One thing marvelous about the secret language of Hollywood's 'production code' is the way poetic/romantic dialogue invariably packs a subversive undercurrent - hip screenwriters compelled to bury layers of dirty innuendo beneath shallow graves of poesy. When it's done right, the code--such as it is--works well, as children and adults end up seeing two completely different movies.
Watching CASABLANCA (1941) for the millionth time last night, for example, I noticed deep currents of sexual bartering in the dialogue that just weren't there before. I realized the film is now--for me-- completely different than it was back when I taped it at 15 and watched it incessantly. Back then it was a tale of witty rapport between Bogie and Raines, some Nazi action, thrilling music, some draggy romance redeemed by Bogie's toughness. My old teenage-days film making partner Aland and I studied Bogie's every move - this was how we wanted to be when--if--we ever had dates of our own.
Now, countless dates and viewings later, I find the whole enterprise much richer, dirtier and more cynical. I'm presuming you've seen it, so forgive spoilers: Let's start off with Bogart's embittered reunion with Ilsa after she sneaks back to see him after her first visit to Rick's American with her husband, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), seeking the letters of transit (she leaves Victor asleep back at the hotel). She tells Rick how important it is she gets the letters of transit, how hard it's been for her since they parted, etc., to which he coldly mentions hearing similar sob stories 'before, with a tinny piano playing downstairs,' a remark so cruel it shoos her off.
As a youth, the phrase seemed a reference to schmaltzy soap operas, in other words an allusion to pop culture's signifier for trite romantic clinches. It wasn't until this most recent viewing that it dawned on me: the 'tinny piano downstairs' is an allusion to a brothel, where the women hang out and drink cocktails with the potential clients in a downstairs lounge with a piano player, before luring a man upstairs for sex and maybe post-coital sob stories the women might tell--poor moms overdue on their rent, etc.--in order to maybe dig a larger amount of francs from the pockets of their homesick clientele. Bogart's indication that he's heard stories similar to Ilsa's with the tinny piano playing downstairs suddenly has sleazy meaning that no child would ever discern, at least I never did.
Now, of course, brothels are far less commonplace. I've never been to one, but by now I've seen enough Godard movies to know they existed... in Paris... where Bogart lived before the Nazi invasion.
This ties in with the overall sleaziness on coded display in the city of Casablanca itself, namely the exchange of sex for exit visas courtesy the womanizing Captain Renault (Claude Raines). He makes this offer to a pretty young Bulgarian refugee while her handsome husband is trying to win the money needed at roulette in Rick's back room. Rick foils this plan by letting him win, to which Renault is only mildly disappointed ("I'll be in tomorrow with a beautiful blonde, and it will make me very happy if she loses.")
I kind of gleaned this coded transaction as a youngster, but in this latest viewing, such transactions seemed the life blood of the film, sketching out the sleazy rubric so popular in women's pictures, the "How far would you go to save your husband?" theme, explored in films as old as TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931) and BLONDE VENUS (1931), right up to JEOPARDY (1953) and 1993's INDECENT PROPOSAL and every French film ever made. The popularity of these films seemed to stem from sexually frustrated housewives' need to justify their real or imagined infidelity, scenarios where it became heroic, noble to cheat on your husband. If a woman would only cheat on her husband to save his life, well, then Hollywood scenarists would find hundreds of occasions for just such a trade, as if all of life was one compromising situation after another. Lazlo's cuckoldry is no different than Herbert Marshall's in BLONDE VENUS, or Barry Sullivan's being stuck under a fallen beam as the tide rolls over him in JEOPARDY.
Another even sleazier unspoken coded concept--rather unique to CASABLANCA--is the indirect conversation between Ilsa and Lazlo where she basically gets advance permission from her husband to sleep with Rick, if necessary, in order to secure their exit visas. Now that is seriously European of him! One can't help but be impressed by the gracious way he acknowledges the 'what went on in your bed while I was in a concentration camp stays in Paris' credo.
It's to Henreid's credit as an actor that he makes this mcguffin-hungry anti-Nazi activist such an innocuous tool that he also 'deserves' to be cuckolded. I'd say that 'deserving' is linked, though not spelled out, via the scene where Lazlo insists the orchestra play the French national anthem which interrupts the drunk singing of the German soldiers. First of all, it's rude, and naturally going to have bad repercussions for Rick's cafe, ending the party thanks to Major Strasse's (Conrad Veidt) outrage. In fact, Lazlo's presence contributes directly to Rick's loss of status as someone everybody knows and respects in Casablanca. Lazlo reduces him to a man without a bar--at least temporarily-- all for a few moments of French "we conquered these Arabs first, so fuck you" pride. Why is it noble for France to sing their anthem in Morocco? It's just one colonizer replacing another, there's really no moral right for either Germany or France to rule there. Better the French nationals should realize the humiliating sting of occupation and ask the locals, "what's the Moroccan national anthem, why don't we sing that?" Thus Rick pays the price for Victor's pride, so it's only fair Rick should steal Lazlo's woman.
All this is of course spelled out only parametrically in soft dialogue about how 'for your sake, I let her pretend.'
Then of course there's the oft-discussed 'two-second light tower' dissolve, which I wrote about in relation to BABY DOLL (here) and which Maltby wrote about and Zizek analyzes.
Another observation this go-round was how CASABLANCA strikes a particularly melancholy/happy note of a paradise where no one knows what they got until they lose it. We hear Casablanca is a rough place in the opening narration, but what we mainly see is a bar full of people having a good time, a pre-Edenic paradise, reminding me of that magical realist masterpiece of the 1980s, LOCAL HERO, in which Peter Riegert plays an oil man sent to buy out a remote Scottish seaside village in preparation for a massive oil refinery. Its citizens are anxious to sell out and get away while Riegert realizes they don't know how good they have it at this magical locale, and how sad it will be when it's all wiped away, no matter how much money they all make.
The town of Casablanca is, in Curtiz' film, a kind of Arab-themed corner of Hollywood, a giant playground sandbox costume party with everyone is dressed up as somebody else, and few making even an attempt at an Arab accent as they wear an array of fezzes and costumes culled from all corners of the Warner costume dept. In the metatextual refraction sense, the influx of artists-- Jewish, homosexual, and politically anti-Nazi--such as Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt (read my appreciation of his work in A WOMAN'S FACE here) finding a Casablanca-esque expat oasis in Hollywood, often playing the very Nazis they had escaped from, an irony certainly appreciated by the sardonic Weimar artisans and actors, whose work taught us all to savor sardonic black humor as a consolation in a world gone mad, like Walter Huston, teaching Tim Holt to laugh at the loss of their gold dust fortune at the end of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE.