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Mark your calendar: Here's looking at you, summer movies

It's 1983, and I'm sitting in a Krispy Kreme with film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who's just given a speech at the University of Florida. In your opinion, I ask him between sips of coffee, what's the best movie ever made?

Maltin doesn't hesitate. Casablanca, he says.

I nod knowingly. Of course, I say. Of course it's Casablanca.

The truth was that I was 24 years old and had never seen the film. Oh, I was aware of Casablanca - it had seeped irreversibly into popular culture - but beyond the image of Humphrey Bogart in trench coat and fedora, and maybe the line "Play it again, Sam," I didn't know the first thing about it.

That would change soon enough.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Warner Bros. melodrama, and so it's being screened June 23 at the Trustees Theater, part of the 2012 SCAD Cinema Circle. If you haven't experienced the film, go and see it. Maltin - who's still raving and writing about Casablanca to this day - was right on the money.

Of course, the day after our doughnut conversation he was to fly back to Los Angeles for an advance screening of something called Flashdance. Such are the highs and lows of cinema criticism.

In the book Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca, Aljean Harmetz writes: "No other movie has so reflected the moment when it was made - the early days of World War II - and the psychological needs of audiences decades later."

As the Nazi stranglehold on Europe tightens, refugees trying to get to America are passing through the city of Casablanca, run by the Vichy French in North Africa. The film has an intense mood of desperation, and destiny, especially when its central characters are thrown together in a twist of star-crossed fate.

Every member of the audience will have a character to identify with. Bogart is cynical American expatriate Rick Blaine; Ingrid Bergman is Ilsa Lund, married to a Czech freedom fighter (Paul Henreid as Victor Lazlo) who's been followed to Casablanca by the Gestapo.

Rick and Ilsa once had a torrid affair in Paris, which ended as the Nazi occupation began. Each carries a dark secret.

As riveting as they are, it's not Bogart and Bergman who make Casablanca the stunning and unforgettable film it is.

And it's not Henreid, who - despite his third-billing status - was never much of a movie star, before or after.

It's a combination of factors: A brilliant supporting cast (Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt and Dooley Wilson), Michael Curtiz' whip-smart direction, the artful cinematography of Arthur Edeson and the stirring, evocative score by Max Steiner.

Casablanca was as much a writer's movie as anything else. Based on the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the  screenplay was penned by Howard Koch, who handled primarily the political material, and screenwriting brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, whose main responsibility were the comic moments.

It was a team effort: Koch and the Epsteins constantly re-wrote each other, with major contributions from the movie's producer, Hal Wallis, and other writers called in to polish the script here and there.

The film's heart-stopping final scene - one of the most memorable (and imitated) in history - was never in the script. Koch, Wallis and the Epsteins pulled it together just a few days before shooting wrapped.

Wrote Harmetz: "It was an accident, of course, that Casablanca blended a theme and half a dozen actors, an old song, a script full of cynical lines and moral certainty, into 102 minutes that have settled into the American psyche.

"But every movie is a creature built from accidents and blind choices - a mechanical monster constructed of camera angles, chemistry between actors, too little money or too much, and a thousand unintended moments."

The "old song" was Herman Hupfeld's 1931 ballad "As Time Goes By," which is used as the movie's love theme. Joining the production late, composer Steiner hated it, but it couldn't be replaced - Bergman's Ilsa mentions the song by title, and the actress was unavailable for reshoots. So "As Time Goes By" stayed.

Among the film's most indelible lines: "Here's looking at you, kid." "Round up the usual suspects." "We'll always have Paris." "The Germans wore grey, you wore blue." "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

(Incidentally, no one in Casablanca actually says "Play it again, Sam." It's a Hollywood urban legend.)

Casablanca won the Academy Award for its screenplay, and for Curtiz' direction. Although it was released in 1942, it took the Oscar as the Best Picture of 1943.

And as time goes by, its effect does not diminish.


Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23

Tickets: $8 at

... And more movies

Ah, but Casablanca is only one of the big-screen joys in store for us over what's sure to be a long, hot summer. You can watch the majority of these films on DVD, but it's not the same as sitting in a darkened theater in front of a screen that's 40 feet high.

So grab a cold drink, relax - but don't put your feet on the seat in front of you - and focus on summer in the cinema, Savannah style.

Asylum Blackout. June 29, Muse Arts Warehouse. The Friday Night Frights series continues with a French horror film combining a rock band, the criminally insane and a convenient power failure. Bloody good fun!

True Grit. June 29, Lucas Theatre. John Wayne won his only Oscar for playing one-eyed sheriff Rooster Cogburn in this classic 1969 Western.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/3:10 to Yuma. June 30. Lucas Theatre. More Westerns: Newman and Redford as loveable bank robbers Butch & Sundance (from ‘69), and the gritty 2007 version of Yuma, with Russell Crowe and Josh Brolin.

A Cat in Paris. France, 2011. July 1, Muse Arts Warehouse. Hand-drawn animation film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The "Movies Savannah Missed' screenings will include both the subtitled French version and the dubbed English-language version.

Forrest Gump. July 7. Trustees Theater. Yup, it's Tom Hanks, the white suit and the box of chocolates and yep, parts of it were filmed in Savannah.

Cape Fear. July 14. Trustees Theater. Yes! The brittle 1962 original, with Robert Mitchum terrorizing Gregory Peck and his family. Again, several scenes were filmed right here.

Last Days Here. July 15, Muse. Documentary about hard-living rocker Bobby Liebling of the band Pentagram.

Big. July 21. Trustees Theater. Director Penny Marshall's 1988 fantasy comedy about a boy who grows up - in a single day - to be Tom Hanks.

Polisse. July 22, Muse. Gritty French 2011 drama about the juvenile protection police.

Breakfast at Tiffany's. July 28. Trustees Theater. From 1961, the beloved film version of Truman Capote's romantic New York comedy, with Audrey Hepburn as the eccentric but adorable Holly Golightly.

Superman. Aug. 4. Lucas Theatre. Richard Donner's original 1978 blockbuster, with a stellar cast including Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman.