Movies That Kick My Ass
No. 8: Casablanca
How do I write about Casablanca without repeating what’s already been said a hundred times by far better writers and far more insightful students of film? This is one of the most revered works of American cinema; it’s been praised so much, for so long, that it’s impossible to review without lapsing into cliché. It’s one of those few films that is unknowingly referenced by people who have never seen it. Phrases now a part of our popular culture — “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “He’s just like any other man, only more so,” “Round up the usual suspects,” “Play it again, Sam,” “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” — are spoken here for the first time by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains.
What in the hell’s so great about this movie, anyway? That cast is a good place to start. Humphrey Bogart was already a star when he made Casablanca, but it was his role as Rick Blaine that made him a legend. He’d made great films already — High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, most notably — but it was Casablanca that elevated him to Hollywood royalty. Afterwards came more legendary roles in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, and The African Queen, but he’ll always first and foremost be Rick, the tormented nightclub owner who gives up his true love for a greater good.
As good as Bogart is, he’s not alone. Ingrid Bergman, in the first great role of her career, plays Ilsa as such an intriguing blend of strength and vulnerability (one minute she’s holding a gun on Rick, the next she’s begging him to “do the thinking for both of us!”) that we understand why Rick is so torn-up over her. Claude Rains, who had been a star since his breakout leading role in James Whale’s The Invisible Man in 1933, gives Nazi collaborator Captain Renault the perfect balance of comedy and pathos — funny, but not a caricature. The rest of the cast is a roll call of dependable supporting players — Sydney Greenstreet as black market kingpin Ferrari, Peter Lorre doing his thing as Ugarte, the great German star Conrad Veidt (The Thief of Baghdad, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in his next-to-last film, Dooley Wilson as Sam, Rick’s piano player and most loyal friend.
The cast has been applauded endlessly for the last sixty years, and deservedly so, but no small amount of credit should also go to the director, Michael Curtiz. Curtiz is rarely mentioned among the giants of his era, but he still managed to get his name in the credits of some of the best and most popular films made in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Christmas, King Creole, and The Comancheros starring John Wayne. Making Curtiz’s career even more remarkable is the fact that he worked during the studio era, when most directors were hired to turn out a product, not a work of art, and didn’t have the creative freedom of the Scorseses or Altman’s that would succeed them.
Casablanca was made by talented people doing the best work of their careers, but what makes it such an enduring and beloved classic is the story (in that vein, I can’t fail to mention the Epsteins, Julius and Philip, reliable screenwriters of the era with Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace also to their credit, who adapted the script from the play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”). It’s a story about sacrifice, about heroism, but not in the obvious ways. Rick Blaine is courageous, but he is a new kind of hero — his conflict, like his sacrifice, is internal. His defining moment comes not when he double-crosses Capt. Renault or shoots Major Strasser, but when he tells Ilsa to get on that plane with her husband, to forget their love and fight for something more important with Victor Laszlo.
Rick isn’t John Wayne. He doesn’t know what he should do, he isn’t always sure of himself. He is a leader, certainly, though sometimes reluctantly; he is a go-to guy for many in the town of Casablanca. And he has some sense of morality and justice (we are told often of his past attraction to lost causes). His strength does not lie in his certainty or his steadfast resistance to temptation, but in his willingness to confront and overcome his demons. He is a hero unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. When Ilsa abandons him at the train station the day they were to flee Paris together, he is obviously crushed; when she reappears at his bar in Casablanca on the arm of her legendary husband, he is wracked by anguish and regret; when he loses Ilsa again, this time willingly, we recognize it as a noble sacrifice because we have seen what this woman means to him.
The presence of Ilsa’s husband Laszlo would have been a perfunctory plot device in a lesser film, but in Casablanca his character is allowed to display heroism of a different type than Rick. While Bogart’s Rick is the quiet, flawed, more modern hero, Paul Henreid’s Laszlo is the classic hero, the pillar of strength, the symbol of the cause, the good man confronting evil. He isn’t just an obstacle between Rick and Ilsa; he is an admirable character in his own right, which makes Rick’s conflict even more agonizing. Can he compete with a man like Victor Laszlo? Should he?
When we discussed this film in class last week, the only real criticism Professor Clemens could cite was the lack of realism in certain elements of the plot — for instance the Nazis and their French collaborators straining to find excuses to shut down Rick’s and arrest Laszlo, when in reality they would need no such excuse. Sure, a valid observation, but isn’t it telling that we have to look outside the film to find something negative to say? Casablanca might be that rarest cinematic gem: the perfect film. It has everything we want from our movies: romance, adventure, social relevance, brilliant acting and virtuoso filmmaking. And it has stood the test of time — that six decade continuous standing ovation is well deserved. Really, what is there to complain about? For fuck’s sake — it’s Casablanca.