orgive 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
"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?