bed empty…

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…and filled.

The switch from a high angle to a low angle when Igor reveals his insanity also impressed me. His sudden inebriation with his godlike power allows him to tower over us. It’s an old trick, but a potent one, resulting in one of the film’s spookiest moments.

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As you might expect, Glenda Farrell commits grand larceny, stealing every single scene she’s in. Years before she tackled her signature role of Torchy Blane, Farrell soared as this prototype character. If Florence Dempsey doesn’t get to do half as much as we’d like her to, she remains the conduit of the film, weaving together the many plotlines.

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Her deductions and detective work lead to the bad guys getting caught and the damsel getting saved in the nick of time. Whether she’s spouting Great Depression slang at the speed of light, grabbing bottles of bootleg whisky in plain view of the police, or screaming at the top of her lungs, Florence wins our love and respect.

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Devoid of Stanwyck’s barely repressed anger and Harlow’s frivolousness, Farrell gave us portraits of working women who looked tired, but chic and acted nervously, but competently. No superwoman, she declines to challenge the order the universe, but circulates through it with such vitality and persistence that even the strongest pillars of that universe budge a little—for the better. She’s not making a statement about how women need to fight to exist in a man’s world. She blithely exists there. And that’s enough. Try and stop her.

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Costume designer Orry-Kelly aided and abetted Farrell with a wardrobe to die for; I really need a pair of pistachio-green lounging pajamas and a full-length leopard coat with a matching-trim dress. Add them to my wish list.

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I encourage you to hunt down Mystery of the Wax Museum; alas, it has yet to receive its own DVD release. Interestingly enough, the film was believed to be lost for many years before Jack Warner’s personal print turned up. How ironic would that have been if this exotic jewel of a film had disintegrated into nothing like the wax figures at the beginning of the movie? Thankfully, it was spared from the flames.

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I would’ve never come up with all of the ideas in this post without having read André Bazin’s Qu’est-ce que le cinema?, Dudley Andrews What Cinema Is, and Laura Mulvey’s Death at 24 Frames Per Second. I gratefully acknowledge their work and encourage you to read them!

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This post is part of the Summer under the Stars Blogathon 2013, hosted by Michael of Scribe Hard On Film Jill Blake of Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence.

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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.