In appreciation of Roger Ebert (1942-2013)
Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre: I love those guys! Bogey playing the kind of hard-boiled-on-the-outside-but-with-a-tender-center detective that he was made for. John Huston directing his own screenplay of the great Dashiell Hammett novel. No wonder Roger Ebert called “The Maltese Falcon” one of the greatest films of all time.
Ebert also said that the plot of this picture is the last thing you think about. (And I thought it was only me who had difficulty following the story…) What matters, what makes “The Maltese Falcon” worth watching again and again, are the stand-alone scenes. You hardly care what’s come before, or what’s coming next, you’re so caught up in the perfect moment.
Bogey’s classic line: “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Wish I could say that the way he does, and mean it. Heck, he’s even plausible when he wants to talk about the bird.
“The movie is essentially,” Ebert noted, “a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes. It’s all style. It isn’t violence or chases, but the way the actors look, move, speak, and embody their characters.”
Think about San Francisco and you think about Sam Spade. The shabby office with the frosted glass door. The city streets by night. I’ve walked that town with key scenes in my head, from the corner of Burritt Alley and Bush Street, where Spade’s partner was done in (there’s actually a plaque to mark the spot) to the fancier locales around Union Square. I’ve even stayed in Joel Cairo’s hotel, the Belvedere (now the Monaco, a Klimpton property with a delightful restaurant).
I just wanted to haul Gloria Grahame’s character aside and tell her in no uncertain terms: “Honey, forget him. He’s bad news, even if he’s not a murderer.” Sure, he’s Humphrey Bogart, and a very vulnerable Humphrey Bogart at that, but he’s trouble from the get-go.
Imagine what a basket case Rick must’ve been right after Ilsa left him, before he opened that night club in Morocco. If he’d gone back to the U.S. and started hanging out with cynical Hollywood people instead, he might have turned into the mean drunk he plays in this picture, a guy who picks fights and gets into road rage incidents, beats women around and displays not a trace of emotion when the innocent hatcheck girl he was with the night before turns up dead.
It’s certainly a change, to see Bogart playing the line between alienated artist and psychopath — and coming out on the psychopath side. None of the people in his orbit know how to take him. They’re all walking on eggshells, bracing themselves for the next explosion and yet, inexplicably, they keep coming back for more abuse.
Grahame’s character is attracted to him, and you do see why. He gives off a dangerous allure and there’s an animal intensity to their first encounter. Bogart’s hot!
Flash forward three weeks and he’s grown cuddly. Nothing like the love of a good woman to turn a guy around. But soon it’s Grahame’s character who’s a basket case. She suspects Bogey of murder (with good reason) and he picks up on her doubts and gets paranoid and possessive.
The movie turns into a mess at this point, although you’ll keep watching. Stick with it and you’ll get the ironic twist on Bogey’s best line, from the screenplay he manages to finish with Grahame’s loving support: “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
I wish I could have been on the set when they were filming “Casablanca.” What a great story, and what a great cast! Wartime Hollywood must have been a lot like Rick’s Café Américain. Refugee actors desperate for work, preyed on by studio executives who knew they could get them on the cheap. But something about the exotic mix of nationalities, along with the high stakes involved, brought out the best in people.
All those Europeans, their nuanced performances, make Humphrey Bogart’s straight-talking American stand out like a sore thumb. Don’t get me wrong. Bogart is perfect as Rick, the cynical nightclub owner who retrieves his sense of purpose while letting go of the only woman he ever loved. Against the shadowy elements of “Casablanca,” his clear-eyed character emerges in sharp relief, the way a searchlight cuts through the night fog. No wonder the exquisite Ilsa fell in love with him!
I’ve never liked Peter Lorre better than in the role of Ugarte. “You know, Rick,” he says, “I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.” Even a thief like Ugarte can disarm with his honesty. Then there’s the fine French actor, Marcel Dalio, in a bit part as Emil the croupier. Mere minutes onscreen, but he is luminous. Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari: pure pleasure to watch this master actor at work. And Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault. Seeing him come around and commit himself to the anti-Nazi cause makes me smile every time.
“Rick, you’re a sentimentalist,” he tells Bogey. Well, count me in, guys.
(18 January 2011)