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“Here’s looking at Parallelograms, Kid!”

February 10, 2014

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Everyone who’s seen this film (and that’s everyone) – notice anything strange about this poster?

Look at the low billing awarded Claude Rains.

It’s said that Paul Henreid insisted on equal billing with Bogart and Bergman.  It’s said that he was a pompous, tedious sort of guy (which kind of works in the context of the film) and wouldn’t take the part otherwise

But Claude Rains occupies more screentime than Henreid.  He has more dialogue.  And he has better dialogue.  He’s a better actor, playing a more interesting character taking up more of the movie – and he gets shunted down near the bottom into the barely legible section of the credits.

Rains’ unfair marginalisation is however convenient from the point of view of streamlined marketing of the movie.  The Bogart-Bergman-Henreid billing makes the movie look like a classic love triangle.  Instead of the movie that we really experience – a bizarre anti-heteronormative love parallelogram.

The poster makes it look like a story about Bergman having to decide whether to walk off into the sunset with either Bergman or Henreid.  In fact the movie concludes with Bogart walking off into the sunset with Rains.  The “beginning of a beautiful friendship” represents the culmination of Renault’s fascination with Rick.  A serial abusive womaniser, he is a prime example of Eve Sedgwick’s theorisation of the homosocial heterosexual.  Every woman he beds represents a term in his ongoing relationship with Rick.

Captain Renault actually undergoes a decisive change in the film – smashing a bottle of Vichy water as a way of smashing the false consciousness of collaboration.  This makes him a character of far greater dramatic centrality than Laszlo, whose character is settled and chiselled in stone throughout.  A character who never changes may impact on others but only in predictable ways.

Given that Bergman, Rains and Bogart all play character with transformative trajectories – the case for assembling a poster with these three names in bold type might seem compelling.  But had the studio done so, not only would Henreid have refused to be in the movie, but the anti-heteronormative choice that leaves the two men beautifully intertwined would be all the more glaring and obvious.

But there are bigger fish to fry.

The parallelogram of  this movie does more than frustrate heteronormative expectations, it frustrates expectations of where the political stops and the personal begins.  I’m one of those people, incidentally, who doesn’t cry especially during the airport scene, but will weep buckets during the Marseillaise scene.

I love the fact that the most famous romantic movie ever made is all about the refusal of the romantic imperative.

There are lots of films about choices between political commitment and romantic/domestic engagement.    A conservative film like The Crying Game is quite servile in its acceptance of this opposition.  What makes Casablanca so important is that the romantic imperative does not compete with political activism – it revivifies it.  Sexual love reignites Rick’s sense of political responsibility.  The problems of three (which three?) little people do not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but the passions generated by this tense little parallelograms turn out to have immense geopolitical implications.

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