We’ll Always Have Paris
Four years are not a long time in history, but can be long enough to change the way people look at things. Let’s see how America viewed the world in 1943.
Casablanca introduces Paris with an establishing shot of the Arc de Triomphe and follows this up with a back projection of Bogart and Bergman driving down the Champs Elysees, the Arc in the back.
The differences to Ninotchka are striking. Firstly, we are being shown a building we can instantly recognize and we know at once where we are. Using a shot of the Arc or the Eiffel Tower as visual shorthand for “this picture takes place in Paris” has since become a convention in its own right.
But this may not yet have been the case at the time. The people who made Casablanca, at any rate, gave it a thought and asked “How can we introduce our location in such a way that everybody in the audience immediately knows, in one glance, where we are?” The people who made Ninotchka did not.
Secondly, the wide shot of the Arc de Triomphe is followed by a back projection of Bogart and Bergman in their convertible, the Arc in the background, instantly connecting the characters to the scenery.
And thirdly, after that, we are being treated to another 30 seconds or so of “establishing sequences” set to music – Bogart and Bergman on a pleasure boat and in a room with a view of the Sacre Coeur – before the action actually resumes and the first line of dialogue is spoken between the two. By which time we are firmly embedded in the place – in a way we never were in Ninotchka.
After a short dialogue sequence between Bergman and Bogart, a street scene follows in which we are informed that the arrival of the German occupying forces is imminent.
The scene, in its form, is not necessary from a narrative point of view.The fact that the Nazis are approaching could have been conveyed more easily and more economically, with Bogart and Bergman shown listening to a radio announcement, for example.
But the makers of Casablanca decided to go for a street scene, showing their two protagonists in the middle of a crowd of equally concerned Parisian citizens. We can assume, with some confidence, that the makers of Ninotchka would have handled this differently.
In itself, this shows little. However, if we widen our focus to include the general tone of the two films under review, if we contrast Ninotchka’s “fewer but better Russians” arrogant sarcasm with Casablanca’s earnest and honest passion, we can trace back the journey the United States took – between the late 1930s and the early 1940s – from the role of a distanced observer to that of an involved participant.
In their own modest way, these two films reflect the fact that, in the battle for the American soul between isolationists and interventionists, the latter had by now gained the upperhand.
The third part and final example I will cite will be from the movie An American in Paris that was made in 1951 – by which time something new had clearly been added.