Dir. by Michael Curtiz - 1 hr. 42 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Casablanca" is on the short-list for greatest film of all-time. That's not a matter of opinion, that's a fact. Seventy years after it's release, people still know the famous lines from it (at the screening I went two, a couple of the lines themselves drew applause from the audience. Applause.), and the film holds up beautifully. What more is there to say about it? Probably not much that hasn't already been said, but I'll go ahead and repeat some of the praise, if you don't mind.
In the midst of World War II and the German encroachment on France, Casablanca, in French Morocco has emerged as a way-station for refugees fleeing Nazis. Mainly, people come there and get stuck until they can manage to acquire papers of passage, usually to America. Many of these expatriates end up spending time at Rick's, a saloon owned by (you may have guessed it) Rick (Humphrey Bogart). Rick "sticks his neck out for no one," and the closest thing to friends he has are his piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson), and a crooked French official, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains). A pair of German assassins are being hunted down; they allegedly have in their possession some papers from France that will allow passage wherever the possessors wish without question. These papers are worth basically infinity money, and end up in Rick's possession through a series of events that you might want to watch the film and experience for yourself. The path forward is unclear, until she walks into Rick's Cafe.
The result is the mother of all love triangles. Rick and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) have a past, but she's with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) now, and they're on the run from the Nazis, whom Laszlo has been troubling by authoring and printing underground tracts critical of the Third Reich. He's escaped their grasp before, and even escaped from a concentration camp. Rick seeks solace in a bottle, Ilsa's heart is torn between two men, and Victor needs to get out of Casablanca and to somewhere where he won't be persecuted for telling truths about Nazis. To complicate things, there is the matter of the French papers, which Rick is disinclined to let go of, for a variety of reasons.
There is a nearly endless amount of ways to dissect how "Casablanca" is great film-making. The story itself is great (although there were previous attempts to film this story, and none of those have ended up being the definitive version). It's also very much a "shades of gray" story, where no one is really good or bad (except the Nazis, because you know...), and they're all just trying to make the best of a complicated situation. That doesn't mean that there's no one to root for, but even Rick (the lead character) has a checkered past that means he can't return back to the United States (at least not without some subterfuge). As a love-triangle story, it's compelling. As a caper movie (the matter of the French papers), it's compelling. The acting in this film is not just good, but iconic (and that's not a statement that I take lightly - this is one of the roles that immediately comes to mind when you think of Bogart, and it's not like he only had a couple of decent movies over the course of his career).
So I'll focus on just one scene that really makes "Casablanca" work. There is a scene in the middle of the film where the visiting German party takes over Sam's piano, and starts singing "Die Wacht am Rhein" (a German patriotic song) while the rest of the bar silently watches them, resentfully at that (and that's probably the mildest reaction, you can feel the hatred towards the Germans from all of the patrons of Rick's that have been displaced by this stupid Reich). All throughout the film, people have been cooperating with these Nazis, largely because it's easier to do so than to invite their wrath. Everyone knew what they were capable of, and it was best to placate the small party than to have more of them show up in Casablanca. Up until this point in the film, Laszlo has been portrayed as being a "great man," an important part of the underground resistance. But when you keep hearing about how great and important someone is, you may start to resent them. I know that I did. On top of that, Laszlo has been portrayed as a bit of a chump, mostly oblivious to what's been simmering between Rick and Ilsa (his wife, if I hadn't mentioned that yet), and more committed to his work than her. Up until this scene in the film, it's really easy to dismiss Victor in favor of Rick and Ilsa re-igniting their relationship.
Victor and Rick have been having a private meeting in Rick's office, and when they emerge from the office, they find the Germans basically intimidating everyone with their drunken singing that absolutely no one will join in with them in. For the first time in the entire film, someone stands up to these Nazis. Victor marches straight over to the rest of the band, and tells them to play the French National Anthem. Rick nods for them to do it, and the entire bar (and I mean everyone) drowns out the Nazis in a forceful, emotionally-charged manner. Victor knows the price for defying the Nazis (having spent a year in a concentration camp before escaping), and he does it because it's right. It's at this point in the film that Victor Laszlo becomes a man worthy of respect, and not just an inconvenient part of the love triangle with he, Ilsa, and Rick.
This scene was perhaps the most powerful in the entire film for me. The romance material had me a little misty at times, but there would have been no dilemma about who Ilsa should end up with if the film had been unable to establish Victor as someone that Ilsa could reasonably love. Ilsa loves Rick, but she admires Victor. And then, there's the whole angle about spitting in evil's eye, regardless of the consequences. There surely are consequences, which Rick knew there would be when he nodded to the band; the Germans storm out, order Rick's closed indefinitely, and pretty much explicitly put a hit out on Victor.
On this viewing, the entire film hinges on that scene. There are two things that must be established for a love triangle story to work: the intensity of Rick and Ilsa's love (which is shown in a flashback to their torrid Paris days), and the fact that Victor (the third party, as it initially appears) is not just some chump to be shoved to the side. If Ilsa's choices aren't equally valid in their own ways, there is no mystery to how the film will end up. The end scene of this film plays out beautifully, navigates a few twists deftly, and confirms Captain Renault's suspicion that Rick is, at heart, a sentimentalist. And then there's that final monologue by Rick (one of the lines that drew applause, by the way)!
So yeah. This is one of the greatest films of all-time. You might have heard that before, but if you haven't actually watched it for yourself, I'm not even worried about over-hyping it. Between the story, the actors, and the filmmakers, everything came together in a way that you can't even hope for. And something interesting that I learned was that Don Siegel, the guy who would go on to direct classics like "Dirty Harry" and "Charley Varrick," did second-unit work on "Casablanca," at the very beginning of his film career. Relevant? I don't know, but I loved watching "Casablanca" again.
5 / 5 - Theatre