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Category Archives: Romance

Revisiting Casablanca

casa7Yesterday, I had a small family party and we watched Casablanca, partially because my cousin had not seen it before and wanted to (he said he liked it). The last time I saw Casablanca was before I developed my slightly obsessive enthusiasm for classic movies, so I was hoping to be able to see a familiar classic with new eyes. I don’t know if I quite did, but here are the four things that I took away this time.

1) There’s a lot of music in Casablanca. All movies have music, but it’s particularly noticeable and pointed. Max Steiner (he wrote the score for Gone With the Wind and King Kong), weaves in “La Marseillaise” and “Die Wacht am Rhein” throughout the entire movie score. “La Marseillaise” is the French National anthem and stands in for freedom. “Die Wacht am Rhein” is used to represent the Nazis (it’s a song about the fatherland and fighting in the Rhineland – specifically against the French). They are a call to arms and a drawing of the battle lines.

Juxtaposed with this martial music are the romantic songs that Dooley Wilson sings, especially “As Time Goes By.” Since that is the song that we really remember from the movie, the underlying message is that love will last forever and transcends war and hatred and evil. This point is made more clear when we see repeated scenes of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) falling in love in Paris (to the music of “As Time Goes By”) interspersed with scenes of the Nazis invading France to martial anthems. Rick and Ilsa may not get to be together at the end of the film, but there will always be other people who will fall in love, especially when the war is over and tyranny is defeated. “The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”

still-of-ingrid-bergman,-humphrey-bogart,-claude-rains-and-paul-henreid-in-casablanca-(1942)-large-picture2) I have a theory that it takes one to know one. Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) may be a flagrantly, cheerfully corrupt official, but his clear understanding and sympathy with Rick makes me suspect that at heart, he is just as much a sentimentalist as Rick. I like to imagine that he had a romantic and quixotic past before he came to Casablanca. He’s just had more years to grow entrenched in his cynicism than Rick. At least, that’s my theory. Because at the end, he proves just as sentimental as Rick. For him to throw up everything and join the Free French is quite a step for a man who “blows with the wind.”

3) At the end of the movie, to convince Ilsa to get on the plane and leave with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), Rick tells Ilsa that she must go because Victor needs her, that she is the only thing that keeps him going through all his trials, and that she would later regret having left him.

Captain Renault then comments that Rick was spinning  a fairy tale and that Ilsa knew that the things Rick said were not true (she probably wouldn’t regret staying with Rick and Laszlo is far too dedicated to his work to quit even if his wife did leave him). So why did she stay with her husband? Because Rick needed to fight and he couldn’t do that if they ran way together. Love must be sacrificed for duty, which both she and Rick recognized. It’s all a matter of timing, as Ilsa notes when they are in France, when she says they picked a terrible time to fall in love.

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Casablanca)_11In the original screenplay, Rick and Ilsa were going to leave together. However, when America entered the war, the studio realized that it would be impossibly irresponsible and selfish to have two people run away together as if there were not a cataclysmic war raging across the world. So the ending was changed.

4) Although Casablanca is not the movie that turned Humphrey Bogart into a leading man (High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon did that), it is the movie that cemented his reputation both as a star and as a romantic lead. And I think Casablanca summarizes his appeal as a romantic lead. He looks like a gangster, he talks like a gangster, but as Captain Renault perceptively notes in Casablanca, beneath the cynical shell there is a sentimental man. He may look like a tough guy and talk like one, but you can instinctively feel that inside he is an idealist who has been disappointed, but can’t quite shake the idealism. He has a sensitive soul and intelligent mind. It just took the studios a while to figure it out because he does not look like a conventional leading man.

 
 

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Re-watching Vertigo – Questions, Questions

0913Q_VertigoPoster_30pEver since watching Vertigo for the first time several weeks ago (my original review can be found here), I knew I wanted to see it again now that I knew the twist. I was especially curious about the first half of the film. I wanted to see what I could pick up since I knew that Madeleine is really Judy, who is playing Madeleine.

This time I watched it with my grandmother, who first saw it when it was released in 1958, just before my mom was born. She’s always loved Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and each year would see his latest film. Vertigo, though, was not her favorite. She found it a bit slow and rather creepy. We had a great time discussing it, though.

What was most interesting is how the focus of the story seemed to change on a second viewing. The first time, it is all about Scottie (James Stewart). We are seeing things as he is seeing them (at least in the first half) and are as confused as he is. Kim Novak’s Madeleine is an enigma to us, aloof, unknowable, almost not of the world (which I think is partially why Scottie is fascinated by her – he is not as attracted to the more down-to-earth Judy). But on a second viewing it suddenly became about her. Now that I knew it was Judy Barton playing Madeleine Elster, I was wondering what she was thinking.

vertigo-pic-4When did she fall in love (as soon as she met him, in his apartment?), was she really unconscious after jumping into San Francisco Bay (that must have been fun – you’d have to pay me a lot of money to deliberately jump into a bay and hope the man following me doesn’t take his time about rescuing me)? How much is she hewing to a script prepared by Gavin Elster? Was that really what the real Madeleine was like, almost other-worldly? When she drove to Scottie’s house to give him a thank-you-note, was that done with the knowledge of Elster or did she just do that because she liked Scottie and wanted to see him again?

I’m thinking that every move she made had to be planned by Elster. He needed Scottie to be there when Madeleine supposedly jumps off the bell tower. Did Elster really plan for Scottie to fall in love? That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one could plan. But it also doesn’t seem like there was much that Judy did (as Madeleine) that wasn’t calculated, presumably by Elster. On viewing it again, I can’t really think of any moments in the first half where I thought, “ah, that is really Judy coming through.” Perhaps the moment when she is standing on his doorstep and making eyes at Scottie while he reads her letter has a bit of the real Judy, but she stays in character pretty much the entire time. What is genuinely Judy was the emotion.

And I was wondering, did Elster make up his plan as soon as he heard about Scottie in the paper, and how he had acrophobia? If you really think about it, it’s a ridiculous plan, but that’s is not really the point of the film. Hitchcock film’s don’t always make the most logical sense. Vertigo is telling a psychological and human story; it’s all about the characters, not the minutiae of the plot. Hitchcock would never make a mystery writer.

kim-novak-in-vertigo-1958In shifting my viewpoint from Scottie to Judy, it suddenly became her tragedy more than his. She’s the one who gets trapped, first by Elster and then by her love of Scottie. My grandmother and I were musing that you could create a movie series called “Ten Stupid Things Women Do” and choose ten movies to illustrate. I’m sure Vertigo would fit in there somewhere.

And I wonder, was she Gavin Elster’s mistress? Scottie accuses her of it at the end and asks her what Elster gave her after he ditched her. She says money. Is that a tacit confession to his accusations, or does she just mean that she got money for doing her job? How did she ever get involved with Elster and agree to his plan?  As a curious side-note, there is a twisted Pygmalion element to Vertigo. Elster teaching Judy how to be Madeleine must have looked a bit like a darker version of Shaw’s play…and then Scottie tries his hand at it in the second half of the film.

Elster is the real villain, actually a successful villain, who creates an alternate reality that entraps Judy and Scottie and then leaves on his merry way to Europe, having killed his wife. Maybe after Judy dies, the police will figure everything out, though I doubt they’ll ever catch Elster. The authorities are going to be awfully perplexed when another body shows up on the roof of the same mission, dressed in the same clothes and looking exactly like the other women, with the same man present in the tower.

I think that’s partially what I liked about Vertigo. There’s so much scope for imagination. So many films are complete unto themselves, but I like a movie that leaves room for speculation and imagination about the past or future or motivations of the characters. And Vertigo is practically bursting with scope for speculation.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2015 in Drama, Movie Thoughts, Romance

 

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Vertigo (1958) – Two Different Tragedies

download (1)If you’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s VertigoDON’T READ THIS POST! Vertigo, like all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, really deserves to be viewed without prior knowledge, though I don’t always manage it. But I knew very little about Vertigo before I saw it. I was expecting a kind of suspense story with a fair dose of romance, so I was a little taken aback, when in the first half of the film, what I got instead was a stunningly beautiful, dreamlike, almost supernatural, romance. It didn’t seem very traditionally Hitchcockian. Then the second half began and I was alternately surprised and a little appalled to find myself watching  a twisted tale, more nightmare than dream, of love turned to obsession.

I’ve put off watching Alfred Hitchcock’s later films (late fifties and on). I had the impression that, apart from the delightfully thrilling and entertaining North By Northwest, his films became more grim and less fun. And admittedly, Vertigo is more grim and less fun. However, I liked it a lot. It took me a while to decide that I liked it. I was too stunned by the ending to be able to make up my mind right away. I had to think about it and sort out my extremely varied reactions to the various parts of the film. If Hitchcock meant to manipulate his audience and jerk them around in unexpected and occasionally unpleasant ways, then he succeeded masterfully.

The first half of the film opens with John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a retired police detective with acrophobia, who is asked by an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to follow his wife. Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) is behaving strangely and Helmore thinks she’s possessed by her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide when she was 26 years old. Madeleine is now 26 and going off into trances, driving to the museum and staring at Carlotta’s picture, visiting her grave, and even tries to commit suicide by jumping into San Francisco bay, all without remembering any of it. But Scottie falls completely in love with her and tries to help her realize that it’s not true; she is not going to die. But halfway through the film, seemingly irresistibly impelled, she jumps off the bell tower of a mission. Scottie can’t reach her into time because of his acrophobia, which prevents him from climbing the bell tower stairs.

Kim Novak as Madeleine and James Stewart

Kim Novak as Madeleine and James Stewart

This first half of the movie is almost like a movie on its own. It made me think of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It has a score by the same composer, Bernard Herrmann, and often floats along in the same, dreamlike way, like a tone poem. It’s haunting and the movie is almost worth watching just so you can listen to that wonderful score. But the first half also has seemingly supernatural undertones. The movie really has you wondering if it is true, if Madeleine is really possessed by Carlotta, which puzzled me because I had never before associated Hitchcock with supernatural films. But primarily, the first half is a romance between Scottie and Madeleine, the kind of romance that you know is fated to end badly and if the movie had ended there, it would have been a complete, though tragic, story.

But it didn’t end there. After Madeleine dies, Scottie goes into a deep depression. He can’t seem to accept she’s gone or get over his all consuming love for her when he meets a young woman who looks just like Madeleine. Her name is Judy (Kim Novak, also) and her hair is a different color and she does it differently and is a working girl in contrast to the extremely remote, almost in another world, sophisticated Madeleine. Grasping at anything that could bring Madeleine back to him, Scottie asks Judy out. She says yes and the audience learns, though Scottie doesn’t, that Judy is really Madeleine. Or rather, that Judy was playing Madeleine. Gavin Elster had hired her to pretend to be his wife so that he could kill the real Madeleine and use Scottie to convince the police that she was suicidal. But Judy/Madeleine fell in love genuinely with Scottie and when she runs into him as Judy she allows him to gradually take over her life. So eager to please, though wishing he would love her as Judy, she allows him to turn her into Madeleine. He buys exactly the same clothes Madeleine wore, has her change her hair and wear it the way Madeleine wore it. Protesting the whole way, she goes along with it.

James Stewart with Kim Novak as Madeleine and Judy

James Stewart with Kim Novak as Madeleine and Judy

But when he finds out that Judy was Madeleine all along, he feels betrayed, drives her to the place where she supposedly committed suicide and confronts her there. And in his shock, rage and hurt, he is finally able to conquer his acrophobia and climb the stairs. But once there and after explanations, Judy is startled by a nun and steps backwards, falling to her death for real this time.

The second half of the film is like a completely different film, almost feeling unreal at times. And when I first discovered that Judy was really Madeleine, it initially felt like a cop out that undermined the beauty of the romance in the first half. Here we’d had this very convincing, almost supernatural romance that you are invested in and it turns out to have a natural explanation after all. My first thought was it didn’t seem worthy of Hitchcock and that a twist for a twist’s sake wasn’t worth it.

But as the movie continued, it began to grip me anew. The second half is a mirror of the first, but less pure, less lovely, more obsessive and dark, ending as the first half did, except more bleakly, because now it is his fault that she died and not a vague, supernatural force beyond anyone’s control.

I like to think tragedy comes in two flavors: the lovely kind and the bleak kind. The first kind of tragedy is like “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s sad, but there is a sense of fatality about it, beyond anyone’s control and despite the fact that you don’t want the story to end sadly, there is a fittingness to it. The second kind is more like “Othello.” There is nothing fitting about the end. Othello is the author of his own tragedy and one’s reaction is less “Oh, how beautifully sad,” and more “oh my gosh, that’s awful!” The focus of the beautiful tragedy is on how lovely love is. The focus of the second is how people self-destruct and destroy their own love.

KimNovakandJamesStewartinVertigo195What is amazing is that Alfred Hitchcock manages to have both kinds of tragedies in the same movie! In the first half of the film, their love seems doomed through no fault of their own. The supernatural is too much for them. It’s somehow comforting, like “Romeo and Juliet.” The second half is the complete opposite. It’s not so much tragic as bleak because he is the one who is responsible, not any supernatural forces. But the first half was so beautiful, you really want that to be the real movie, even though it is actually an illusion. The reality is that Madeleine never existed. She was created and Scottie is in love with a woman who isn’t real and in his obsession over her he takes the real woman and tries to turn her into the image of an image. And she, in her desperate need of him, lets him.

Kim Novak really does a sensational job as both Madeleine and Judy. Apparently, there were critics who complained she was too stiff, but I thought she was really quite good at conveying suppressed passion. She is still because she is holding back. And in the end, despite the appearance of remoteness at the beginning, she becomes truly the most sympathetic person (despite the fact that she apparently helped Gavin Elster commit a murder – we never do hear what happens to him. He said he was going to Europe and when the movie was finished my sister trenchantly offered the hope that he get run over by a bus). Scottie, on the other hand, goes from being the man we sympathize with to almost the villain. He’s almost crazy with love and you can see it in his eyes and how he treats her. He is a victim, but becomes a shadow of Gavin Elster; trying to make a real women into the shadowy Madeleine and then killing her (so to speak – it’s not directly his doing, but he is the catalyst for the accident). It’s truly a masterful movie; I’ve never had a movie elicit quite so many different emotions within a two hour framework. I am quite eager to see what it will be like on a second viewing.

Here is an example of the lovely score by Bernard Herrman (who also composed the scores for Hitchcock’s PsychoMarniThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThe Wrong ManNorth By NorthwestTorn Curtain and The Birds).

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Drama, Romance

 

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