Forgive me for saying so, all ye Movie Gods and lovers of “the classics,” but I must approach “Casablanca”, the legendary film whose lines are often quoted to the point of annoyance, in the same spirit as I approached “Citizen Kane.” That is, with great caution and plenty of opportunity to return should I fail to finish my viewing in one sitting. (It took me four to finish “Citizen Kane.”) So sue me, I’m a child of the ’90s, born and bred on color TV, weaned on MTV trash, and just a letter short of (and a few years too old for) belonging in the “Y me?” generation. Would a film like “Casablanca,” with its traditional sensibilities and (gasp!) black-and-white tone, appeal to me? Let’s see, shall we?
It’s World War II (circa 1942) and the Germans have made mincemeat of the French with hardly a shot fired, but still allow them to run Casablanca, Morocco, the home to “Rick’s”, a saloon owned by world-weary traveler Rick (Humphrey Bogart). The Germans, led by Gestapo Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) are in town to lay in wait for freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who has been printing anti-German propaganda. Laszlo is trying to get to America with his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when the couple steps into “Rick’s”. We soon learn that Rick and Ilsa have a history — they were lovers in Paris before the occupation and when Ilsa thought her husband was dead.
By a miracle of coincidence only possible in movies, Rick gets possession of a “letter of transit” that allows anyone to leave Casablanca for America. It’s this letter that Laszlo needs to escape, but of course seeing Ilsa with Laszlo doesn’t exactly make Rick want to give up the letter freely. It seems that Ilsa had run out on Rick when they were in Paris, and he’s still holding a grudge. Will the stoic Rick, with his motto of “never stick your neck out for anybody”, have a change of heart and save the husband of the only woman who has ever broken his heart? Is the Pope Catholic?
“We’ll always have Paris,” Rick says to Ilsa just before she and her husband flies off into the clouds. Oops, spoiled the surprise! Well, not really, since the scene has been done countless times in other movies, and even I knew how “Casablanca” would end before I saw it, and I had never seen a full scene of “Casablanca” before in my life. The film has had over 60 years to gestate in the public arena, and as a result most people knows how it ends.
“Casablanca” is very romantic, the dialogue is very peppy and clever, and Bogart is the consummate leading man: tough on the outside, but soft on the inside. Bogart’s Rick is very much the anti-hero — prone to petty jealousy, and yet always willing to do “the right thing” at all the right times. Rick is the kind of man that could survive in today’s world. Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa is a likeable heroine — faithful and strong-willed. I liked both of the leads and can easily see how their characters have become so idolized over the years. They’re both very well-realized, and a lot of attention has been paid to their characterization.
The supporting players, on the other hand, belong in 1942. Take Dooley Wilson’s Sam, who should really have an additional two letters added to his name (the two letters are “b” and “o” if you were wondering) because he’s the grinning dummy that blacks were stereotyped as being back then. There’s nothing very distinguished or particularly manly about the character, reminding everyone that America had a long way to go back in 1942. Claude Rains’ French Captain Renault, on the other hand, is very much the type of French many of us know and loathe — cunning and deceitful, salacious and opportunistic, and always “blowing with the wind” instead of taking a stand. (Gee, not much has changed, has it?) Even Renault’s sudden change of heart toward the end, when he allows Bogart to murder Strasser, reinforces the notion that he has no backbone.
The Germans in “Casablanca” are obviously written without hindsight as to the true nature of Nazi Germany. The Germans are shown to be somewhat buffoonish. Take the whole mess with the “letters of transit”. The Germans obviously control Casablanca, and all it would take is a phone call to the airport to order the planes not to accept any “letters of transit” with Laszlo’s name on it. Or give them photos of Laszlo and tell them not to fly the guy out of town. Or post some Germans at the airport and order them to arrest Laszlo on sight. Or, how about this, genius? Arrest Laszlo immediately when he first arrives, instead of letting him run around Casablanca trying to find a way out in the first place? Their concern for “international law” certainly gives them more credit than they actually deserves. In truth, “Casablanca” treats the Nazis way too generously. It also has a bad habit of referring to the “concentration camps” as if they were Holiday retreats, but that’s another story.
If you were to ignore the above points, “Casablanca” is a terrifically entertaining movie with a great performance by Bogart. Although it does take a while to get used to the overly dramatic acting and the hurried dialogue delivery by everyone involved. Also, director Michael Curtiz is no Orson Welles. The film is simplistic in terms of camerawork, but it is briskly paced and the running length seems to fly by. The screenplay, with its impressive list of often-repeated lines, is certainly one for the ages, even if many of its plot points are beyond weak. Then again, hindsight is 20-20.
FYI: I am still unclear why Bogart’s Rick keeps saying to Bergman’s Ilsa, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It makes a great sound byte, but what the heck does it mean, exactly?
Michael Curtiz (director) / Joan Alison, Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch (screenplay)
CAST: Humphrey Bogart …. Richard “Rick” Blaine
Ingrid Bergman …. Ilsa Lund Laszlo
Paul Henreid …. Victor Laszlo
Claude Rains …. Captain Louis Renault