Sunday, February 6, 2011

Books About Books: Casablanca Revisited and Reinterpreted

"Is this seat taken?" I asked the attractive young woman sitting by herself in the lounge.

She looked up from her newspaper but didn't reply.

I sat opposite her at the cocktail table and put down my beer. She went back to her paper and sipped on her drink, a bourbon and Coke. I inquired, "Come here often?"

"Go away."

"What's your sign?"

"No trespassing."

"Don't I know you from somewhere?"


"Yes. NATO Headquarters in Brussels. We met at a cocktail party."

"Perhaps you're right," she conceded. "You got drunk and threw up in the punch bowl."

"Small world," I said. And indeed it was. Cynthia Sunhill, the woman sitting across from me now, was more than a casual acquaintance. In fact, we were once involved, as they say. Apparently she chose not to remember much of it. I said, "You threw up. I told you bourbon and Coke wasn't good for your stomach."

"You are not good for my stomach."

You'd think by her attitude that I had walked out on her rather than vice versa.

We were sitting in the cocktail lounge of the Officers' Club at Fort Hadley, Georgia. It was the Happy Hour, and everyone there seemed happy, save for us two. I was dressed in a blue civilian suit, she in a nice pink knit dress that brought out her tan, her auburn hair, her hazel eyes, and other fondly remembered anatomy. I inquired, "Are you here on assignment?"

"I'm not at liberty to discuss that."

"Where are you staying?"

No reply.

"How long will you be here?"

She went back to her newspaper.

I asked, "Did you marry that guy you were seeing on the side?"

She put down the paper and looked at me. "I was seeing you on the side. I was engaged to him."

That's not from Casablanca, but it suggests Rick's discovery in Casablanca--that he was never the lady's main man but only an aside.  Which changes everything.

The degree of debt changes.  As Rick sees it, Ilsa owes him for walking out on him.  He's had time to mull it over, concluded that she left him for selfish reasons.  Rick has obsessed over this hurt to the point that he can no longer have a giving relationship with any woman.  We can see that Rick loves himself, that he doesn't really love Ilsa, even if he thinks he does--a prideful thing involving blood lust and ego.  As she points out to him, they never got to know each other very well.

The meetings Rick has with Ilsa give him a delightfully surprising and twisting series of epiphanies, for the audience watching this must read between the lines.

Cynical Rick has concluded that Ilsa is self-interested.  At first, he thinks she was afraid of being harassed by the pursuing Germans.  Then, after Ilsa tells him that she had already been married to Victor Lazzlo when they were in Paris, he concludes that she was simply using him.  He then insinuates that she is simply a promiscuous whore.  But more revelations await him as he mulls things over and figures it out.

His successive epiphanies are understated, but we see them revealed in Bogart's face.  Yet, judging by what he says, it still seems as if he is acting selfishly, right up to the airport scene.  There he really comes to his senses and lets her go, for her own good.  For the first time, it occurs to us that he really may love Ilsa now after all.

The subtle twists and subtexts are more complicated than they might at first appear.  Robert McKee, in Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, takes the time to analyse the scenes where Ilsa and Rick meet, dividing their lines into actions and reactions and calling the turning points.   

The quoted passage above is the opening of Nelson Demile's The General's Daughter, and a few lines down from that, Demile's protagonist says "Play it again, Sam," using the common (if inaccurate) reference to the movie, perhaps in tribute.

Casablanca was based upon the unproduced play "Everybody Comes To Ricks" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison,  which was based upon a cafe Burnett visited on the Riviera.  The song, "As Time Goes By" was the favorite of Joan Alison when she was in college in 1931.  Their script was purchased for $20,000, then adapted by the Epstein brothers, Howard Koch, and Casey Robinson.

Dean Skuyter, in Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies, has another secular buddhist interpretation of the film, and I'm sure you have your own.  The world will always welcome lovers as time goes by.

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