Last night, we watched Casablanca. This is the pre-Academy Awards month, when Turner Classic Movies does “31 Days of Oscar.” Every night, they present another great movie. Last night, it was Casablanca, arguably the best of breed. The greatest of the great.
There are other, more exciting movies, more thrilling movies, though I find Casablanca pretty thrilling. What Casablanca gives us is the reality of war that never was, but which we want. Need. The passionately dedicated French underground. The anti-Nazi heroism of ordinary people, willing to put their lives on the line for the greater good.
“What if you killed all of us? From every corner of Europe, hundreds, thousands would rise up to take our places. Even Nazis can’t kill that fast.”
Not the way it was, but the way we wanted (maybe needed) it to be. Even now, we want the grandeur of people at their finest. Truth be damned.
And love. Undying love that lasts through war and loss, no matter what the world brings. As we watched — and we know the movie well enough to hear the line coming — Garry looked at me and I grinned back. Wait for it … wait for it … Ah, there..
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”
There’s the first of many great lines, There are many more. We went to the movies to see Casablanca on The Big Screen when TCM sponsored a release of the 1943 Oscar-winning classic a few years ago.
“We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
The filming of the movie was a crazy time. The script was written — and it’s a great script — page by page. The actors didn’t know what they’d be doing any day until the pages arrived. The set was chaotic and Ingrid Bergman wasn’t happy. Bogie was underpaid — a bad contract with Warner’s he had signed before he was a big star. Casablanca went a long way to fix that. Claude Rains earned more than Bogie, and he was arguable worth it.
(Standing in front of the plane in the fog.) “I’m saying this because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
“…But what about us?”
However it happened, Casablanca is movie magic. Brilliant, witty script that plays even better on the big screen than it does at home.
“…When I said I would never leave you…”
“And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
(Ilsa lowers her head and begins to cry.)
(Rick gently places his hand under her chin and raises it so their eyes meet, and he repeats–)
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Maybe it’s something about how differently we focus when we watch it in a theater than when we see it at home, with the dogs, the refrigerator, and a “pause” button. A difference in the “presence” of the film. The clarity of the visual presentation.
“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
These are my favorites. They aren’t all my favorites, but they represent a good chunk of the films I want to watch again. And again. The most obvious element they share are brilliant scripts.
For me, first and foremost, it’s always about the words. I give extra points for wit and humor, even more points for inside jokes, cleverness, and quotable dialogue. All of these movies have these qualities. I also give extra credit for a great score and amazing cinematography and all of these have those elements too.
I have watched each of these many times. I keep discovering new things to love about them. Of course, there are plenty of other movies I love and not enough space or time for me to write about them all.
I guarantee, you can’t go wrong with any of these ten great ones.
THE LION IN WINTER
Awesome performances by everyone, from Hepburn and O’Toole, to Anthony Hopkins in his first screen role. Wonderful script and matchless screen chemistry. It’s not accurate history … but the interaction of the members of the family is surprisingly close if you want to examine only the emotional content. In the end, it’s all about the performances.
From top to bottom, every performance is extraordinary. Hepburn got an Oscar, one of three wins for the film. Many more nominations plus three Golden Globes. All well-deserved.
THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY
Paddy Chayevsky‘s script is among the best movie scripts of all time. Add superb performances by James Garner and Julie Andrews in her first dramatic role. The whole movie would be worth it just for Garner’s monologue on war. But there’s so much more. It’s funny, sharp, downright brilliant.
The cast knew they’d never have a better job. All of them list this movie as the favorite or as one of the top one or two of their professional lives. Roles like this don’t come along often in any actor’s career. The actors showed their appreciation by working their hearts out. Everyone is at the top of his or her game.
This is one of those movies that I like better each time I watch it … and I watch it often. We can recite dialogue with it. It’s got everything you want a western to have: passion, revenge, violence, humor and brilliant cinematography. It’s Val Kilmer’s best performance and arguably Kurt Russell’s shining moment.
This is my go to movie if I need a revenge and violence fix. It manages to have a satisfying body count without the gore. I like that in a movie.
A MIGHTY WIND
Maybe it isn’t one of the all time greatest films, but reminds me of some of the best of times in my life as well as music I dearly love.
It’s funny, often laugh-out-loud hilarious, a loving parody. It’s a warm-hearted and nostalgic look at a time many of us look back on with great affection. The music manages to be humorous and good — a difficult act to pull off.
Not the most original choice, but it’s so good and it has worn well despite the years. We saw it on the big screen not long ago. Wonderful. It’s pure mythology, but it’s the way we wish it had been. I need heroes.
Three Oscar wins — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay plus nominations for just about every member of the cast. Seeing it on the big screen was like seeing it for the first time and gave me an even better appreciation of the brilliant script.
It’s hard to pick only one Mel Brooks movie, but if I have to choose, this is it.
It was a tough choice. “Young Frankenstein,” “High Anxiety,” and “History of the World, Part I” are right up there too. “Blazing Saddles” wins because it’s got some of the all-time great movie lines. That’s HEDLEY Lamar!
Science fiction movies usually disappoint me because they aren’t science fiction, but westerns in space using spacecraft for horses, featuring millions of dollars of special effects, but no script. This is all acting. A fine script, wonderful performances, romantic, touching and believable. A great performance by Jeff Bridges. And I almost forgot to mention the haunting score.
It’s the best kind of science fiction … concept and character based. Unforgettable. It’s by far the best movie John Carpenter ever made and ranks as one of the best science fiction movies ever made by anyone.
THE THREE AND FOUR MUSKETEERS (1973 – 1974)
I know they were issued as two movies, but they were filmed as one. The stars of the film(s) sued the studios since they had only been paid for one movie, and they won. Nonetheless, both movies play like a single film in two parts. You can’t watch one without the other. They keep remaking it, but none of the others come near this version. It’s fast, funny, and surprisingly true to the books.
Dumas would have been pleased. I love the sword fights. I used to fence in college, and this has some of the best choreographed fencing I’ve ever seen. It’s not the elegant fencing you usually see, but brawling — the way men really fought — not to get points for good form, but to win without getting sliced up.
THE SEVENTH SEAL
Not everyone is quite as enthralled with the 14th century as I am. The Black Death, the split papacy, the brigands, the inflation, the complete depopulation of regions … and the crazed religious fervor that gripped the western world is not everyone’s idea of a fun movie.
And I’m not a big fan of Ingmar Bergman. I admire his work, but mostly find it too intense and depressing. This is the exception. Probably it’s the history buff in me, but better than any other movie I’ve ever seen (except for the obscure “A Walk With Love and Death”), it portrays the mood and feeling of this strange century that was the end of everything and the beginning of everything else.
The black and white photography is breathtaking, the performances (yes, the movie is in Swedish with subtitles — deal with it) are wonderful. The Knight is playing chess with death every night and as long as he keeps playing and doesn’t lose, his little band will survive.
If you haven’t seen it and aren’t completely allergic to foreign movies with subtitles … and especially if you have a taste for medieval history, you should see it.
It’s one of just a handful of movies about which Garry and I disagree. He doesn’t argue about its quality. It’s just too dark for his taste. Which considering some of the movies he loves, that seems a bit out of character. Every once in a while he will watch it with me. I keep hoping he’ll change his mind.
I saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” in the theater when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I – in song, dance and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain. The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits are a who’s-who of English actors.
Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”
Did General Haig, when looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really say: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? Apparently he not only said it, he meant it.
The war is told with music and dancing. Songs are mixed with pithy comments by generals, kings, Kaisers and occasionally, soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of World War I after watching it … even if you already know your history. It was the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.
If I asked you to list your favorite movies, what would they be? Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Transformers? Maybe Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man or Captain America? Is it a 3D Surround Sound, computer enhanced spectacular? Or just fast and furious? Do special effects and color make a movie great? Or might it be a brilliant script and amazing performances?
If you’re under 30, does your list include anything in black-and-white? If you’re under 20, have you seen a black-and-white movie?
That’s right, black-and-white movies, like black-and-white photographs, have no colors, just shades of gray covering the gray-scale. It may seem to some that black-and-white movies were only made because color was not perfected until later, but that’s not true. Long after color was standard for all kinds of film, some directors chose black-and-white.
Some shot in black-and-white to evoke a feeling of another time and place. Raging Bull, the break-out performance for Robert DeNiro in 1980 was shot in black-and-white to evoke the era of Jake La Motta, the boxer and film’s subject.
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Academy Award winning Schindler’s List was done in black and white not only to make it feel like a World War II movie, but also to emphasize the darkness of the subject matter. American History X, Broadway Danny Rose, Stardust Memories, The Elephant Man, all were made in black-and-white for effect, for mood, for a certain cinematographic grittiness. If you never heard of any of the aforementioned, in 2012, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to The Artist, filmed in black and white to recall another age.
Here are my top 5 black and white movies. These are required viewing before you report back next week: Casablanca is definitely number one. I know some will tell you that Citizen Kane is the best movie of all time. I watched it. I liked it. I have no need of seeing it again. I could watch Casablanca over and over.
Set during World War II, it’s the story of an American (Humphrey Bogart) who fell in love with a beauty (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris. Forced to flee when the Nazis invaded, he is stood up at the train station by the woman he loves as the rain pours down. He winds up running a casino in Casablanca amidst a cast of shady characters … when guess who shows up? The movie includes one of the great movies songs of all time, As Time Goes By. And before you ask, Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam.”
As a child, Psycho scared the heck out of me in the theater. It was one of many Alfred Hitchcock classics filmed in black-and-white. Anthony Perkins gave a deliciously creepy performance as the proprietor of the Bates Motel. If you have seen any other version of this classic, you wasted your time. See the original! Perkins reprises the role a number of times in sequels after he was typecast as a weirdo psychopath. Too bad; he was a solid actor.
When the Music Box Theater in Chicago was restored and started showing vintage movies, I took my mother to see Sunset Boulevard. We had both seen it on our wonderful 19-inch, black-and-white television. This was a chance to see a restored print in a restored theater. Writer William Holden is found dead, floating in a swimming pool. The story plays out mostly in flashback.
Silent film star Gloria Swanson, appropriately plays a former silent film star and manages to chew up the scenery in a fabulous performance. A list of Hollywood notables make cameos, including H.B. Warner in the Paramount film, song writers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston (who wrote music for the movie), and Cecil B. DeMille. As Norma Desmond would famously say, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”
High Noon is everything a western should be. The town marshal is going to resign — on his wedding day — when bad news arrives. A dangerous outlaw is coming to town, and the new marshal has not yet arrived. The old marshal appears to be no match for the younger guy he had earlier put in jail. Gary Cooper distinguished himself as the sheriff willing to face down the bad guy even if it costs him his life. An A-List of Hollywood stars passed up the chance to make this movie for which Cooper won the Academy Award.
The movie genre that used black-and-white, light and shadows for maximum effect was (is) the detective story. The shine of a street light through a window that throws a shadow on the floor which contains the lines of the window frame and perhaps the detective’s name help to create the scene. Black-and-white emphasizes composition, shadow and light, contrast and mood in ways color can’t.
Top movie of this type is The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart chasing his partner’s killer and the elusive Maltese Falcon. It costars Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, both of whom will turn up a year later with Bogart in Casablanca. The ending has one of the dumbest movie speeches, but paradoxically, one of the great closing lines. Altogether, it’s a great movie.