Tag Archives: Casablanca

High Sierra: Bogart’s Breakthrough Role

17 Mar

HIGHSIERRA_2Lead character Mad Dog Earle is a cold-blooded killer at the beginning of High Sierra (1941). But by the end he’s helped heal a disabled young woman and fallen hard for a cocktail dancer named Marie (Ida Lupino), in a rare noir western that would be the breakthrough film cementing Humphrey Bogart’s A-List Star status. Unlike Private Investigator Sam Spade, the main character in the Maltese Falcon, also made in 1941 and starring Bogart, Roy Earle is a hardened criminal. The character is the literal half-way point for Bogie’s evolution from B-movie gangster tough guy to screen preeminence as ultra-cool, bowtie and tuxedo wearing Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942).

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Bogart’s breakthrough-role involves the wide-ranging emotional landscape Bogart would dominate in from the early-40’s into the early-to-mid fifties. But in 1941, he was breaking into the mainstream as a tough guy with a heart. Bogart’s characters would still be tough and more than able to defend themselves, simultaneously someone you wouldn’t want to mess with while every woman in the world secretly wanted to be in love with – they would mellow over time like fine aged whiskey.

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High Sierra is known for being the movie where Bogart showed true range. He let’s himself fall in love with Marie – yet remains wildly unstable. And while the film may seem dated to some, unlike Falcon and Casablanca which seem to retain their style and freshness timelessly – High Sierra is well worth-watching to see the genesis of the Bogart character coming into it’s own. Mad Dog has a vulnerability that is meant to be ironic and against-type, and it’s exactly the role Bogart needs to test the romantic waters for Casablanca.

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Bogart was not at all sure audiences would buy him as a romantic lead in 1942. It was the experience of shooting High Sierra that gave him the initial confidence to take the Casablanca role. And while Sam Spade was toying with Brigette O’Shaunessy (Mary Astor), through most of Maltese Falcon, Rick is truly smitten with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca. The vulnerability Bogart is able to show and still remain manly and tough in Casablanca began in High Sierra. I won’t spoil the ending, but just watch for the moment when Bogart’s Roy Earle decides maybe love is worth sacrificing for, if not the greater good.

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Bogart with his trademark Mad Dog Earle haircut yukking it up with his High Sierra director, Raoul Walsh.

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Lizabeth Scott: Ultimate Femme Fatale

11 Nov

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Lizabeth Scott is simply one of the most unusual and glamorous stars of Hollywood. Her timing was impeccable because her smoky sensuality and husky voice came at the exact moment film noir was establishing itself as the dominant genre in post World War II America. She started out on Broadway as a sub for Tallulah Bankhead in a play called “The Skin of Our Teeth” though Lizabeth never got to shine because Tallulah never got sick.

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Instead, Lizabeth (she dropped the “e” to be different) was noticed by film scouts who brought her to the attention of producer Hal Wallis.  Wallis was the genius who brought us “Casablanca” and he saw talent in the young (Lizabeth was 20) would-be screen siren. Lizabeth tested at Warner Bros. and it was a disaster but Wallis still liked her look enough to bring her with him to Paramount Pictures when he left Warner Bros. – he and Jack Warner having had a bitter falling out over Warner “stealing” the Best Picture Oscar from Wallis for Casablanca. Wallis would remember this the rest of his career and wasn’t going to let anyone take his new starlet out from under him.

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Wallis dubbed Lizabeth “The Threat” and made her over into a femme fatale and perfect foil for some of the screen’s greatest leading men. Arguably the greatest was Humphrey Bogart, whose wife Lauren Bacall and Lizabeth had similar character traits in common. Lizabeth and Bogie got to work together in the noir classic “Dead Reckoning” and Lizabeth held her own against the formidable screen presence of Bogart. She was able to be charming at the same time rip smart-aleck lines right after another. Her portrayal of world-weary, potentially dangerous women on the outside of polite society looking-in was an instant favorite of movie goers. She suspected everyone of having an angle – as did a new generation of world-war-weary Americans. She was in good company from the start.

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But Lizabeth was quickly typecast as the femme fatale of noir. She made 20 films in her time in Tinseltown and more than 80-percent of them were classic noir scenarios. Except for her very last performance in 1957, when she starred opposite a young Elvis Presley in the curious “Loving You”. Curious because the King actually had screen chemistry with the Queen of Noir in a technicolor musical and one of his first of 27 Presley movies. Off-screen, the two became great friends and stayed in touch even after Lizabeth retired from films. In fact, Lizabeth was a singer herself and would release the eponymous “Lizabeth” which, true to its name, was full of torch-songs as well as light-hearted love ballads.

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The thing I love most about Lizabeth was truly how different she was to any other actress that came before, or after, her time in the spotlight. She projected a character that had seen the dark side of life, one that had survived in spite of the lousy hand she’d been dealt. The kind of alley cat that had been kicked around and never wanted to trust anyone or get hurt, again. Yet in spite of it all, she would fall in love again and again. Sometimes the guy was on the level, sometimes not and Lizabeth’s characters would take their lumps and move on. This classic noir archetype existed before Lizabeth but she brought it into vogue – the vamp with a heart – and made it her own signature style. It’s as distinctive as her voice and her angular, often smiling in spite of the pain visage. Many actresses would imitate this style later but few would come close to Lisabeth’s signature persona.

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It astounds me that Lizabeth hasn’t received more acclaim for her work in noir. The great actress is still with us (she was born in 1922 so you do the math) and I think that the new generation of neo-noir directors (i.e. Rian Johnson, Brian Helgeland, etc.) would want to cast this living legend even if just for a cameo – in their films. Or, maybe they’ve tried and Lizabeth has rebuffed their advances like her character did in so many of those inspiring, femme fatale roles she created. She’s truly like Garbo in this way – she does want to be left alone. Still, I would give my eye teeth to sit down and talk with such a classy, under-appreciated original like Lizabeth. It would be a privilege and an honor to sit across the table from the actress who starred opposite so many golden age movie stars. And probably more than a little intimidating, too.

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A classic publicity shot of the up-n-coming star during her heyday in the California sun.

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One of the few shots of Lizabeth smiling…right before she devours you!

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That’s more like it. The Queen of the Femme Fatales in classic evening gear. The cigarette is smoldering and so is her glare.

CINEMUSES: INGRID BERGMAN – PARADISE IN PARIS

7 Jan

I’m a student of film and grew up loving the stars of Pre-Code, through to the 40’s and 50’s. Especially the leading ladies. And no other leading lady captured my young imagination and set my adolescent heart afire more than Ingrid Bergman.

I first met Ingrid, the beautiful Swede, as many did in Casablanca. It’s hard to argue Casablanca isn’t the finest American film ever made, largely because of the performances by Bergman and her leading man, Humphrey Bogart. Bergman embodied the role of Ilsa, a young woman with a secret who falls head over heels in love with Rick when they meet in Paris right before the German occupation of the City of Lights during World War II. This we find out in flashbacks, framed in the knowledge that Ilsa betrayed Rick and ever since has been the disillusioned, bitter owner of the most popular watering hole in the desert location on the North African continent.

Any film lover will tell you that Casablanca is meticulously constructed. Film students like me pour over every frame of film, literally, in books such as (Warning: Film Geek!) “Casablanca:The Film Classics Library.” But what I only realized just recently, after having watched the movie repeatedly for over twenty years, is the theme of closure. Never having gotten over losing Ilsa, Bogart’s Rick walks around like an open wound, the not-knowing what happened to his lost love gnawing at his guts all these years later. This betrayal is central to the narrative and everything hinges upon what Rick will do once he finds out why Ilsa betrayed him. And maybe even more to the point – whether she ever really loved him in the first place.

My favorite scene when I was a kid, was the moment at the airport near the end when Rick lets Ilsa go. But after having loved and lost myself, my new favorite is when Ilsa comes to Rick’s the night before and ends up pointing a gun at his heart to try and get the letters of transit. Rick tells her to shoot – she’d be doing him a favor by putting him out of his misery. At this very moment, Ilsa’s resolve melts and she falls into her true love’s arms. At that moment Rick’s faith in love and humanity is restored by the only person on earth with the power to do so – Ingrid Bergman.

Bergman is at her most beautiful in Casablanca. Her face radiates youth and beauty. She exudes a wholesome sensuality that makes everyone in the film fall immediately in love with her and want to help her. We can all relate to Rick, having once been so lucky to have been loved by such a woman, then left standing in the rain at a train station with a cryptic dear john letter melting in his hand, his heart broken in a million pieces. Only an insanely beautiful woman could do so much carnage, made all the worse by depriving her loved one with the reason why; with closure. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is, just the not knowing. That’s when the mind will turn on itself. Fueled by liquor, cigarettes and rage, Rick represents everyone who’s ever had their “guts kicked out” by a beautiful woman. And Ilsa is the only one who can put us out of our misery.

I have a feeling that Casablanca will continue to fascinate me for decades to come. No doubt, there are more surprises to come as I live and dare to love again. And having been deprived closure by a lover like Rick, I still would love to know why I had my guts kicked out. But I also know I’ll never get Paris back, because that only happens in the movies. That’s why I’ll never stop being fascinated by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Because she taught me that even though someone says they don’t love you anymore, a part of them always will. The part worth remembering. Paris.