Should I Watch..? 'Casablanca'
What's The Big Deal?
Casablanca is a romantic drama film released in 1942 and is based on the then-unproduced play "Everybody Comes To Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains and concerns a bar owner having to choose between his love for a woman or helping a Resistance leader escape the threat of the Nazis during World War 2. Despite nobody expected the film to become a hit, the film was a modest hit during its initial run and went on to win three Academy Awards. Over time, its reputation grew in stature and today it is commonly regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Its screenplay is often hailed as one of the best ever written while its characters, theme music and dialogue remain iconic and instantly recognizable.
What's It About?
It's December 1941 and American ex-pat Rick Blaine is the owner of the hottest joint in the city of Casablanca, Morocco. "Rick's Café Américain" is host to a variety of individuals and nationalities from the Vichy French and German officials to refugees fleeing the war in Europe for the safety of the United States - as well as unscrupulous types preying on them. Rick professes to be neutral although he has history in conflicts he'd rather forget about. One day, petty crook Ugarte shows up at Rick's with "papers of transit" obtained from two murdered Nazi officers. The papers allow free, unrestricted transport across Nazi-controlled Europe and Ugarte allows Rick to store them so Ugarte can sell them later. However, Ugarte is arrested by Vichy official Captain Louis Renault before he can make his contact.
After the drama of Ugarte's arrest and subsequent death in custody, Rick's former lover Ilsa Lund arrives at Rick's together with her husband, fugitive Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo. Ilsa and Victor have come to secure Ugarte's papers so that they can escape to America to continue Victor's work but Rick holds much bitterness towards Ilsa after she disappeared on him back in Paris. With Nazi officer Major Heinrich Strasser sent to stop Victor, Rick finds himself having to make an uncomfortable choice...
70th Anniversary Trailer
Capt. Louis Renault
Maj. Heinrich Strasser
Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein & Howard Koch *
Release Date (USA)
23rd January, 1943
Drama, Romance, War
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor (Bogart), Best Supporting Actor (Raines), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Music
What's to Like?
It's hard to know where to begin with a film that has transcended the medium of cinema in the way Casablanca has over the years. Whether it's the unforgettable "As Time Goes By" or Bogart's bitter ruminations on the likelihood of her stumbling into his gin joint, it all makes the movie an easy one to make assumptions about. The very act of watching the movie is all it takes to dispel any preconceptions. From the level of performance from every single cast member to the deep and multi-layered story and the dramatic conclusion on a foggy airfield, the film remains an essential watch for anyone with even a passing interest in cinema as well as anyone looking for a brilliant weepie.
Bogart, somewhat playing against type as a purely romantic lead, does a fantastic job of playing both the cynical and roguish bar owner as well as melting away in a pool of repressed memories about arguably the best days of his life. And who can blame him when Bergman shines like an angel's halo opposite him, clearly torn between her heart's desire and her sworn duty? But the beauty of Casablanca is that you get a sense that this is one heart-breaking story among millions - the sense of desperation and patriotism is palpable on screen with nearly all the cast experiencing that same urge to escape the spread of Nazi Germany across Europe. Technically, the film is as solid as its place in history - despite the limitations of filming during war-time, you never find yourself thinking that the whole thing was shot on the west coast of the US. It all looks remarkably authentic for the time.
- A large number of the cast were genuine refugees themselves, fleeing from Germany and the rest of Europe from persecution by the Nazis. During the 'duel of the anthems' sequence, many of them had tears in their eyes due to emotions running high.
- Curtiz' Hungarian accent caused problems on the set. After asking a prop man for a "poodle" for one scene, the prop man disappeared and returned later with the small dog. Presenting it to the director, Curtiz screamed "A poodle! A poodle of water!"
- The famous "letters of transit" did not exist in real life, they were an invention for the stage production. Playwright Joan Alison always expected someone to question her about them but no-one ever did.
What's Not to Like?
There is a colorized version in existence although due to the negative reception it received when it premiered, I suspect that one will have a job on their hands getting hold of it. Don't bother - the film stands well enough in its original monochrome with lighting used with exquisite skill. As Bogart's son Stephen remarked, "If you're going to colorize "Casablanca", why not put arms on the Venus De Milo?"
By today's standards of cinema, the film itself is quite tame. The romance between Rick and Ilsa is positively quaint and for a film set in war-time, conflict was settled with song instead of bullets and hand grenades. These days, the film would probably have a couple of cheap, titillating bedroom scenes as well as ending on a dramatic shoot-out. Personally, I can't think of anything worse - among the many reasons why this iconic film hasn't and should never be remade is that a film like this wouldn't get made today. It's the very essence of bottled lightning - a film produced by real talents unusually focused on the task in hand, possibly with the help of planetary alignment (I'm kidding but you know what I mean).
Should I Watch It?
I certainly intend to watch it again, Sam... Casablanca is less of a film and more of a cinematic landmark like Citizen Kane, Metropolis or Star Wars. It deserves its place in history due to an unbelievably brilliant screenplay, career performances from Bogart and Bergman and the genuine sadness reflected in the eyes of the supporting cast giving the film even more poignancy. To find fault in this film is like criticizing Leonardo da Vinci for not quite getting the smile right on The Mona Lisa.
Great For: lovers of cinema, hopeless romantics, ex-pat Americans
Not So Great For: action lovers, fans of the slasher genre, easily bored teenagers
What Else Should I Watch?
It's actually tricky to think of any other films which I fell hopelessly in love with like I did with Casablanca. Probably the only other film I loved more was Frank Capra's shamelessly schmaltzy It's A Wonderful Life and to be honest, this was for purely personal reasons. Citizen Kane is another one of those films that actually challenged my ideas about what a film could even achieve - it is a genuine masterpiece of cinema, a cast-iron testament to the inventive genius of Orson Welles.
Bogart had a enviable career, starring in so many classic movies - The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The African Queen, Key Largo... the list goes on. His achievements and stature continue to remain impressive. He was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars three times, winning in 1951 for The African Queen and was voted the greatest male star of American cinema by the American Film Institute in 1999, forty-two years after his death at the untimely age of just 57 in 1957.
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© 2016 Benjamin Cox