CASABLANCA THE SERIES:
ONE OUT OF FIVE
WHO AM I KILLING
AIRDATE: APRIL 10, 1983
And here we go, reviewing the first of five episodes of one of the most ill-conceived and bungled concepts to bedevil American television, Casablanca: The Series. Who Am I Killing, the premiere episode, has a great title that is wasted. It has so many flaws that it slips from being a serious effort at expanding on the Casablanca legend to playing as flat-out parody. From the inclusion and altering of characters that render the original into irrelevance to some flat-out bizarre choices, Who Am I Killing and Casablanca soon become a joke only fit for laughing at how things are going so wildly out of control.
Casablanca, French Morocco, 1941. Rick Blaine (David Soul), the owner of Rick's Café Americain, finds himself entangled in a mess with stranded British entertainers in Unoccupied France. A British pilot has been shot down near Casablanca, raising suspicion from the Germans on the British in the city. All but Celia (Trisha Noble), a chanteuse who attracts the attention of Major Strasser (Patrick Horgan), who finds her enchanting. She is seen as a collaborator and worse by the British trapped in the internment camp and won't accept her food gifts. "Who am I killing?" she cries.
Soon she hears of the British pilot, and that a drug, sulfanilamide, may save him. She of course wants nothing to do with either, but Carl (Arthur Malet) has forced the issue, the Underground café maitre'd bringing the pilot to her hotel room for safety. Bad timing, as Strasser has decided to 'entertain' Celia in her hotel room. Obviously there is someone in her room, and we find...RICK, who has snuck into the room. He also has the sulfa, since he was essentially tricked by his piano player Sam (Scatman Crothers) into getting it from black marketer Ferrari (Reuven Bar-Yotam). Enraged at being beaten to the punch, Strasser orders a raid on the hotel, with French Captain Louis Renault (Hector Elizondo) forced into it. Rick and Celia manage to evade the raid, and arrange a flight for the pilot and Celia to escape.
Sadly, in their delay to get the sulfa into the plane, Celia is killed while a powerless Rick watches. The pilot does escape, and Renault and Rick discuss how the sulfa eluded Strasser and the pilot managed to escape. However was it done?
Do you know where both Who Am I Killing and Casablanca go horribly wrong (apart from the bungled concept)? It plays fast and loose with the original. Who Am I Killing is the pilot, and already it makes one big mistake by assuming we already know the characters. Rather than take the opportunity to introduce people like Rick, Renault, Sam, or anyone else, it chucks them all in, and those unaware of who they are pretty much have to figure it out for themselves.
For those who ARE aware though, Who Am I Killing makes another blunder. In the original film, Major Strasser arrives at the same time as Ilsa and Victor, but in the series, he's set up as the antagonist. This was simply a disastrous decision because it sets up both Strasser and Rick for failure. It's almost like a cartoon: every episode will have Strasser trying to find out something, like some imbecile detective, and Rick will always be one step ahead of him. Already we have a shockingly predictable scenario that will never allow for Strasser to outwit or do an end run around Blaine.
How then can you have any real sense of tension when we already know the outcome?
Why the producers didn't opt for an original origins story rather than drag Strasser into something he didn't need to be involved in I can't say. I can say that it was a dumb choice by people who simply should have known better but were frankly too lazy to try and correct.
That wasn't the worst of it. Apart from including Strasser as the antagonist, they opted to make the Russian Sasha the bartender into an American. Bless Ray Liotta, who did what he could with it, but if we were to seriously end Casablanca the series with Casablanca the movie, we'd be asking a lot of questions, like why does Strasser suggest he's never been to Casablanca when he's been there all along, or how the very American Sasha ended up with a Russian accent.
Too much vodka?
James Miller's script and Ralph Senesky's direction similar made some frightful decisions. In the former, it stretches believability that the same drug that could save the pilot's life just happens to arrive at the same time he crashes into Morocco. It also makes Strasser into a bit of an idiot: I never believed Strasser would raid an entire hotel just because he thought the singer he fancied was 'entertaining' Rick.
Senesky similarly did things that were just silly. First, he should have encouraged Soul to try for a different take on the Rick Blaine character. Soul is nowhere near the level of Humphrey Bogart, so his performance was already going to pale in comparison. However, Soul's entire performance came across as a bad (very bad) Bogart impersonation, from his voice to his mannerisms. Elizondo was also bad: speaking so softly and showing no hint of emotion or charm. Horgan was oddly too charming as Strasser to come across as a serious threat, and Bar-Yotam was too eager to please as Ferrari, as if he had been made to be the comic relief.
To add insult to injury, some scenes played like parody. There is a balcony scene between Soul and Noble that with Soul's Bogart impersonation and Noble's excessive mannerisms would be considered a spoof on the Saturday Night Live level. The music didn't help, just adding to the accidental silliness of it all.
Worse was when Rick and Celia were spiriting out the pilot (who really had nothing to do in the episode, the MacGuffin to the whole affair, or perhaps 'letters of transit', if you will). In order to blend into the darkness, Soul's Blaine is decked out all in black...save for a damn brown fedora! Seriously, the guy is wearing all black AND a BROWN FEDORA!
Did no one see how comical it looked?
Who Am I Killing was simply a disastrous way to introduce any series, let alone one that attempts to tie into a classic film. Still, Scatman Crothers' version of As Time Goes By is pretty good, so it gets an added point for that...
Two Out of Five: Master Builder's Woman