Casablanca (1942) – Everyone comes to Rick’s…

Casablanca, shit.  It’s always a daunting prospect reviewing an established classic, a movie so globally loved and revered.  Written about countless times before, do you attempt to approach it from a fresh angle, or just soldier on and attempt to do it justice?

The British Film Institute (BFI) recently made headlines with the announcement that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo had finally usurped Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as the number one film of all time.  Casablanca didn’t make the top Fifty.

The key word here is Film.  Film suggests something set in celluloid, an art form to examine and revere from a scholarly distance, whereas the term Movie suggests a cinematic experience we get up close and personal to, something that Moves us.

In that respect, I view Citizen Kane as something akin to Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, a towering, chilly mausoleum to Welles’ egotistical, vainglorious talent.  It is easy to see why Citizen Kane has dominated most polls as the best film ever made for so long, but it lacks heart.

Similarly, Vertigo is a testament to Hitchcock’s ability to transfer his own kinks, whims and fetishes to the audience.  Vertigo has more heart than Citizen Kane, and James Stewart, given free reign to his dark side under Hitchcock’s gaze, has more heart than Welles’ domineering, lost soul Kane, who almost seems an afterthought to Welles the Director’s box of techniques.  But it is the dark side of the heart.

Citizen Kane and Vertigo are all about the Director.  Casablanca, ably but unobtrusively directed by Michael Curtiz, is all about experience, actors, story, atmosphere, screenplay, and music.  Adapted from an unproduced screenplay entitled Everyone Comes to Rick’s, it is a rich tapestry of talents and influences.

I watched Casablanca for perhaps the fifteenth time before starting this review with my fiancee, a woman so notoriously nit-picky when watching movies her criticisms border on the irrelevant: vast swathes of a flick’s plot will be lost as she challenges Hugh Grant’s choice of footwear.  She’d seen Casablanca with me before, but this was perhaps the first time she’d watched it, and the whole film passed without comment.

What is so special about Casablanca, she asked me afterwards?

It’s easy to break down.  Casablanca is a timeless blend of wartime intrigue and romance, centered around Humphrey Bogart’s aura of silver screen icon.  It is a generous movie about self-sacrifice and love, bolstered by a robust, witty screenplay.

Aside from some dated model work and back projection, it feels amazingly contemporary for a movie Seventy years old.  It looks beautiful, set in an exotic location, and the subtly noirish cinematography establishing Rick’s as one of the coolest, sensual locations on film.  Perhaps above all, the cast of characters are indelibly well drawn, from the headliners all the way down to those with only one or two lines.

In case you’ve read this far without knowing Casablanca’s storyline: 1941, refugees fleeing the Nazi’s seemingly unstoppable progress across Europe wash up in Vichy regulated Casablanca, seeking a ticket out to the free world, America.

Two German couriers carrying non-rescindable letters of transit are murdered, and the MacGuffinish tickets to the States wind up in the hands of Rick (Bogart), the heartbroken, world-weary proprietor of Rick’s Cafe Americain.

Collaborating with the Nazis, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) stages the capture of the courier’s murderer, Ugarte (Peter Lorre), for the benefit of reptillian Major Heinreich Strasser (Conrad Veidt).  Strasser is in town to sample the nightlife and make sure resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) doesn’t get to America and continue his work.

There’s a snag: Laszlo rolls up at Rick’s for a rendezvous with Ugarte accompanied by Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a transcendentally beautiful woman Rick had a whirlwind romance with a few years before in Paris.  Bitter and angry, Rick is in no mood to hand over his golden ticket just for the sake of the fight against the Nazis…

Casablanca was Bogart’s first major romantic lead, after an early career playing mainly gangsters and hoodlums, losing most of the choice roles to established studio stars like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft.

His breakthrough came the year before with High Sierra and John Huston’s landmark detective thriller, The Maltese Falcon.  Huston’s adaptation of Dashiel Hammett’s novel was vital in establishing the motifs of what we now recognize as film noir, and Bogart’s portrayal of shady sleuth Sam Spade foreshadowed many of the character traits that would become classic Bogie.  A hard-boiled, shrewd operator whose motives aren’t always obvious, who uses his cynical, sneering sense of humor as a shield to protect a noble, wounded soul.

The Maltese Falcon is also an important precursor to Casablanca because it provided two of the film’s most memorable supporting characters.  Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet only adapt their performances slightly from film to film.

Lorre’s Senor Ugarte in Casablanca is the effeminate, slippery, devious little murderer of the German couriers, who shares a few memorable scenes with Rick at the beginning of the film.

Greenstreet plays Rick’s business rival and friend, Signor Ferrari, the sinister, eloquent proprietor of the Blue Parrot.  Stage veteran Greenstreet, who made his first screen appearance in The Maltese Falcon at the age of sixty-one, uses his daunting frame and sibilant delivery to great effect as Ferrari.

Bergman lights up the screen as Ilsa Lund, although her part is the most underwritten of all the major players.  She does most of her best work with her eyes, which are almost unbearable to watch as they continually glitter with tears.

She can do so much without externalizing or being melodramatic – watch her face cloud over as Rick’s loyal friend and piano player Sam relents and sings As Time Goes By.  Or see the love, pride and resolve in her eyes as Laszlo leads the denizens of Rick’s in a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise.

Much of the film’s best dialogue comes during the conversations between Rick and the amoral, corrupt Vichy Captain Renault.  Renault, like Ugarte, is another faintly camp guy who enjoys hanging around with the ultra-masculine Rick.  As Renault puts it in one scene: “If I were a woman, I were not around, I would be in love with Rick.”

Rains makes the most of a top billing as the charismatic, charming Renault, and relishes most of the film’s best lines.  Rains’ performance is so enjoyable it is easy to forget just how ruthless and amoral Renault actually is – here is a man who enjoys playing with the lives of refugees coming through Casablanca, and extorting sexual favours out of young women desperate to get to America.

Conrad Veidt radiates menacing courteousness as Major Strasser, and Paul Henreid is excellent as Laszlo.  Throughout the decades, Laszlo received bad press as being a rather dull character, but I think Henreid manages to convince as a man of unshakeable resolve and fine instinct.  OK, he’s hardly the most cheerful character on-screen, but this is a guy leading a resistance movement and has enjoyed the Gestapo’s hospitality.  He’s also done porridge in a concentration camp, so I think we can forgive him for not being a barrel of laughs.

Apart from the main players, the whole cast create such memorable impressions – Dooley Wilson as the devoted Sam.  S.Z Sakall as the waiter, Carl, and Leonid Kinskey as the excitable Russian bartender.  Joy Page as the beautiful young Bulgarian refugee prepared to sleep with Renault in order to get herself and her husband to safety.

Casablanca plays fast and has aged amazingly well.  Compare it to the similarly themed Brief Encounter.  David Lean’s much-loved doomed romance, released three years later, seems far more dated than Casablanca.

Set before the war, Brief Encounter was dated before it was even released – set in a world that didn’t exist anymore, so was already a period piece.  Its tale of almost-adultery, of furtive glances over cups of tea and illicit hand holding at afternoon matinees seems hopelessly twee and ancient these days.  It also seems horribly classbound, set in England before the world came to England’s shores.

Casablanca, with the Brits conspicuously absent, is a largely classless environment, and the central love triangle is far more well-balanced.  Instead of making Laszlo an innocent, cuckolded sap, he’s a man of the world.  He understands Rick and Ilsa’s motives, and realizes they both have a legitimate claim to her heart.

He also can live with the idea she probably slept with Rick to try getting the transit papers off him – as Rick explains: “She did her best to convince me she was still in love with me but that was over long ago. For your sake she pretended it wasn’t and I let her pretend.”

The love triangle’s balance is important, as Casablanca is often derided as a propaganda film.  It is necessary for Rick, Ilsa and Victor to be on the same page at the end.  I never got the propaganda aspect until my most recent viewing.

Then I realized, with the US joining the war the previous year, that Rick could be read as a reluctant America, sticking his neck out for no-one, until the combined efforts against the Nazis of the French, Norwegian, Czechoslovakians, Russians, Bulgarians and others bring him back to the fight.  As Laszlo finally says, “This time I know our side will win.”

Casablanca is a Great movie, and Casablanca is also a Good movie, in the purest sense of the word.  I return to it whenever I feel low and need reassurance.  I go back for the sparkling dialogue and feel joyed by the warm nobility of its characters.  All the major players, apart from Ugarte and Strasser, rouse themselves from their own tribulations to make good.

I am buoyed by the relationships in the movie, and delight in the outcome, which each time I see it, am convinced is the right one.  The relationships feel right and real, and although the cynic in me raises an eyebrow at some of the cornier lines: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”, the cumulative effect of the words coming from these mouths build something believable and true.

Lastly, I return to Casablanca for its atmosphere and the sheer celluloid thrill of the silverscreen.  As I have written before, I’m sure there are aliens in Star Wars Mos Eisley cantina, sitting around talking about movies, saying to each other: “Shit, if I ever get chance to swing by Earth, I’m going to Rick’s”.  Although it is about real things and real relationships, it’s also about the joy of cinema, and it is two hours off from the world, hanging out in one of the coolest locations on film.

Rick’s also reminds me of Prospero’s Ball from Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death: a plague of war ravages the world outside, and the people inside the walls lose themselves in a whirl of smoke, partying, flirting, gambling and champagne cocktails.  Unlike Prospero’s ball, however, when the party ends and the propellers of the plane taking Victor and Ilsa away fire up, Casablanca is only full of hope and life.

About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and two children.

Posted on 08/09/2012, in C, Drama, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Reviews, Romance, War and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Wonderful write-up! I think you did manage to put a fresh spin on a movie that’s been reviewed countless time.

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