Notorious

Claude Rains’s mother.  Madame Anna Sebastian.  Oh My God, is that woman scary!  With her crown of tightly-braided hair and her severe expression, she comes across as cruel and rejecting. RainsandmotherHard to believe she gave birth to a son like Alex, a man who could harbor an unrequited passion for years — and who can blame him?  Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia is stunning and complex, a woman with a past who wants nothing more than to put her notoriety behind her and redeem herself through love.  Unfortunately, the man she loves, Cary Grant’s Devlin, just can’t get beyond that past of hers.

Poor Alex.  He brings Alicia home to meet his mother, barely able to contain his delight at having snared her, but Madame Sebastian pours cold water on her son’s happiness right away:  “Wouldn’t it be a little too much if we both grinned at her like idiots?”  Of course, she suspected Alicia all along.  In the scene where Alex confesses his gullibility and voices the fear that his sinister colleagues will kill him for his mistake, Madame Sebastian shoots for the heart.  “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity,” she snaps.

On top of this, she smokes like a Nazi!  You know how they hold a cigarette, pinched between the thumb and two fingers, not resting in the V between the index and middle fingers the way decent people smoke?

Okay, I got that out of my system.  Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.  What a grown-up romance they have in this picture.  Neither of them is “nice;” they don’t “meet cute.”  Alicia’s drunk, in addition to being a fallen woman, and the daughter of a Nazi to boot.  Devlin crashes her party, wrestles with her, knocks her out, manipulates her into accompanying him to Rio to work for Uncle Sam.  Then they fall in love and Devlin wrestles with himself, betraying Alicia at every turn.  She loves him still, and redeems herself, almost dies in the process.  But it’s worth it.  Oh, yes.  Totally worth it.

(5 January 2011)

Casablanca

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)