Before you begin reading this I must make one thing clear – I am a hopeless romantic and in order to put some kind of context to this piece I must first tell you the circumstances regarding the time when I met my gorgeous wife, Jackie.
When I first saw her, in December of 1995 she had just finished babysitting for my best friend Rebecca (or Becka as she liked to be called) in Winchester. I had never ever believed in love at first sight but here I was talking like a babbling idiot to this vision of beauty in front of me. Our conversation went something like this:
Jackie: I’m really into art.
Me: Duh-hur I really like art too.
Jackie: I like going to the cinema.
Me: Duh-hur I love films, me.
The conversation went like that for a good ten minutes and I must have sounded like a total moron to her. I knew what I wanted to say to her but I just couldn’t get the words out. On top of that I had just finished playing the villain in a local am-dram production of Aladdin and (in order to look the part) I’d grown a goatee beard and had my head shaved which made me look like a serial killer. Our first meeting reminded me of the time I went to see The Strawbs on their 25th Anniversary Tour a couple of years earlier at the Tower Arts Centre in Winchester. I’d always been a big fan of them and because the venue had a limited amount of seating I, along with the rest of the audience, had the opportunity to meet the band in the bar after the gig. Dave Cousins, the lead singer and guitarist and driving force behind them was a musician I particularly admired and I had rehearsed in my head the conversation I would have with him. It would be witty and intelligent, erudite and sophisticated. But when he actually shook my hand all I could get out of my stupid mouth was, “Duh-hur, I think you’re brilliant, me, I do. C-c-can I have your autograph?”
When I met up with Becka in the pub a week after my first encounter with the woman of my dreams I said to her that I really liked Jackie. Being the consummate matchmaker that she was, Becka informed me that Jackie had also liked me. I told her that I had just bought two tickets to see Casablanca, which was having a special showing at the multiplex in Basingstoke in January and wondered if Jackie might like come along with me. I knew that it was a long shot – I was thirteen years older than Jackie, but at least I’d shaved my goatee off and my hair was starting to grow back. Becka (and I am eternally grateful to her for this) had lied to Jackie, telling her that I was the most interesting person she knew and that I was really nice. She also lied to me when she informed me that Jackie was really interested in me and then she gave me her phone number. I only found out later that they hadn’t even communicated with each other because Jackie had been spending Christmas and New Year with her dad in the Lake District.
Being hopelessly in love with someone and not being able to contact them is torturous, but on 20 January 1996 she answered my call. Becka had already primed her to expect a call from me and I went round to see Jackie in her flat the following night. I’d already had several offers to accompany me to see Casablanca if Jackie turned me down, but as they were all from men, going to see probably the most romantic film of all time with another man seemed a little inappropriate. Fortunately Jackie agreed to come and see it with me and the rest – as they say – is history.
I’d already seen Casablanca about a hundred times and could quote most of the dialogue it contained.
|The original poster for Casablanca|
So, what is it about this film (aside from the fact that I associate it with the first date with my wife) that I love so much?
Well, for a start, there’s the magnificent international cast. Humphrey Bogart, who was named the best actor of the 20th century, is Rick Blaine, an embittered, world weary cynic who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody’, but underneath that veneer of cynicism beats the heart of an idealist. It’s a role that fits him like a glove and when you watch the film it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than him playing that part. But he wasn’t the studio’s first choice – so try to imagine (if you can) how Casablanca would have turned out if the studio had got their way and cast Ronald Reagan instead of Bogart as Rick.
Then there’s the ravishing Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, who I happen to think was the most stunningly beautiful woman that has ever graced the silver screen. She just radiates sex appeal without ever having to remove a single item of clothing – with the obvious exception of her coat. And she could act!
And then there’s the marvellous British actor Claude Rains as the Prefect of Police, Louis Renault – whose velvety voice and perfect diction disguised the fact that at home he spoke in a broad Cockney accent. He delivers a brilliant comic turn as the corrupt official with hidden depths. When Rick pulls a gun on him and says, “Remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart,” Louis replies, “That is my least vulnerable spot.”
There’s also the Austrian actor Paul Henried as Victor Lazlo, on the run from the Gestapo and desperately trying to get hold of Letters of Transit so he can escape unoccupied Casablanca with his wife and carry on the fight in America. The villain of the film, Major Heinrich Strasser of the SS, is played with charming menace by German actor Conrad Veidt, who had fled Nazi Germany in 1933 with his Jewish wife, where they would have certainly been murdered. In another of Claude Rains’ throw-away one liners Strasser says to Louis, “You give him (Rick) credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he’s just another blundering American,” to which Louis replies, “We mustn’t underestimate blundering Americans. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.”
Add to this mix great supporting roles from Hungarian Peter Lorre (famous for playing the first on-screen serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M in 1931) as the weasly Ugarte and British actor Sidney Greenstreet as local black marketer Ferrari, both of whom had also played alongside Bogart in John Huston’s tremendous 1941 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.
And let’s not forget Dooley Wilson as Rick’s loyal piano player, Sam, and his rendition of As Time Goes By and that great Hungarian character actor SK Sakall as the loveable waiter Carl who says he has given Strasser the best table because “being German, he would have taken it anyway.”
Casablanca is a war film without any war in it, but it stills tells a story of courage, occupation and oppression. It’s peopled with disenchanted lovers and opportunists, patriots and isolationists. It’s imaginatively directed by Michael Curtiz and it is most definitely not the kind of standard, average, predictable love story that Hollywood had been churning out for years. But it’s the dialogue – delivered so skilfully and with such conviction – that makes it a glorious unexpected delight.
When Louis asks what in heaven’s name brought Rick to Casablanca, Rick replies “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.”
Louis: The waters? What waters? We’re in the middle of the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Not only is Casablanca the most romantic film you’ll ever see, it is also one of the funniest. The script by Julius and Philip Epstein is shot through with sparkling wit and tremendous throw-away one-liners, all delivered by a cast at the very peak of their powers. It’s one of my top five films of all time and the only film that has ever come close to its delirious doomed romanticism is John Madden’s exquisite Shakespeare in Love (1998).
But it’s those one-liners that get me every time:
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“We’ll always have Paris.”
Unlike me, my wife is not a hopeless romantic - she’s a practical, level-headed artistic woman who knows what she wants. But for me (and I know she feels the same way too – even though she’ll probably never admit it) we’ll always have Casablanca.