VINTAGE REVIEW: Casablanca
CASABLANCA-- 5 STARS
To anyone who will listen, I preach the greatest love and respect of Casablanca, the 1943 Oscar winner for Best Picture from director Michael Curtiz. You might be able to name singular instances, throughout the vast history of cinema, of better ensemble acting, better war-time intrigue, better left-field star turns, better broken hearts, better dialogue, and better romance. You might. However, I challenge and dare you to find a better movie in Hollywood history that has all of those qualities working together at once. Because of the successful combination of so many outstanding qualities, Casablanca is the perfect movie to me. In my eyes, it is flawless.
For those who don't know the story, Casablanca takes place in the titular Moroccan city during World War II when it was a neutral French police state. In Casablanca, the neutrality makes it home to cast-offs, criminals, refugees, and lost souls from both sides displaced from Europe during the conflict. Many people hope to pass through Casablanca on their way to Lisbon, Portugal and eventually America. Crooked gangsters (embodied by Sidney Greenstreet's Ferrari) and corrupt French police, led by the charming, yet opportunistic Captain Renault (the great Claude Rains), control the black market and financial flow of who stays and who goes.
While bidding their time (and to give credit to the title of Murray Burnett/Joan Alison stage play the film is based on) in Morocco, "everybody comes to Rick's." Rick's Cafe Americain is an expatriate saloon and city staple owned and operated by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a mysterious American who has found himself in the desert unable to return home to New York. He's a complicated, yet stern man, made of more parts cynicism than principle. He wasn't always that way and his bitterness has a source. For now, he would rather profit and observe from a distance than risk helping his desperate patrons trying to evade the war. Together with his trusted piano player friend Sam (Dooley Wilson), Rick's is the place to be in town and the crossroads between freedom and oppression.
Business picks up when a true revolutionary, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), arrives in Casablanca. Victor is a renowned and high-ranking leader of the Czech Resistance. He has fended off many apprehension attempts and has even escaped the concentration camps. Escorted by his lovely and supportive wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), he has made it to Morocco in hopes of finally escaping his Nazi pursuers, particularly the cruel Major Strasser (Conrad Viedt).
At Rick's, Ilsa recognizes Sam from her time in Paris. She requests a song close to her heart, "As Time Goes By," and the most silent crack of thunderous tension in movie history strikes when Rick hears the song, approaches Sam, and sees Ilsa. We don't know it yet, but it doesn't take a genius to see that they have history and history that likely didn't end well the last time they met. It is at this moment, when Casablanca elevates to greatness.
From then on, a different level of acting occurs. No more does Casablanca exist (as it was intended) as just another run-of-the-mill wartime melodrama. Every emotion and line stirs a purpose and comes from what were thought to be the most unlikely of sources. Humphrey Bogart transforms from the gangster persona that made him famous to an incredible broken, wounded ex-lover. Watching him work with these emotions as Rick, Bogart takes his acting to another level. You break your own heart over his gradually melting steel heart watching his remorse, regret, and love. How he was robbed of the Best Actor Oscar that year, I don't know. Ingrid Bergman, after already having international acting success, goes from a pretty Hollywood foreign beauty to the ideal object of desire and internal conflict. What she says in luminous looks, most actresses can't accomplish in two hours of full dialogue. Together, the two create fireworks that few movie couples have matched since. You can have your cheeky romantic comedies, the mega-watt starlet smiles of Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, and all of the Nicholas Sparks novels turned into movies.
This is Hollywood romance at its finest. The two leads are surrounded by pitch-perfect supporting performances. As I said before, the casting is excellent across the board. Everyone gets their moment to shine. None are greater than Claude Rains' Captain Renault. Simply put, he gets all of the best lines from the screenplay, developed by the three-man team of Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch. Rains brings comedic flair to every line and every scene he's in. He takes what's supposed to be a bit of a villain role and turns him into a guy you root for. Much like Bogart, I don't know how he didn't win the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award years ago. Point of fact, he never won, despite four nominations in his career. For Bogart, he was finally honored nearly a decade later for The African Queen. In total, Casablanca won just three Academy Awards; Best Picture, Best Director for Curtiz, and Best Screenplay. History has treated it well since. In many circles, its screenplay remains regarded as the best ever written.
Casablanca ranks in the top 5 of six American Film Institute "100 Years..." lists, including the #1 "Passion." By the time the intrigue and romance reaches its climax in Casablanca, when we see who will stay and who will go (and with whom), the movie has taken you to a different place. First time viewers will find themselves on the edge of their seat while those who have seen the film, like myself and many others, will tell you that the experience never gets old, in all of its black-and-white glory. For this kind of movie, with its stark anti-war perspective and world view, to be made during the uncertainty of World War II itself is astounding. I said it before and I will say it again. There is no more perfect movie than Casablanca. Stride after stride, scene after scene, moment after moment, everything comes together and everything is right. The title of the original play was right, but needs a helping verb: "Everyone Should Come to Rick's." In countless ways, perfection deserves to be seen and appreciated. That makes Casablanca is required viewing of any lover of movies.
LESSON #1: THE POWER OF A SONG-- I guarantee every single one of us reading this review has a song, maybe even more than one, that evokes an extremely poignant memory, either happy or sad. We know every word and every chord. It freezes us in place, haunts our mood, and hits us like a ton of bricks when we hear it. The classic "As Time Goes By," then, in the 1940's, a forgotten little 1931 song written by Herman Hupfeld, does that to a perfect degree in Casablanca. Plenty of great movie scenes since have had great background songs, but very few have them living and breathing as part of a poignant moment or scene. Without "As Time Goes By," John Cusack wouldn't have that Peter Gabriel moment in Say Anything... and Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal wouldn't have "Auld Lang Syne" in When Harry Met Sally... Their classic movie moments come from the power demonstrated in Casablanca.
LESSON #2: CHOOSING SIDES VERSUS BEING NEUTRAL-- One of Rick's frequently-spoken mantras is "I stick my neck out for nobody" and we see evidence of that stance as the events of Casablanca unfold. The Rick we meet in the film has chosen cynicism over romanticism or the power of a cause, yet he has a history of playing and rooting for the underdog. Hence, Lesson #3.
LESSON #3: CHANGES OF HEART-- When the right reasons come to fight, when the right motivations require intervention, or when the right cause comes around for sides to be chosen, a driven character, no matter how cynical, will have their heart and conscience overcome them. When any of those scenarios happen, they become susceptible to changing their course, lowering their defenses, and taking sacrificial risks. Many characters in Casablanca experience unique changes of heart.
LESSON #4: CHOOSING BETWEEN LOVE AND VIRTUE-- Whether Casablanca is considered high-end melodrama, classic romance, or an anti-war film, the central conflict of Rick Blaine that emanates from Lesson #2 and Lesson #3 boils down to choosing between love and virtue. His broken heart tugs for the side of love and taking for himself, while the underdog and self-sacrifice inside of him thinks of the bigger picture. His end decision truly defines his character.
LESSON #5: OLD FLAMES STILL BURN-- No matter the circumstances, from the extremes of death and divorce or the divisive separation of geography or a tough break-up, we never forget our past loves. They always have a flame inside of us. If the split was on good terms, that flame warms and comforts, but the opposite causes a flame that scars from bitterness, remorse, or lesson learned. When old flames come back into your life, one cannot help but break character, become vulnerable, and stir up those positive and negative emotions.