Sunday, August 16, 2009

Casablanca, Caligari & Conrad Veidt

By Steve Evans

Sometimes mediocrity in movies reminds us of greatness. For me, this almost always involves watching a contemporary picture and being reminded of something much better that unspooled years ago for a lucky audience.

Recently watching Brian DePalma's rather disappointing adaptation of James Ellroy's wicked noir novel, The Black Dahlia (2006), I was pleased to see an oblique plot reference to the tremendous silent film The Man Who Laughs (1928) starring Conrad Veidt. This 81-year-old film was part of the German Expressionist movement that began to bloom (and arguably reached full flower) with the 1920 release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, also starring Veidt, who is unforgettable as the sinister somnambulist Cesare. As The Man Who Laughs, Veidt's horribly scarred face served as the inspiration for Batman's archenemy The Joker.

Veidt fled his native Germany for the United States when the Nazis seized power. In one of life's inevitable ironies, the German actor would gain his greatest fame stateside playing villainous Nazis, none more memorable than Maj. Strasser in Casablanca (1942). Bogart's Rick Blaine got the drop on Strasser and shot him dead when the vile SS Officer refused to put down the phone at the film's climax, prompting Claude Rains' immortal line, "round up the usual suspects."

History recalls Veidt as a quiet, unassuming man who is believed to have self-identified as Jewish on Nazi questionnaires as an act of protest. There is no record to show Veidt himself was a Jew. Yet as Maj. Strasser and in a dozen more menacing roles, the great actor practically oozed malevolence.

Veidt died the year after Casablanca was released, collapsing from a heart attack while playing golf in Los Angeles, less than 3 months after his 50th birthday.

As a star in two of the greatest films of the silent era -- Caligari and Man Who Laughs -- Veidt's place in cinema history is secure. As the catalyst driving the plot in Casablanca, he is immortal.

Veidt appeared in more than 100 films. You should see them.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic review about Veidt. :) I also read somewhere that the Nazi's almost begged him to be in their propaganda films but of course he did absolutely everything to defy them as you know.


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