A Hero Has Fallen

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Say what you will about cinematographers, but they’re literally responsible for what we see in movies. Ultimately, save for a few choice lines, it is these images we remember most from the classic films we cherish.

It was the cinematographer’s use of a soft lens in critical close-ups that told more of Ilsa Lund’s backstory in Casablanca than any flashback could. We see a hint of it when she first enters Rick’s Café Américain, a popular casino. There, she’s introduced to Captain Renault.

But it is the extended close-up when Ilsa asks Sam to “play it for me.” There, the lens embraces the wholesome beauty of Ingrid Bergman and the sweet alluring yet sympathetic character she portrayed.

It is at that moment we realize Ilsa is the true heroine of Casablanca. She represents us. All of us. More confused than naïve, she reveals a genuineness of heart we all feel we have – for both good and bad. Like Ilsa, we all want to have someone swoop in and make the tough decisions for us.

In Casablanca, that hero is Rick Blaine. Can you imagine anyone else in this role other than Humphrey Bogart? The gritty New York City born actor had carved a career playing heartless hardened characters. Face it, he was the baddest of bad guys (as George Hally in The Roaring Twenties), the notorious of killers (Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest) or, at the very least, a private investigator with a suspicious past (Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon). Of note, he only ranked top billing in this last movie, which came out a year before Casablanca.

Rick Blaine, as Renault explains ineloquently to Ilsa, “He’s the kind of man, if I [tapping his chest] were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.”

Rick is the strong man in Casablanca, the tough guy who’s stoic enough to save Ilsa from, well, tough guys like him.

Look at what the cinematographer does in the climactic scene where Ilsa threatens to shoot Rick if he doesn’t give her the letters of transit. Back and forth we go. A stark crisp lens for Bogart. A soft fuzzy lens for Bergman.

The image tells the story. Of course, the dialog helps too. “All right, I’ll make it easier for you,” says Rick as he moves closer to Ilsa so the gun points directly to his heart. “Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

Blunt. Stark. Indifferent to the brutal reality before him.

In other words, a man’s man – confident, assured, determined.

The lens reveals the narrative. So it comes as no surprise when Ilsa breaks down, eventually mouthing the words we all yearn to say to someone – anyone – “Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer. You’ll have to think for both of us, for all of us.”

But that was a different time. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor stung our unsuspecting nation. Casablanca premiered in movie theaters a little more than a year later in late January of 1943. Within weeks, devastating American losses at the hands of Rommel’s German forces at Kassarine Pass in North Africa (before Patton’s arrival) startled a country still reeling from its military impotence earlier exposed by the Japanese.

If there was ever a time when a country needed a heroic man’s man, Rick Blaine was it. Boys had the fantasy of comic book superheroes. Real men had the true grit of their own imaginary hero in Bogart’s Rick. He led the symbolic path for Patton and all those other real-life World War II heroes to come.

Fast forward a generation. It was a different time. It was a different war, a different kind of war. It was a cold war.

Advances in technology, especially aerospace ballistics, haunted the free world. The Soviets were the first to capture the high ground with Sputnik. They had quickly caught up to America’s advanced nuclear arsenal. Their naked totalitarianism was spreading like an untamed virus across the globe.

In December of 1959, On The Beach opened. It was a depressing movie about the aftermath of a global nuclear war. How hopeless was its message? Imagine the audience’s reaction upon seeing the ever-jovial Fred Astaire resign himself to purposeful carbon monoxide asphyxiation while sitting in his open roofed sports garage. You can’t get more depressing than that.

By the early 1960s, things were only getting worse. In April of 1961 Yuri Gagarin launched Soviet Russia into space, beating the Americans (again). A few days later, in a repeat of the Kasserine Pass debacle, the United States initiated its ill-fated Bay of Pigs operation (this time there would be no Patton).

Alan Shepard’s first American manned space flight was barely done when the Soviets shot down Gary Francis Powers’ U-2 plane, causing more international embarrassment for the United States. Within weeks the months long Berlin Crisis would begin.

Just as tensions were peaking in October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, cinematographers once again came to the rescue in the middle of the fight.

It begins slowly zooming in on a simple nameplate on a stark masonry brick wall. “Le Cercle, les Ambassadeurs, London” reads the placate bathed in a dark reddish hue.

The opening immediately tells you “exclusive,” “international,” and “anticipation” with just a hint of “intrigue.” All aptly describe the era. In fact, those words remain relevant in any era of uncertainty. And with the threat of mass annihilation from nefarious forces, the early 1960s certainly qualified as just such an era.

As the camera’s lens follows the maître de into the swank club, it shifts to a crowded baccarat table. There, a beautiful yet mysterious woman dressed in red plays hand after hand only to lose each one.

We can only see the hands of the man she’s playing against. He calmly and silently flips each winning hand. For a moment, the camera pans back over his left shoulder. We don’t see his face.

The game continues until the unlucky lady must go to the bank for more funds. As his hands shift from the shoe to his cigarette case, the unseen man says, “I admire your courage, Miss, uh,…”

The camera pops back to the elegant woman. “Trench,” she says her eyes shifting up from her checkbook to the man dealing the cards. “I admire your luck, Mr….”

It is this moment the cinematographer unveils the face of a new hero. He’s casually lighting his cigarette as he raises his eyes to meet her. Ignoring her insinuation, he responds with three words that would inspire a generation of men and captivate woman across the world.

“Bond. James Bond.”

R.I.P. Sean Connery

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