March 20, 2007

Casablanca and its music

directed by Michael Curtiz, 1942

I watched this movie on video for about the hundredth time recently - it's been a favorite for most of my life, as it is for many people. It's a nice cultural touchstone, almost like some 18th-century moral instruction treatise, but with more action and much cooler dialogue.

So you all know the basic plot, which is about the sacrifice of love for the greater good of humanity. It certainly plays out every psychological outgrowth from that core in beautiful ways, helped along by some nice acting. I've always enjoyed the side-stories of the smaller characters, like the Bulgarian couple hoping to escape, the machinations of Sidney Greenstreet's rival bar-owner, the Free French underground meetings of the business manager Carl, etc. They drive home the (Capra-esque) point that everyone has a story, all intertwine to some degree or another, and the Bogart/Bergman story is in a way just one story picked at random. This has the effect of drawing me in as a viewer. The stories are larger-than-life, yes, but not so out of scale that I can't relate (how much moreso for a viewer in 1942, I'm sure).

Anyhow, if the main idea is one of self-sacrifice (i.e., that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world"), nowhere is that borne out better than in the music.

Ah, Max Steiner, Max Steiner. So many great film scores, so much to enjoy. There's a lot more subtlety to this particular score than one might notice at first blush. Sure, there's the "battle of the anthems" scene, which works really well (the German patriotic song being drowned out by "La Marseillaise"), but to me that mostly serves as a hint that we should be listening to music to tell us other things in the movie as well.

For one thing, there's a fluidity between the diegetic and nondiegetic (within the world of the movie and without) music, most promenently the switch from Sam playing "As Time Goes By" on the bar piano for Rick right there in the frame, to the flashback it triggers, which is underscored with a full orchestra out of the frame. The "As Time Goes By" melody comes back in various forms through the rest of the picture, beyond the flashback scene, often distended in rhythm or re-harmonized, but always as a fragment of something bigger. It's as if the melody can't be pure any more, is struggling to find a new way to exist in the altered landscape.

And of course it all culminates with the final music cue as Bogart and Claude Rains walk off into the fog. The "As Time Goes By" theme starts, then elides with the opening bars of the Marseillaise. The energy and generosity of love, transformed and transfigured to political action.

How awesome.

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