By George Wietor

Ever since my first chance encounter with Michael Curtiz’ masterpiece - during one of those incredibly late Saturday nights spent watching PBS that were so prone to happen in my later high school years – I would watch Casablanca (1941) to help me feel better. Every time something went wrong in a relationship (or not even wrong I guess, just not how I probably would have liked at the time) I would watch Casablanca. One year, at exactly the perfect time in my personal life, the late Alpine 4 played a weeklong Bogart double feature of the Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941) and Casablanca. I watched Maltese Falcon only once, but I caught the showing of Casablanca every night that week. It felt like time stopped when I watched this film. I was utterly and pathetically enthralled - transfixed in such a way that no other film had previously demanded of me.

I think, at least at the time, I must have found it soothing somehow. But in actuality, watching Casablanca in any kind of romantically depressed state is about the worst idea I can think of. Its torture, really – and watching it can only make things worse. It’s a kind of a special torture that I, nevertheless, continue to put upon myself to this day. But now (thank god) I have devised a solution.

Casablanca as romantic catharsis only works with a mandatory 4 hours of additional commentary: A bleary-eyed screening of Casablanca MUST be followed by Woody Allen's Play It Again (Ross, 1975), Sam and Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally (1989). Watching these specific films in this specific order forms a cinematic breakup mix tape (One that my friend Justin refers to as my "boner jams '03") that not only reaffirms Casablanca's place and importance in the history of romantic cinema, but completely cheers me up as well. Somewhere between "Here's looking at you kid" and "Don't fuck with Mr. Zero" I end up feeling pretty OK.

The logic of this juxtaposition is clear in both chronology and influence. These films build upon each other. Play It Again, Sam picks up exactly where Casablanca leaves off - opening with nebbishy film critic Allan Felix (Allen) watching the closing scene of Casablanca, mouth agape with situational lust [.MOV]. Play It Again, Sam references Casablanca so intensely that through much of the film Allan gets romantic advice from the ghost of Humphrey Bogart and eventually recreates the classic's closing scene as its own conclusion. "If that plane leaves the ground, and you're not on it with him, you'll regret it - maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life." Allan tells Linda (Diane Keaton), the love of his life. "That's beautiful!" she cries. "It's from Casablanca." he says, "I waited my whole life to say it." And I completely understand how he feels.

The problem with Casablanca as a romantic model, I think, is that it is a TOO perfect example of tragic love. An example that jerks like Allan Felix and I idealize too far out of proportion. I think I had seen a half dozen Woody Allen films before I saw Play It Again, Sam, but seeing this film was a completely epiphanous experience that reaffirmed everything I loved about him at the time – and for the most part continue to love.

Play It Again, Sam was the first film where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton shared the screen together (she had been previously cast in the play version of the story), but When Harry Met Sally is the direct descendant of their later work together, Annie Hall (1977) in particular. Screenwriter Nora Ephron clearly worships at the alter of Woody Allen, and has even appeared as an extra in a couple of his films.[1][2] Not only does When Harry Met Sally mimic Annie Hall thematically and formally (opening titles, score, split screens, the film is intercut with direct camera interviews, etc.) but I have always felt that Billy Crystal plays Harry like a more personable Woody Allen (Woody Allen-lite!). I can just imagine Nora asking Rob to instruct Crystal to please “be more like Woody!!” (Apart from this sentence, right here, I will not attempt to make a connection between this opinion and the fact that not quite 10 years later Billy Crystal played the devil in Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997). I will not because that is a bit of a stretch, even for me.)

For all of its similarity to Allen’s work, When Harry Met Sally (WHMS) shares a pretty healthy obsession with Casablanca as well. The score consists mostly of a young Harry Connick Jr. covering jazz standards made popular by their inclusion in Casablanca, most notably As Time Goes By and It Had to Be You (a song awkwardly sung by Annie Hall in a bar on one of her earliest dates with Alvy). Another reference to the classic is made in WHMS’s opening sequence (as Harry and Sally travel from Chicago to New York): while debating whether or not Ilsa Lund made the right choice (between the “safe bet” and true love), young pragmatist Sally remarks that “I don’t want to spend my whole life in Casablanca married to someone who owns a bar.” This scene is then mirrored a decade later in the film’s chronology when Harry and Sally recall that conversation on the phone while actually watching Casablanca on late-nite cable. Sally is shocked that there was a time in her life where she was ever so unromantic. Though each is in their respective bedroom, the scene is shot mostly in split screen, cleverly making it appear as though the two are sharing a bed. [.MOV]

Casablanca is a straight up weepy, through and through. Play It Again, Sam recreates the same trajectory but lightens it up with some CLASSIC one-liners and the slapstick humor typical of Allen’s earlier work. While Play It Again, Sam still ends sadly, it softens the blow along the way - effectively leaving When Harry Met Sally to function as cleanup. It’s the part of the mix that makes everything better. It takes the romantic tragedy of the first two films, and spins it around with the kind of totally-Hollywood happy ending that I am an absolute sucker for. While the endings of Casablanca and Play It Again, Sam are more like real life (who am I kidding, it’s really never that noble - Annie Hall is like real life), When Harry Met Sally provides the TRUE escapism necessary for this mix to work. It projects the (perhaps false?) hope that maybe someday something will work out alright, even if it takes 15 years for it to happen. Six hours deep into the cycle, THAT'S the kind of hope that I need.

george blogs with mixed-feelings, where a version of this essay originally appeared.

Posted on August 22, 2006 1:31 PM


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