Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Can any writer of any stripe say anything about Casablanca that you as a citizen of the world don’t already know (especially if you’re American)? After seventy years, we know the movie as an immobile tradition that transcends mere film scholarship or fandom and is in fact the property of an extended and still luminous cultural moment. Throngs of people who wouldn’t typically see or care about a black & white Warner Bros. film from 1942 know this one by heart. That’s appropriate, indeed, to its storied origin as “just another” studio project that happened to feature such a combination of miraculous elements falling together in perfect complement that it became an accidental classic. Its dialogue has entered the collective subconscious like something Biblical or Shakespearean. There are probably some people who don’t like it, probably some who prefer To Have and Have Not and a few who are just bloody contrarian, but it seems fair to state that no American movie has enjoyed such long-lasting and undiminished appeal to such a broad range of audiences. As of now, there’s no sign that this will change — this is still a place we wish to visit constantly.
The curiously laconic pacing, neatly matching the casual attitudes of its suave lead character Rick (Humphrey Bogart’s signature role), is part of the trick; Casablanca, despite its ruthless economy (barely passing 100 minutes), takes just enough time to set up its world, the world of sweltering North Africa and a bar where Things Happen that’s a center of entertainment and joyous, paranoid dancing atop the War’s volcano, that it seems one we could crawl into and live in, and then engage in all of the shady profiling and romantic dealings and treacherous excitement with everyone else. For a studio product, it possesses an astounding sense of time and place, perhaps because in 1942 the setting was very close to Now — to the extent that it captures on celluloid an electric and daunting mood, the lingering shadows and fired-up resistance of its time, during which the future of the world was quite seriously up in the air. Of all other major Hollywood movies of the classic period, only Gone with the Wind transcends its artificiality this well.
One wonders the point of summarizing a film that everyone has seen, but to stress the intelligence and care of the Epstein twins’ screenplay, it seems necessary. In Morocco, where French refugees gravitate on their way to America, a politically neutral club owner, Rick, with cronies and black marketers and police always circling, is forced to commit himself either to a great love or a cause when the beautiful Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman, the screen’s finest actress at her best) breezes without warning back into his life. The couple had been together in Paris and intended to leave together, but she disappeared, thus melting Rick’s stoic heart — now he’s tasked with helping her heroic Free French husband, a concentration camp escapee, move onward to America and out from under Nazi noses, but in the meantime his feelings for Ilsa remain intense. The tale must finally end with a mythological, tearjerking, and romantically devastating instance of becoming the Bigger Man… the most famous and beloved cuckold sequence in film history. It looks like Bogart’s done for when he helps the couple get away, but then — round up the usual suspects, and a beautiful friendship, and you know all of it. None of this gets at the dialogue, of course, almost overflowing with character insight, wit and genuine affection, and actual laughs that don’t seem to have aged at all — nor has the rest of the film, except in the finest fermented way.
The screenplay’s nearly foolproof; across its entire expanse, almost no line feels false. The writing would be enough to justify it as a significant piece of cinematic history if nothing else — but fortunately, Michael Curtiz was brought in as director, and he turns this into a work of artful, sensual and vibrant popular entertainment. One of the most underrated “assembly line” directors, Curtiz’s sense of camera placement and composition is virtually flawless, his sense of cinematic subjectivity and reflection of his characters’ inner world in their surroundings worthy of Alfred Hitchcock; auteurists should have a field day with his symmetrical framing of his characters with inanimate objects, his surreal and dreamlike treatment of Ingrid Bergman as a beacon of light, the stylish cutting within and between sequences so influential it seems modern, the illusion of falling-together naturalism in the scenes at Rick’s starkly set apart from the flowery, tortured ache of the love scenes. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson (All Quiet on the Western Front) drenches the outdoors in fog and rain and cloud-cover, the indoors in smoke and shadow; the ambiance is consistently irresistible, helped along by the great Max Steiner’s tremendous score. (He didn’t write “As Time Goes By,” a sentimental signature of hidden emotional power; it predated the film by a decade but became forever iconic as sung by Dooley Wilson’s Sam here).
With almost every significant role filled by some legend or another, save the unfortunate Paul Henreid as the dullard straight man, Casablanca enjoys one of the finest casts in a Hollywood feature — another almost coincidental aspect that accumulates into its legend. The leads are an obvious boon — Bogart’s amoral but good-hearted hero is the blueprint for a gazillion movie loner misfits whose legacy is finally to just do the right thing; Bergman would give her greatest performance for Notorious four years later, but she lights up every moment with her sophisticated, sad smile and lovelorn resignation. The pair’s chemistry is stunning, but so is Bogart’s chemistry with most everyone. Bogart’s fellow Maltese Falcon alumni Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre figure in surprisingly complex bit parts, while Dooley Wilson as nightclub pianist — and Bogart pal — Sam and Claude Rains as a police captain with mixed sympathies each threaten to steal the film, Rains in particular setting afire his lively part with a sense of delight and subversion. Not only is there the rampant and not at all mocked homoeroticism of his character and his relationship to Rick, he gleefully fills a role full of shades of gray seldom seen in big American movies of the time. Not a hero and not a villain, cuddly and finally on our side but not altogether sympathetic, his is honestly the performance of the picture and underlines how underappreciated and versatile Rains really was.
All these technical rundowns of what makes Casablanca don’t really amount to a hill of beans, of course; the measure of everything is what the thing makes us feel. As in so many of the best Warner Bros. films of the era, a mirror is held up — none of us are caught in Casablanca trying to get out, but an awful lot of us are familiar with the unthinking violence and brutality of a hesitation to speak out and of a compulsion to “stick our necks out for no one” and thus keep our hearts protected. And even more of us know the feeling of a lost love that lingers, the pain lashing out anew when that face appears again, the memory of some place and time not so long ago but seemingly another lifetime at once lifting us up and crushing us. By the end the film’s about us; we cry for the couples who can never be, the greater-good maturity of it all, the need to take one for the team and to join in a human effort and mourn the premature growing up a generation must now partake in, and we congratulate ourselves because of the bittersweet small triumph of good over evil here. Our hearts are reflected on the screen in a torrential downpour, a tearful goodbye, massive icons of spinning propellers and departing flights, and that last calm expression of solidarity. We mourn Rick’s loss and celebrate his acquiescence in this strange small tribute to the person whom we’d like to be. We wax nostalgic with this film for a time when we all collectively seemed to be on the right side of something and marvel at how the more faroff that time becomes, the better the movie seems to get. Why is that? Who knows? Who cares? Try watching it again and in no time you’ll be too captivated — still! — to figure it out.