Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Credit: WARNER BROS/GETTY IMAGES
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Playing it over and over again: how Casablanca was made

The story behind the movie that defines the movies is one of immigrants, timing and a “son of a bitch” director.

For many, Casablanca is not just any old movie but the old movie. When Woody Allen was looking for a heroic exemplar for his nebbish cineaste in Play it Again, Sam, it was to Bogart’s Rick Blaine that he turned. When Nora Ephron wanted to illustrate the practicality of women in When Harry Met Sally, it was Bergman’s example she held up (“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Casablanca married to a man who owns a bar”). The source of endless spin-offs, parodies and skits, from the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca to Saturday Night Live, Casablanca is the movie we go to when we want to invoke movieishness itself, the dream factory at full tilt, a heroic foil to our mock-heroic age. As Umberto Eco put it in Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage, “It is movies”.

This cultural ubiquity has entailed a certain sniffiness from critics, whose estimation has tended to chime with the Warner Brothers script reader who first assessed the screenplay: “Excellent melodrama. Colourful, timely background, tense mood, suspense, psychological and physical conflict, tight plotting, sophisticated hokum.” The Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, fully paid-up members of the cult of Bogie, none the less preferred his films with Howard Hawks and John Huston. Even Pauline Kael called it “a movie that demonstrates how entertaining a bad movie can be”. And that is how most approach it: as camp, endlessly screened in revival houses such as Harvard’s Brattle theatre, where it played from 1957 to audiences of student activists thrilling to its dramatisation of doing the right thing in a world turned upside down. At one screening in the late Sixties, according to the New Yorker’s David Denby, during the final reel the sound failed and the audience, speaking as one, recited the actors’ words for them, finishing the film up to its famous last line, “Louis, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

That kind of quasi-religious devotion is not, generally, inspired by hokum. “Despite the artificial nature of the film it still speaks with uncommon poignancy to the exile condition,” writes Noah Isenberg in We’ll Always Have Casablanca, a devoted history of the film and its afterlife in countries such as Hungary and East Germany, where uncut versions of it circulated like samizdat. Nearly all of the 100-plus actors and actresses in the film were immigrants hailing from more than 34 different nations. Bogart was the lone American; you also had Bergman (Sweden), Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet (England), Paul Henreid (Austria), Conrad Veidt (Germany) and Peter Lorre, originally from Slovakia by way of London, who said that, like Brecht, he had changed countries “oftener than our shoes”. Hungarian SZ Sakall, who played the head waiter, lost three sisters to the concentration camps.

The director Michael Curtiz, himself a Hungarian Jew, cast them all personally, incorporating some of their stories into the movie: the trading of jewellery for exit visas, the presence of pickpockets. There were so many German Jews playing the very Nazis they had fled that German was frequently spoken on set, which was known as the International House. When the time came for the scene in which Victor Laszlo defiantly sings “La Marseillaise”, one character actor noticed everyone was crying: “I suddenly realised they were all real refugees.”

It’s customary to regard the release of the film on 26 November 1942, less than three weeks after General Patton’s forces landed in French North Africa, prompting Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle to issue the Casablanca Declaration, as the one of the greatest publicity coups ever to befall a film – “General Eisenhower has merely served them well as an advance agent” remarked the New Yorker. The original play on which it was based, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by the Jewish teacher and playwright Murray Burnett, was a piece of opportune reportage. In 1938, Burnett and his wife took a tour of Europe as it geared up for war. They found Vienna rife with anti-Semitism and, on the road to Monte Carlo, a smoky nightclub with a black pianist working old standards to an audience of refugees and military officials of every nationality – “a great contrast to the tragedy and tears”, wrote Burnett.

The film’s timely dramatisation of Bogart’s change of heart, “at first wary and independent, then changing incrementally until it headed in the opposite direction”, in the words of his most recent biographer Stefan Kanfer, would prove definitional for America: a big block of national myth as hefty as that of its founding.

Another café serves as a creative nexus point in Alan K Rode’s doorstopping new biography of Curtiz: Café New York in Budapest, a rowdy 24-hour bohemian hang-out not far from the Danube, where the young film director Mihály Kertész mixed with artists and card players, film writers, fakers and physicists: “Everyone knew everyone,” in the words of the film historian László Kriston, “they all screwed the same chorus girls and got drunk together and worked and argued.”

As a child Kertész slept four in a room with his brothers and, as a teenage acrobat, developed great physical agility. When snapped up by Warner Brothers for one of his silents in the summer of 1926, he anglicised his name to Michael Curtiz and spent ten days living at a Los Angeles county jail to learn about the criminal justice system in time for his first assignment, a thriller called The Third Degree. “When I finish I know more about jail system and American criminals than the Technicolour director they pay big dough to tell me about such things,” he said in his pigeon English which, said David Niven, was “a source of joy for all of us” during the shooting of The Charge of the Light Brigade. A sign hung on the door of Curtiz’s soundstages read: “Curtiz spoken here.”

About the only upside of being bawled out by Curtiz on set was that you frequently never understood him. “It would be inaccurate to say that everyone on Curtiz’s set loathed him,” writes Rode at one point. With damning fair-mindedness, the portrait of the director that emerges is of a cruel and mercurial autocrat, a kind of Hungarian Otto Preminger, who drove his cast and crew to breaking point – The Charge of the Light Brigade killed at least three horses, the flood sequence in Noah’s Ark drew 38 ambulances. “He can be a real son of a bitch to the bit players,” noted Bogart, who threatened to walk from the set of Casablanca at one point unless the director “shut up”.

Curtiz was no Oskar Schindler-like saviour. Casablanca was the result of alchemy by acrimony, with the Epstein brothers supplying its snappier dialogue (“I am shocked, shocked, to learn that gambling is going on in here”), its politics coming courtesy of Howard Koch, its love story and ending fleshed out by Casey Robinson, with ad libs from the actors (“Here’s looking at you, kid”) while they stood waiting for the day’s pages to be handed over.

Casablanca is best described as cinematic magic that occurred accidentally on purpose,” writes Rode in pointed rebuke of the film critic Andrew Sarris, for whom the picture was merely the “happiest of happy accidents” and Curtiz “the most divisive exception to auteur theory”. Auteur theory’s point-man in America, Sarris could no more countenance the idea that it might be the theory rather than Curtiz that is at fault – placing him in the “Lightly Likeable” category – than the old communist apparatchiks could conclude that their system was at fault rather than the people.

Curtiz was a “cinematic genius” said the screenwriter Robert Buckner who could “make a picture when he didn’t know what it was about”. How can you proclaim your boy an artist, his every work bearing his imprint as breath animates the body, when he is responsible for films as wildly different as the tough-knuckled Angels with Dirty Faces, the sweeping Charge of the Light Brigade, the effervescent The Adventures of Robin Hood, the svelte Mildred Pierce, and the most dearly be-loved film of all time, Casablanca. Oh, and White Christmas?

On the other hand: The Adventures of Robin Hood! Mildred Pierce! Casablanca! White Christmas! Film directing careers do not come more bejewelled. Curtiz makes the film critic’s job harder. No Catholic guilt. No recurring themes, according to Rode, except a recurring commitment to “realism”, whatever that means: for Rode it seems to mean that Curtiz’s pirates were hairier than the next guy’s.

“I want you to forget all this crap about composition because if the story is no good you can take the composition and stick it!” Curtiz was instructed during the making of Light Brigade by Warner’s thrifty production head Hal Willis, who drummed any technical grandstanding out of him. Curtiz was forced to reduce the number of dollies, and learn how to cut in camera. And yet it was precisely this creative rough-housing that resulted in Casablanca, and the film’s remarkable blend of the tough and tender. As Olivia de Havilland said of Curtiz, “Oh I guess he was a villain but he was pretty good.”

Maybe our duty to Casablanca is to rescue it from the ghetto of camp and recognise in it what the novelist Erich Maria Remarque called “the refugee glance – an imperceptible lifting of the eyelids, followed by a look of blank indifference as if we couldn’t care less.” Beneath that show of indifference, beats Bogart’s sturdy heart. 

Tom Shone is a film critic and author of “Blockbuster” (Simon & Schuster)

Casablanca: the Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie
Noah Isenberg
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £25

Michael Curtiz: a Life in Film
Alan K Rode
University Press of Kentucky, 704pp, £38.50

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge