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Sequel Rubs Film's Experts Wrong Way

October 07, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"This material has resisted sequels for almost 60 years," says Aljean Harmetz. As far as she's concerned, things should have stayed that way.

She's talking about "Casablanca." Not only is it her favorite film. The former New York Times reporter is a "Casablanca" scholar, having written "Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca--Bogart, Bergman and World War II" (Hyperion, 1992).

How does she react to the decision by Michael Walsh, in "As Time Goes By," to give Rick a background as a small-time New York mobster (born Yitzik Baline) who'd fled New York after an adulterous and tragic love affair--taking with him the contents of his boss' safe?

"I think it's terrible, just disgusting, beyond the pale . . . [It] diminishes him," Harmetz said in a recent interview. "Any kind of romantic heroism that Rick has left over from 'Casablanca'--and, boy, does he have plenty--is completely dissipated by this baggage with which he is weighted" by Walsh.

Harmetz pointed out that in "Everybody Comes to Rick's"--the play on which "Casablanca" is based--Rick Blaine was a self-pitying lawyer with marital woes. "The Epsteins (brothers Julius and Philip who, with Howard Koch, wrote the screenplay) were smart to change Rick into a mysterious, unmarried saloonkeeper. The more concrete his background, the more nails you hammer into it, the less intriguing he becomes."

A seminal scene in the film is one in which Captain Renault asks Rick why he'd come to Casablanca. Rick says it was for his health, "for the waters." When Renault replies, "Waters? What waters? We're in the desert," Rick deadpans, "I was misinformed."

Harmetz said Julius Epstein told her "the reason they wrote that scene was that basically they couldn't figure out a past for him," so they decided to leave it "murky" and let the audience invent a past. "One of the reasons the movie has retained its hold on our emotions 60 years later," said Harmetz, "is because of its ambiguity."

She thinks it probable that Rick and Ilsa slept together the night Ilsa came to ask for letters of transit, but she is upset that Walsh has them continuing their affair "like rabbits in a London hotel room. It absolutely cancels out the ending of the movie. The whole point of the ending is that Ilsa and Rick give each other up for the good of the world."

She doesn't think "As Time Goes By" will become a feature film. "Who the heck could you turn into Bogart?" Rather, she surmises, "They'll make a television movie out of this, the way they did with 'Scarlett.' "

*

Jeff Siegel, author of "The Casablanca Companion" (Taylor Publishing Co., 1992), has read a synopsis of "As Time Goes By" and says he thinks the story was "devised by committee, by people who had no idea what 'Casablanca' was about. . . . This honestly reads to me as if somebody who watches 'Friends' said, 'We know how to do a sequel. . . .' "

Siegel first saw the film about 25 years ago when he was in junior high, "immediately fell in love" with it and fantasized about living his life like Rick. He, too, is unhappy with where Walsh has taken his hero. "One of the things that makes the movie work is that Rick Blaine has no past. By giving him a past, you demythologize him and make him much more ordinary."

Like Harmetz, Siegel is offended by the thought that Rick used to be a mobster. Under that cynical shell, Siegel points out, Rick was an idealist, a man who ran guns to Ethiopia in 1935 and fought with the Loyalists in Spain in 1936 even though, as Renault tells him, "the winning side would have paid you much better."

The role assigned to Victor Laszlo in "As Time Goes By" is, in Siegel's view, also off the mark. Laszlo, he says, "is the absolute last person the Czech underground would call back to kill this Nazi off. Victor Laszlo would have been in London giving interviews to Edward R. Murrow."

Siegel has never been able to decide to his own satisfaction what happened to Ilsa and Rick. "What I prefer to think is they walked off into the sunset and the movie ended and that's all there was. The whole point of 'Casablanca' is that it's a myth. It's not grounded in reality."

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