Friday, January 30, 2015

Watch This: Casablanca

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Casablanca (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz

A warning: this post does contain spoilers about Casablanca's ending.  However, considering that the final scene is one of the most famous and oft-quoted scenes in all of cinema, I'm willing to risk a few spoilers.

Casablanca is a classic.  In fact, it is probably the classic.

There are certain films that come to mind when one hears certain terms being used in reference to the movies.  For example, when I hear the word "epic," I instantly think of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and my mind fills with the image of Peter O'Toole's sun-bronzed face peering out from the folds of a white keffiyeh.  Likewise, when I hear the word "classic," the film that immediately comes to mind is Casablanca.  It may be the quintessential film of Hollywood's studio era, the film in which the predominant modes of directing, production, acting, musical scoring, screenwriting, costume design, cinematography, casting, and other filmmaking elements of that era all coalesced perfectly, resulting in what is not only one of the most beloved and popular films of all time, but one of the best films ever made.  Although Casablanca's plot is closely tied to a particular time, the film has a timeless quality that has allowed it to age better than most films of its era, and it is one of those rare cinematic works that grows richer and more enjoyable with repeat viewings.

The film is set in Casablanca, Morocco, a key stopping point along the route taken by refugees seeking escape from Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.  The city is swarming with all manner of characters, some seeking only to obtain exit visas to the embarkation point of Lisbon, others seeking to make money off the refugees' desperation.  Many of these people find their way to Rick's Cafe Americain, a popular nightclub run by cynical American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart, in what is arguably the role most inextricably tied with his persona).  One of Rick's most frequent customers is the criminal Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who has come to Rick's with two valuable letters of transit that he acquired by murdering a pair of German couriers.  Nazi officer Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has come to Casablanca to oversee the apprehension of the murderer by the head of the local police, Captain Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt official of the puppet Vichy government.  Ugarte gives the letters to Rick for safekeeping, but his plans to sell them later that night are interrupted when he is arrested.  Ugarte's pleas to Rick for help are met with only dispassion and detachment (Rick's cynical neutrality is epitomized by his repeated credo, "I stick my neck out for nobody").

Rick's carefully constructed veneer of neutral indifference comes crashing down when Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive at the club to purchase the letters.  Laszlo is a Czech resistance leader, seeking to acquire the letters of transit so that he and Ilsa can make their way to America to continue his vital work fighting the Nazis.  We learn that Ilsa and Rick met and fell in love in Paris before he came to Casablanca, but that she left abruptly upon learning that Laszlo, who she thought had been killed, was still alive (we see all of this in a flashback sequence set to the lovely chords of As Time Goes By, played by the club's piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson)).  With her appearance at his club, Rick's feelings of love, bitterness, and betrayal come swarming to the surface, and there is the scene after the club has closed where Rick sits drunk at the bar and utters the immortal line, "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."  Laszlo and Ilsa are determined to get ahold of the letters and fly to Lisbon, but Major Strasser is determined to keep Laszlo in Casablanca, and there is the further complication that Ilsa and Rick are still in love with one another.  Rick decides to help Laszlo escape, but he must choose whether to keep Ilsa here with him, or put her on the plane with Laszlo.  Of course, he chooses the selfless act and puts her on the plane.

Much of the dialogue in this final scene has entered the American lexicon, with lines like "We'll always have Paris," "Here's looking at you, kid," and "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" taking on a life of their own far beyond what the film's writers ever likely thought possible.  The script is bursting with wonderful dialogue throughout, and while Rick's words to Ilsa in the final scene are indeed great, some of the earlier lines are equally sublime.  For example, there is the humorous exchange between Rick and Captain Renault early in the film:

     Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
     Rick: My health.  I came to Casablanca for the waters.
     Renault: The waters?  What waters?  We're in the desert.
     Rick: I was misinformed.

There are some elements of the film that shouldn't work well, but for whatever reason, they still do.  The scene in which Victor Laszlo leads the club's band and patrons in a passionate rendition of La Marseillaise, in order to drown out a group of singing German soldiers, should feel hokey and forced, but instead manages to be stirringly patriotic and surprisingly moving.  There is also the moment in the final scene when Captain Renault tosses the bottle of Vichy water in the trash, a symbolic act that is about as subtle as a gunshot to the chest, but that nevertheless succeeds in making the point without derailing the sentiment of the film's final minutes.

One of the things that makes the film so superb is the impeccable casting.  It is difficult to imagine any role, even the smaller supporting roles like Russian bartender Sascha (Leonid Kinskey) and Rick's sometime lover Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau), being played by another actor or actress.  Peter Lorre makes his unscrupulous thief/murderer Ugarte immediately likable, as does Sydney Greenstreet in his role as covetous rival club owner Ferrari, and Claude Rains imbues the corrupt Captain Renault with the perfect amount of mischievous charm.  Ingrid Bergman in particular deserves accolades for creating some complexity out of an underdeveloped character (one of the film's few faults is that the lead female character is essentially relegated to the role of arm candy for either of two great men).

Of course, the most important piece of casting is Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine.  The film would not work as well with any other actor in that role.  Bogart's blend of coolness and toughness is undeniably appealing, and this in turn makes Rick's brand of cynicism especially appealing to the viewer.  So when Rick overcomes this cynicism in the film's last act, the change is even more affecting for the viewer.

The enduring popularity of Casablanca is evidence that countless viewers have a deep, personal connection with the film, and this is certainly true in my own case.  Even after many viewings, the film continues to move me in sometimes unexpected ways, especially the ending.  Rick has the chance to spend the rest of his life with a woman he loves, and who loves him in return, but he sacrifices this chance for the greater good (he knows that Victor is a better man and a better leader with Ilsa by his side), and because he wants to shield Ilsa from the inevitable feelings of regret she would experience if she stayed behind.  It is such an exceptionally noble and selfless act, and I find it incredibly inspiring: each time I watch the film's ending, it makes me want to be a better man.

What greater recommendation could I give the film than that?

No comments:

Post a Comment