WARNING! Includes details of some really, really well known plot points
I’m lucky enough to have some lovely friends. Witty, erudite, appreciative of a good scotch egg. However, until recently they had a collective blind spot – old movies. And by old, I mean up to and including Ghostbusters. Certainly, black and white was, for them, an undiscovered country that puzzled the will.
I decided that this situation needed to be addressed. Not least because those without a basic grounding in movie quotes might be forgiven for thinking that a lot of what I say makes no sense at all. I can no more enter a bookie’s without saying:
“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”
than I can walk past a piano without tinkling a couple of keys and asserting that:
“That’s right, boys. It’s Dr. Venkman.”
This sort of nonsense was generally greeted with some level of bemusement. Of course, I concealed my annoyance with masterly self-control but still, something had to be done.
So, when Casablanca popped up at the BFI (great cinema by the way, if you’re in London you should definitely find time for a visit) I seized my chance and, with a surprisingly small amount of mither, persuaded a small but select group that a black and white movie could and would be a rewarding and entertaining experience (or at least that it’s only 100 minutes long and the seats will be comfy).As we sat down I was, I confess, a little nervous. I’d made some pretty bold statements about black and white movies and they were about to be put to the test. That said, I thought I was on relatively safe ground with Casablanca because, amongst other things:
- Claude Rains is hilarious. For most actors, “we haven’t decided yet if he committed suicide or died trying to escape” is an ok line, maybe not to be played for laughs at all, he makes it brilliantly funny.
- Humphrey Bogart shows why he’s a movie icon. He really grounds the thing, keeping us invested in the story while the supporting cast devour the scenery (I’m looking at you, Peter Lorre, because you’re brilliant).
- It teeters on the very brink of the ridiculous but, I think due to the great cast, never quite topples over. Chucking the Vichy water in the bin and “Play it! Play La Marseillaise!” could have been cringy, but in these hands they’re joyous.
Not to worry, Claude, you were excellent!
Still, it was with a measure of trepidation that I asked what everyone made of it. Good news! They loved it! But one comment really stuck with me:
“I was on the edge of my seat wondering whether she’d end up with Rick or Victor Laszlo.”
It had genuinely never occurred to me that anyone didn’t know that, but if you’ve never seen it or read about it then why would you?
Since then, we’ve been back a number of times, with a lot of hits:
- Rear Window
- The 39 Steps
- The Apartment*
- Sweet Smell of Success
- Singin’ In The Rain*
- The Philadelphia Story
- Psycho – although, interestingly, a couple of flat out refusals to try that one. That’s a movie with a reputation.
And a few misses:
- The Bad and the Beautiful
- Funny Face
*The same bloke was lukewarm about both of these.
From this, I’d draw a number of conclusions:
- Dramas with a wry sense of humour are a winner
- Hitchcock is, was and always shall be the master
- Musicals can go either way
- I don’t understand some people
The plot expectations continue to be fascinating (and to make me feel slightly like a Victorian explorer who finds a tribe as yet untouched by civilisation – although without the urge to shoot them and nick their country), one that sticks in the mind is that the cop who pulls Marion over early in Psycho would come back and either rescue or arrest her. Again, totally reasonable if ‘shower scene’ means nothing to you.
In a sense, of course, I’m watching a different movie to them. Either I’ve seen it before or I’ve got a reasonable expectation of what the plot consists of, they’re starting with a blank slate.
I recently saw Casablanca again with another first timer, it still worked its magic but for me it was a slightly different experience.
The politics of the movie (“isolationism is no longer a practical policy” etc) have always felt very much of their time, but right now the references to a tortuous refugee trail seem much more urgent and, of course, the Marseillaise scene had a moment following the terrible events in Paris. I guess movies stay the same, but the eyes we see them through do not.