Wednesday, November 26, 2008
So much has been said about Casablanca, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, that it's difficult to know just where to start. It's easy to see why the film has become so ensconced in popular culture. It unites Humphrey Bogart, one of the finest tough-guy leads of the classic Hollywood era, with the gorgeous vulnerability of Ingrid Bergman, and gives them a tragic romantic backstory that charges every glance passed between them. The film is also blessed with a compulsively quotable script, strewn with lines that have passed into common usage even for those who have no idea where they originated: most people can quote from the film without realizing they're doing so. The dialogue has a sharpness and hard-edged wit that marks it as a close relative to the noir tradition, even if its sweeping romanticism and the crisp beauty of its big-budget images distances it from the cruder B pictures that shared its verbal sensibility.
The most famous lines "Here's looking at you, kid" and Bogey's epic final speech to Bergman ("maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow...") have a timeless quality to them, a lyrical beauty that's only enhanced by Bogart's laidback delivery. The script is knowingly artificial, meticulously crafted, and Bogart handles its cadences perfectly, letting his voice gather momentum as he charges through the lengthy and often convoluted blocks of text he's given. He can dash off lines where it sounds like he's losing his breath rushing through the words, and still sound natural, relaxed, and most importantly cool. These words wouldn't sound nearly as good or be nearly as famous if anyone else had said them. Not everything in the film is as frequently quoted as those few most famous moments, but nearly everything Bogey says in the film seems like it's ready to be quoted, like it was written and said with the knowledge that it would reverberate forever. There's no such thing as small talk for Bogart: he's always on, always ready with a clever quip or a quietly sarcastic rejoinder or a coolly romantic speech.
Bogart is of course Rick, the owner of a nightclub in Casablanca during World War II, inhabiting an uneasy neutral ground between the "unoccupied French" and the fascist forces ravaging Europe. His club is a way-station for all the various illegal and semi-legal activity in the city, which is a key stopping point for all those who seek refuge from Europe and a flight to America. This being a wartime film, there's of course no way that Rick's neutrality can last, and the intrusion of a particularly nasty Gestapo officer (Conrad Veidt) ensures that he will have to take sides sooner or later. But the film's real focus is the love triangle between Rick, his former love Ilsa (Bergman) and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who happens to be one of the most infamous figures in the anti-fascist resistance, and who is thus fiercely hunted when he arrives in Morocco seeking a route to the United States. Ilsa and Rick have a past together, a passionate affair that ended when the Germans invaded Paris and Ilsa didn't show up for a rendezvous to leave town together. This intimate connection is obvious from the moment they first appear on screen together, and the soulful looks that pass between them practically ignite the celluloid. The couple has an intuitive chemistry that Bogart would only match when playing opposite his real-life wife Lauren Bacall, who presented a very different kind of love interest from the mushy, wet-eyed Bergman. Where Bacall always met Bogey on her own terms on screen, Ilsa tells Rick to do her thinking for her, and her swooning fall into his arms has an air of innocence and surrender that one would never see in the proto-feminist Bacall.
Bergman's demeanor is perfectly in keeping with the tone of Casablanca as a whole. This is an unapologetically romantic film, in every sense of the word. It is lush, with a visual sensibility that can only be called pristine. Director Michael Curtiz is unshowy with his camera, but he makes up for it with his expressive lighting, which nods to the high-contrast shadowy look of contemporary noirs but goes for a more balanced grayscale that makes the spotted areas of deep black even more eye-popping. Bergman especially benefits from Curtiz's aesthetic, which occasionally goes in for the usual goopy soft-focus actress closeups, but more often sculpts and shapes her beauty with shadows and artfully placed lights, giving her real grandeur and dignity rather than the usual cheap Hollywood glamour.
So there's certainly a reason this film is such a classic; in fact there are many, many reasons. Seldom has there been such a perfect union of stars, aesthetic atmosphere, and plotting the narrative has just enough suspense and action to inject some tension, but not so much that it overwhelms the characters. It's this emphasis on character that is really the film's core, and the romance of Rick and Ilsa is one of the great movie romances precisely because there's so much depth to them as individuals. The long flashback montage of the couple's original Parisian affair is perhaps the film's least interesting sequence, if only because it shows explicitly what was already so succinctly suggested. This is, if anything, even more of a testament to the performances of Bergman and Bogart, who establish with pointed glances and body language the depth of their relationship, and made irrelevant any attempts to make what's between them explicit. This unspoken love, coupled with Bogart's timeless attempts to speak it, makes Casablanca a romantic masterpiece.