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Monday, May 4, 2015

Going to "Casablanca" with the Symphony

Last month I went with my husband, Mike, to see "Casablanca" on a big screen at Milwaukee's historic Riverside Theater. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra played the score in real time along with the movie. The image above is from another theater, but it gives you an idea of the scene we experienced. Below is a picture of the Riverside:

Riverside Theatre

The show was a huge splurge for us, and I'm glad we did it. As always when I watch "Casablanca," I saw something I never saw before. This time, seeing the film on a big screen for the first time, Mike and I both appreciated the shadows more than ever - very noir. The best one is a shadow of Humphrey Bogart against the wall - so slender and natty even in silhouette. 

I was amazed again at Ingrid Bergman's elegant erect posture and her beautiful wardrobe. Her clothes are stylish and modest, highlighting her tiny waist, but they don't look uncomfortably cinched like the dresses in some 1940s - 1950s  movies. Bogey is always dressed in a suit or tuxedo and tie - even during Rick and Ilsa's "carefree" flashbacks to Parisian escapades, eating ice cream or traveling the countryside in a convertible. Suit and tie always.

I was struck more than ever at the well-placed foreshadowing. Early on, we see throngs of people and an airplane that seems to portend change.

I'd never seen the movie with an audience, only in the privacy of my own home, so there was a revelation in viewing the film with hundreds of other people: laughter. Lines that only seemed sort of snide now played as they were meant to: genuinely funny. At first I was startled by the broad laughter all around me, but after a while, I found myself joining in. Quickly-snapped lines like these brought guffaws:

* Nazi officer to Rick: What is your nationality?
  Rick: I'm a drunkard.

* Rick to Casablanca policeman: Keep in mind I'm aiming this gun at your heart.
   Policeman: It's my least vulnerable part.

* Attractive woman to Rick: What about last night?
  Rick: That's too long ago - I don't remember it.
  Woman: What about tonight?
  Rick: That's too far away.

The actors deliver the dialog without a pause for a breath. The movie moves; I was amazed at its pace. There is never a spot that drags. When it came to the film's famous last five minutes, I felt anxious about the outcome, as I always do, even though I've seen it so many times before. I always watch it as if I'm not sure of the outcome. This time, I felt my excitement grow as the camera  moves in turn to closeups of each member of the love triangle - they all wear hats on their heads and emotional intensity in their eyes. In no other scene in film history do I think black and white film is used more effectively. The camera fairly caresses the actors' skin and the fog encircling them as well as the airplane that will change all the characters' lives forever.

In that last scene, it's always Ilsa's emotions I feel the most. Rick has made his decision and he's already dealt with the pain of that choice. On the tarmac, all he must do is act on it. But Ilsa's life is turned over. She finally realizes that she's losing the love of her life. All she can do is discreetly dab at her nose and hope her husband doesn't notice.

Why do people love "Casablanca"? Why does it never grow old?  The plot is thick and I have to think about it every time in order to make sense of it. The love story of Ilsa and Rick is's the sad love stories that pull most at our hearts.

And the film deals with big moral questions without being preachy. Love, loyalty, patriotism, compassion are all characters that come to life. "I stick my neck out for no one," Rick says. But we find that he does, indeed, stick out his neck when he cares when he rigs the bets in his saloon so a young Bulgarian couple can win money to escape to America, and the wife doesn't have to sell herself to obtain a visa. And he risks his life for Ilsa and Victor.

It's impossible not to be moved during the scene where Nazis begin singing their song at Rick's nightclub, but are swiftly drowned out by local patrons who loudly sing the French national anthem "La Marsellaise." It doesn't matter if you don't know what the words know what the words mean. As the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra swelled the sound, tears filled my eyes. I could feel my husband shaking with tears beside me. The power of music!

The best musical moment of the evening was not with the might of the entire orchestra, but rather when Frank Almond made his lone Stradivarius sing. That moment was a distillation of the style that powers the whole film: less is more. The actors all hold back; there is no over-acting. And because of that, the viewer feels the emotion all the more.

"Casablanca" is one of those movies that are evergreen. Like "On the Waterfront" and "The Wizard of Oz," it has universal appeal that will never grow old. If you ever get a chance to view it on a big screen with a big audience, buy a ticket. You will have a new experience even if you've seen it a hundred times before. And if a symphony is playing along, the beauty may hurt your heart - in a good way.

Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, and Dessert First, all available from 

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