Tuesday, July 05, 2011

On flies in Casablanca

Rick and Ferrari's first scene at the Blue Parrot. Image found here; click to enlarge.

[Edited and amended to avoid implying some things I don't mean to suggest.]

In my post on Casablanca from a couple of days ago, I briefly mentioned the arrangement of the space of the Blue Parrot, the bar run by Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet). Here, following up on some leads provided by Roger Ebert's commentary (and to get this film out of my head for a little while), I want to toss out a few observations about something seen there (and not seen elsewhere).

Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet) functions as a metonymy for Casablanca's indeterminate spaces: He has an Italian surname, speaks with an English accent, uses French forms of address, and wears a fez while in the Blue Parrot and a panama hat when out and about. He is another version of the citizen of the world that Renault has declared Rick to be, someone who seems to be from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Yet, as I mentioned in the previous post, of all Casablanca's expatriates, Ferrari appears to have become fully assimilated into the Moroccan backdrop against which the film's central action plays out: When he makes his entrance at Rick's, the first people Ferrari acknowledges (with local hand gestures showing his respect) are north Africans. Moreover, we later learn that Ferrari is firmly in control of Casablanca's black market (which Rick makes clear he wants no part of) and, perhaps, even more unpleasant endeavors--when Ferrari offers to buy Sam's services from Rick, Rick tersely replies that he doesn't buy or sell human beings, to which Ferrari says that human beings are precisely Casablanca's "leading commodity."

Perhaps all this is why each of the two scenes set in the Blue Parrot conclude with Ferrari swatting at flies. Apparently in the corrupted world depicted in Casablanca, only the Blue Parrot has any trouble at all with flies. But in a place like Casablanca, corruption gets measured by kind rather than degree. The Parrot's chaotic exterior and seamy, dimly-lit interior seem intended to underscore Ferrari's full investment in Casablanca's unseemly side; compare to Rick's clean, brightly-lit, grid-like interior. In his commentary on the first scene, Ebert notes that the fly-swatting isn't in the script, that either director Michael Curtiz or Greenstreet himself added it as a bit of business. Whoever had the idea, it's a subtle touch that's no big deal in and of itself but, if we happen to notice it and think about it, at the very least enhances the film's texture. If we think about it a bit more, the flies' presence at the Blue Parrot but nowhere else serves as an implicit judgment on Ferrari.

[A later, quick comment on the empire-vs.-colony politics of this: While it's true that Ferrari is the film's firmest link to the local population and equally true that Ferrari is utterly corrupt, I don't think it follows that the film is arguing that the local population in its entirety is corrupt and to be avoided when not exoticized. There's something about Ferrari's lack of hesitation in owning up to who he is and what he does that leads me to conclude its judgment stops at Ferrari's indeterminate shores--or, more abstractly, at the shores of all those who would prey on or perpetuate human misery (which, alas, knows no political or cultural boundaries. Hence, again, why the flies are present only at the Blue Parrot.]


R. Sherman said...

I intended to re-watch the movie last night but got distracted. Tonight perhaps.


John B. said...

Oh, Randall--I fear I have corrupted you. (Mwah-hah-hah-hah!) Enjoy your watching.

(And DON'T get me started on the wheres and whys of Bogey's hat--I'll just say here that I think it matters, but somewhere along the line the Law of Diminishing Returns has to kick in . . if only for my own sake, if not that of my visitor(s).)

R. Sherman said...

OK. I pulled out my special boxed set with an extra disc of features. Said features include the Looney Tunes version "Carrotblanca" with Bugs Bunny as Rick.

What . . .

A . . .



Youtube here.

John B. said...

We may have the same box set; mine has Carrotblanca, too. I was thinking that it's as good as any synopsis--maybe better, since it picks up on the film's tics. I laughed out loud at the bit with the piano.