Casablanca previsited: sigh is just a sigh

November 15, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun staff

"As Time Goes By," by Michael Walsh. Warner Books. 420 pages. $25. Casablanca," the World War II romance starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman that was released in 1942, is one of the most famous accidents in cinema history, a sublime collision of casting, chemistry, history, artistry and sheer luck that resulted in one of the most enduring pieces of celluloid of all time.

But count on pop culture, with its insatiable Will to Commodify, to try and improve on serendipity. "Casablanca" has already been subjected to all manner of imitation, colorization, appropriation and exploitation. Now, with the book "As Time Goes By," it must submit to the novelizers, a curious breed of publishing types who suffer from a defecit in integrity as large as their surfeit of hubris.

Author Michael Walsh, a former classical music writer for Time, has brought as much grativas as he can muster to this dubious project. He has wisely chosen not simply to re-cap the famous plot of "Casablanca." The exploits of nightclub owner Rick Blaine JTC (Bogart), his unexpected reunion with long-lost love Ilsa Lund (Bergman) and her escape with her Resistance-hero husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) remain safely on the screen where they belong.

Instead, "As Time Goes By" speculates on just what brought the mysterious Blaine to North Africa in the first place, and theorizes as to just what happened after Ilsa and Victor's plane took off into the tear-stained North African fog.

Walsh posits that Bogart's mysterious Rick Blaine was born one Yitzak Baline, became a gangster and club owner in Harlem, and was run out of New York after coming to blows over a woman.

Walsh also theorizes that Rick didn't really say goodbye to Ilsa that night in Casablanca. "As Time Goes By" begins just as Louis Renault and Rick wander off the tarmac together, chattering something about a beautiful friendship. But instead of repairing to Rick's for a nightcap, they meet his piano-playing aide de camp Sam Waters and make immediately for Portugal, where Rick is convinced he'll find Ilsa again.

He's right. Sort of. He actually finds her in London, where Blaine and Renault become embroiled in Laszlo's plot to sneak into Prague and bomb the car of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich.

Walsh works up a good sense of tension and intrigue in "As Time Goes By," but he continually undermines himself when he cuts into the action with the backstory of Rick's seamy salad days. Just when things start to get interesting in Czechoslovakia, the action abruptly stops and shifts to Prohibition-era Manhattan. What's more, Walsh's prose, which is heavy on description and dialogue, reads less like a novel than an elaborate screenplay synopsis for "Casablanca: The Prequel, the Sequel, the Works."

Walsh and his benefactors at Warner Books have no doubt correctly predicted that rabid "Casablanca" fans will leap at the chance to fondle their threadbare fetish yet one more time. And as fodder for nostalgic escapism and Internet arguments, "As Time Goes By" serves its purpose with a workmanlike lack of condescension. But even with these merits to its credit, a miss is still a miss.

Ann Hornaday, The Sun's film critic, has critiqued films for the Austin American-Statesman, Premiere, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and on documentary and independent films for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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