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Here's Looking at More 'Casablanca'

Faced With the Controversial Assignment of Writing a 'Frame' Around the Classic Movie, Michael Walsh Found That the Fundamental Things Apply to Embellishing Such Well-Known Characters

October 07, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Michael Walsh knew when he was "on a literary suicide mission" when he signed on to write "As Time Goes By," a novel that follows the characters introduced in the movie "Casablanca." How dared anyone tamper with "Casablanca," which Walsh himself calls the Holy Grail of Hollywood films?

The book--which goes on sale today--wasn't even out when the first hate mail was posted on bookseller Amazon.com's Internet site by an irate New Yorker:

"Why muck with a classic of one medium, try to force it into another, and then make matters worse by telling us what happened after the fade-out . . . ?"

Walsh says he is prepared for the ire of "Casablanca" devotees who think he should have left Rick and Louis walking off together in the Casablanca fog--just as "Gone With the Wind" lovers wish Alexandra Ripley had left Scarlett alone in the Atlanta fog.

But this isn't a sequel, the Boston-based 48-year-old Walsh insists.

"Sequel's a bad word. It implies kind of slavish following, implies that it's not as good as the original. [This book] is much more like 'The Godfather, Part II' than like 'Porky's II,' not that I ever saw 'Porky's II.' . . ."

Warner Books--which published Walsh's first novel, "Exchange Alley," last year--came to him with the proposal to, well, play "Casablanca" again, an offer he couldn't refuse, though he's quick to say he "didn't get a million-dollar advance like Ripley got" for her GWTW sequel.

Although Walsh hadn't until then numbered himself among the true "Casablanca" aficionados, he had "too much respect for the original to want to wreck it. I intend for this book to burnish the original film, not take away from it." If it's not a sequel, what is it?

"Kind of a frame around it," Walsh says.

Does the world really want to know more about Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszlo? Warner Books is betting it does, with a first U.S. printing of 250,000 and editions in 14 other countries.

Those planning to pay $25 to find out what's been done to their precious "Casablanca"--the 1942 Oscar-winner that recently placed second on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 all-time best films--shouldn't read further. For others, here's a synopsis of "As Time Goes By":

* Rick, Louis and Sam escape to Lisbon and later join up with Victor and Ilsa in London.

* All of the above except Sam get involved in "Operation Hangman," a successful British government plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the sinister Nazi who was "Reichsprotektor" of Czechoslovakia.

* Louis and Victor perish. Ilsa and Rick wind up--married--back in Casablanca.

This is not all fiction. Heydrich was, of course, a real person, the architect of the Final Solution, and Walsh sticks pretty much to the facts of the assassination while inserting the "Casablanca" characters into the plot.

Working in Munich for Time magazine a decade ago, Walsh interviewed a number of Germans who had lived through World War II and knew well the story of Heydrich, the only major Nazi murdered by the Allies.

"The assassination was the only significant act of Czech resistance during the war," Walsh says. "It seemed to me very obvious that was what Victor Laszlo was planning" in the movie.

Some "Casablanca" dialogue finds its way into the pages of the novel, "partly in homage and partly from dramatic necessity, and partly to let the reader know that the author is in on the fun too," Walsh explains. Case in point: The novel's last line, spoken by Ilsa Blaine, is "Here's looking at you, kid."

But in a significant departure from the film, in which Ilsa tells Rick, "You'll have to do the thinking for both of us," Ilsa emerges here as a major force, undertaking the dangerous mission of infiltrating Heydrich's Prague headquarters--trying to avoid his bed while helping plot his demise.

Was Walsh consciously creating a woman for the '90s?

"Yes, partly. I tried to walk a line between the '40s setting and the sensibility of the reader, but not out of any political correctness. It seems to me the flaw in the original movie--if there is a flaw--is that the three main characters are very passive."

There was Ilsa, who let Rick do the thinking; there was Rick, the cynic ("I stick my neck out for nobody") and there was Laszlo, whom Walsh considers "the most strangely passive and plaster saint-like," even though, Walsh admits, he must have been pretty tough to have stayed one step ahead of the Nazis all that time.

"I tried to give each a slight upgrade in personality," Walsh continues. "Ilsa is based on a lot of different elements."

One is the life of actress Ingrid Bergman, who plays Ilsa in the film. Because Bergman was a pianist in her earlier film "Intermezzo," Walsh made Ilsa a pianist. In making her a spy, he also based her character on Marie Vassiltchikov, a White Russian who helped plot the July 1944 attempt on Hitler's life.

*

The most controversial depiction in "As Time Goes By" is that of Rick Blaine. It's certain to rattle many "Casablanca" fanatics.

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