Synopsis: One of America’s favorite films of all time. This classic romantic drama stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman with an excellent supporting cast in a story of love, war, betrayal and sacrifice.
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman light up the screen as Rick and Ilsa, former lovers briefly reunited in the chaos of war. He is a world-weary nightclub owner who “sticks his neck out for nobody” and she, a beautiful woman fleeing the Nazis with her Resistance-hero husband. Only Rick can help the pair escape…and only if Ilsa can reawaken the idealism she killed in him when she left him long ago.
Winner of three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Casablanca is America’s most popular and beloved movie.
eyelights: Rick Blaine. Victor Laszlo. its black and white cinematography.
eyesores: its poor rear projection. its black and white morality.
“We’ll always have Paris”
1942’s ‘Casablanca’ is one of the grand classics of American cinema. But it wasn’t initially received that way: While it was a hit, it’s really over the ensuing years that it grew in the public consciousness and became lauded as one of the greatest films of all time. Having said this, whether one agrees or not, it is without a doubt a terrific film from start to finish.
Set in Casablanca, on the Moroccan coast, in 1941, it revolves around Rick’s Café Américain, a popular local watering hole that attracts all manners of characters wheeling and dealing escape routes to the then-neutral United States – all under the watchful eye of the local French prefect and the growing pressure of German officials eager to prevent them.
Rick is played by Humphrey Bogart. He’s a surly, pragmatic, but principled character, who’s been hiding in Casablanca ever since leaving Paris after the occupation. He’s well-respected because he doesn’t take sides (“I don’t stick my neck out for nobody”, he states). What we don’t initially understand is that he left more than just Paris when he left France.
What he left behind was his heart: wounded from a passionate love affair that ended abruptly and inexplicably, he is faced to confront his feelings when Ilsa, the woman he loved, passes by Casablanca with her husband, Victor Laszlo, a political refugee, in an attempt to secure a pass to the United States. Now he must reconsider his feelings and his loyalties.
I’m not sure if ‘Casablanca’ is considered a romantic drama in the proper sense, but I included it in my string of Valentine’s Day viewings because romance is at the heart of the matter – even if war and politics are initially the most apparent threads. In the end, the picture is a tragic love affair, with Rick, Ilsa and Victor at its center; the war is just context.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to label the picture “one of the greatest of all time”, it’s certainly a classic and I’m a big fan; I think I like it more with each viewing (although, admittedly, I’ve only seen it thrice thus far). The story is brilliant, the dialogues are sharp, the performances are spot on, the pace is terrific, the tone is superb and it looks damned good.
What I like most are the characters fo Rick and Victor. While I find ‘Casablanca’ a bit simplistic in its portrayal of good and evil (the Nazis are Evil, the French are players, the Americans have the potential for good, even though “they’re asleep all over America”), this is hardly surprising given the period, which saw a lot of overt patriotism and criticism.
Rick and Victor, however, are really classy characters in a sea of sleaze and underhandedness.
Rick may be damaged goods, and he is detached, but he retains enough honour to do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself, as evidenced by his assistance of the young couple. Knowing that the girl was about to sleep with the prefect to get her boyfriend out, he allowed them to win big in his casino so that they could afford to buy a pass instead.
He also did right by Ilsa, even though she broke his heart, even though he was losing her to his rival. Knowing how much she loved Victor and how much Victor needed her, he arranged for them to leave together – although he gave the illusion of making a play for her so that his actions wouldn’t attract as much attention. I was impressed with gentlemanly behaviour.
Similarly, Victor is an honourable character. A classic hero, he has fought with and for the resistance from the onset and in many countries, never turning his back on a fight or giving up under pressure – even finding himself in a concentration camp for his efforts. He never gave the enemy any information and he also never left Ilsa behind, despite the danger to himself.
He’s a pure white knight, an instantly likeable character, even if he’s also an unlikely one – are there really such purely good people in any war? Nevertheless, he’s the kind of hero we don’t see anymore and that is sorely lacking in our culture: someone to look up to, to model one’s self after. We may fail in becoming Victor, but we should all strive to be like him.
Ilsa, meanwhile, is just a cookie-cutter love interest. She got swept up in a romance with Rick after believing Victor dead, and is torn between them. But she displays nothing particularly special other than an extreme loyalty to Victor, irrespective of her feelings for Rick. Otherwise, she’s just a typically lovely creature to look at, all soft-lit and pristinely posed.
Beyond the two main male characters, the other thing that really impresses me about ‘Casablanca’ is the first act, which takes place entirely in ‘Rick’s Café Américain’. It may not seem impressive, but I am amazed that the first 36 minutes all take place in one joint and consists strictly of exposition and various banter – yet still manages to be entirely engrossing.
The whole thing breezes by, even though it’s all about setting the stage (helping us fully understand the context and the desperation that people experience in Casablanca), introducing all the players, whom we’re allowed to simmer with a while, and putting all the pieces in place. There’s only the briefest glimpse of action while all the suspense is steadily being built.
The rest of the picture is more run of the mill, with a second act that explores Rick and Ilsa’s past and forces them to confront each other, and the third act being about various self-sacrifices and getting Victor and Ilsa out of the country. But it’s all delivered extremely well, even as it doesn’t delve into the same level of complexity, so it holds up anyway.
Where it stumbles a little bit are in its heavy-handed messaging, like having the French sing “La Marseillaise” to drown out the German sing-along (which is too obvious a “moment” for my taste) and in trying to make us believe that Rick would hide highly-sought and valuable papers right in the middle of the bar in full sight – but no one sees him do it or finds them.
Still, ultimately, ‘Casablanca’ is a superb motion picture. Whether one sees it as a war-time drama, a heartbreaking romance or even a tension-filled suspense, it has a little bit for everyone. I can hardly imagine anyone disliking it, even if its pace is slow by today’s standards. And, as far as love stories go, it features one of the most compelling ones ever.
Date of viewing: January 4, 2016
Casablanca is a wonderful example of timing and the effect of zeitgeist. Warners didn’t fashion it as one of their top productions. The whole thing was shot and edited in a couple of weeks! But it hit theaters at the beginning of American involvement in WW2, and it’s full of patriotic sacrifice focused on the central romantic triangle. When released, it succeeded by being effective, attractive propaganda (with a hit song). Over the decades since, the love story (as opposed to the war) became the point of greater interest for audiences.