“As big and timely a picture as ever you’ve seen! You can tell by the cast it’s important! gripping! big!”
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
Synopsis: Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.
Broadly speaking, most movies can be placed in one of two categories: those which appeal to the great unwashed, who wish to view their movies with a box of popcorn on their knee and no requirement on their part to think more deeply about what they are watching other than is necessary to follow the plot, and those which appeal to the thinkers and the critics, those who like to dissect each scene, hold it up to the light and analyse it with a near-feverish intensity before proclaiming judgment. Many of those who fall within this second group wouldn’t even consider watching some of the films that appeal to those in the first group. Similarly, the popcorn-eating crew have little interest in the type of intellectually and technically challenging movies that floats group two’s boats. There’s nothing wrong with either group. And despite their radically differing set of values they mostly manage to co-exist peacefully – unless they accidentally stumble across one another on internet message boards when their shared animosity of one another suggests their differences aren’t so great after all.
Every now and then though, the occasional movie surfaces which appeals to both camps, and Casablanca just about makes it into that august club. Although, with the advent of internet reviews, a phenomenon which allows anyone to become a reviewer irrespective of their knowledge, views or grammatical ability, and which has also sadly broadened the scope of movie snobbery, Casablanca is perhaps in danger of losing its membership. Director Michael Curtiz wasn’t an auteur, you see, which some believe means his work is not worthy of serious study or consideration; its screenplay and dialogue are too prosaic, the writing lacks poetry and vision, and was still being written as the film was shooting, which for some reason precludes it from achieving – or even coming near to – cinematic greatness. Leave them to their Antonioni, I say. And pass the popcorn…
In the early years of World War II, refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe gather in the coastal Moroccan locale of Casablanca, from where they hope to obtain exit visas to neutral Portugal and on to the free world. In this seething cauldron of desperate refugees and opportunistic rogues, Rick’s Cafe Americain, run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), is a popular meeting place. Rick keeps himself to himself (“I stick my neck out for no-one.”), but his neutrality is tested when Ugarte (Peter Lorre) a sweaty little man of dubious morals asks him to hold on to a couple of letters of transit which have come into his possession. Against his better judgment, Rick agrees, only to see Ugarte arrested by his friend, the corrupt Vichy official Louis Renault (Claude Rains), who is seeking to impress the Nazi Colonel Strasser (Conrad Veidt).
Later that same night, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), an old flame of Rick’s who suddenly left him without explanation on the eve of the Nazis’ march into Paris, arrives at the club with underground leader Viktor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Laszlo desperately needs to get out of Casablanca and the letters of transit Rick is holding will help him to do so. However, still hurting from Ilsa’s sudden rejection of him, and stung by the revelation that she was married to Viktor while she and Rick were together, he refuses to become involved.
Casablanca is more than 70 years old now, and a whole generation of moviegoers has never seen it simply because it’s an old black-and-white movie. And yet its story and themes are universal and timeless ones which mean that it can be viewed countless times without ever really growing old. Bogart and Bergman make the ultimate romantic couple; star-crossed lovers, each in their own way possessing the same principles and sense of honour that makes them so likeable and so right for one another. Casablanca also benefits from a superb supporting cast featuring the likes of Lorre and Rains, as well as Sidney Greenstreet as a crooked club owner who covets Rick’s club, Conrad Veidt as the evil Colonel Strasser, S. Z. Sakall as Rick’s head waiter, and of course Dooley Wilson as his loyal pianist who croons the romantic refrain ’As Time Goes By,’ a perfectly chosen song which embodies the fatalistic romanticism that pervades the entire movie and its characters.
Although filmed in a studio, Casablanca somehow manages to capture the sense of desperation of a makeshift community of refugees thrown together in a strange and exotic location by circumstances of war. Everyone is on the run, fleeing from foes both personal and abstract. They disguise their desperation with smart and snappy dialogue, but the humour in their words is tinged with irony and tarnished by cynicism. Overhead, ceiling fans silently sweep the air, emphasising the heat, the claustrophobic tension. The sense of time and place is perhaps a fortunate accident, but it’s there and it’s palpable nonetheless. Dated as they may be, you can believe in these characters – and you’ll keep wanting to revisit them again and again…
(Reviewed 4th August 2012)