Saturday, February 15, 2020

ISO Film Series: Reveling in Max Steiner's score for 'Casablanca'

Filling the Hilbert Circle Theatre to the rafters, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented its first film accompaniment of the New Year Friday night to a showing of the classic "Casablanca."
Max Steiner conducting a studio orchestra in one of his scores.

Some people put the 1942 movie near the top of their  favorites. It must also be near the summit of any list, if anyone has bothered to count, of widely known lines and phrases from the script. It's a love story nuanced and genuine enough  to suit Valentine's weekend (there's another showing tonight) and also pertinent today as the free world largely dreads a shift toward totalitarianism.

Jack Everly conducts the ISO's performance of the movie's music, featuring one of the prolific Max Steiner's most memorable scores. A native of Austria, thoroughly trained and lauded in music from his youth, the immigrant Steiner pioneered symphonic scoring for motion pictures shortly after the Silent Era. "King Kong" (1933) is often mentioned as a milestone in a specialty that was developed by many others as well for about three decades. The 1960s saw a shift to pop music and electronic scoring that has sustained itself for the last half-century.

Steiner made full use of two tunes he didn't create, cued by their full versions in the movie: "La Marseillaise," the national anthem of the French republic, and "As Time Goes By," a philosophical love song from 1931 by Herman Hupfeld. The latter is the signature "our song" of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), whose interrupted romance in Paris drives the plot of "Casablanca." It's sung, initially to Rick's displeasure, by Sam, who left France with his boss to become an entertainment fixture at the piano of Blaine's new club, Rick's Cafe Americain, in Casablanca, Morocco.

But Steiner also exploits the melodies motivically, after the example of Richard Wagner. This means a familiar phrase may act as a jog to the memory (leitmotif) and also as a reminder of the central love affair's fragility, how subject it is to undermining. Turmoil caused by Nazi Germany's wartime conquest of its neighbors involved millions, and one of the ethical triumphs of "Casablanca" is its recognition of this, however much we may want to focus on Rick, Ilsa, and Ilsa's husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). As Rick puts it, in one of the film's memorable lines: “Ilsa, 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."

Thus, a cadence from the Hupfeld song will sometimes end wryly, quizzically or portentously in a harmonic shift. The swelling notes of romance, so well played Friday as centered in the ISO strings, are rarely given a blithe setting — chiefly in the flashbacks to Rick and Ilsa's happy times in Paris. Steiner's score is adept in "uh-oh" moments, as when Ilsa unexpectedly enters Rick's Cafe Americain, surprising the proprietor, who famously laments later while binging: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

From the time she enters the club through her departure, the underscoring is superb in conveying the unsettling effect of a reunion Rick never expected and never wanted. But something approaching closure, a staple of fiction on the screen or on the page, will not be denied. And from the first scene on, the exotic milieu is conveyed by Steiner's occasional suggestion of Arab music, recurring when the action briefly moves to the Blue Parrot, a rival nightclub, where the manipulative owner Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) swats flies when he's not scheming.

As directed by Michael Curtiz, the macro and micro worlds continually intersect in "Casablanca," and Steiner's score reflects the mingling. When the band strikes up the Marseillaise to drown out a fatherland song by a Nazi contingent under Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), the orchestration grows in full glory to supplement the on-screen singing. It's one of the most moving episodes in the film; it never fails to be spine-tingling even when you can see it coming. It's especially so with a "live" orchestra. And it must be said that the subtitles throughout are valuable, because you can hardly expect actual onstage musicians to somehow fold their sound under the dialogue as it would be when "Casablanca" is seen with the soundtrack as originally recorded. You're there to hear things you might not have noticed via video or in the movie theater.

The whole of the second act, when the cat-and-mouse game between Rick and Capt. Renault, Casablanca's prefect (Claude Rains), moves toward a climax, is a masterly landscape of musical suspense. In one of classic Hollywood's most memorable finales, the plane bearing Viktor and Ilsa away takes off in the fog, as Rick and Renault fade from view, walking along the tarmac, contemplating the beginning of a beautiful friendship, free of the troubled wartime city. The orchestra swells, as only it can when present before us, while our view cuts to the quaint projection of "The End" on the screen.

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