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.


The Film Doctor said...

Excellent review. Wasn't Casablanca originally just another of many studio films that Warner Brothers released in 1942, and nobody had any idea that it would turn into a classic? Doesn't Rick systematically violate all of the principles he is supposed to hold at the beginning of the film--to maintain his neutrality and not drink with customers in his nightclub? Casablanca is an odd film to analyze because so many of its aspects seem borderline cheesy, and yet the dialogue, the acting, and the lighting made the film a classic.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment. One of the things I find so amazing about the film is that, despite its reported hodge-podge construction and humble origins -- certainly nobody at Warner or working on it thought it anything out of the ordinary -- it is so cohesive as a whole, so wonderfully constructed. And the dialogue is masterful, almost without exception -- it's rare you see a movie, even from the always quotable Bogart, where virtually every line has such iconic weight and impact, even the ones that haven't actually gone on to be famous quotes.

I don't know about cheesy, but there are certainly things about the film that don't really work: some unrealistic plot contrivances, the idea that the totally boring Henreid is any kind of romantic rival to Bogey. Somehow, those kind of details just seem like nitpicking in the context of the whole film.

Jason Bellamy said...

Nice job writing about a classic - always a tall order.

It really is incredible that the studio thought it was just churning out standard fare. Nothing against Bogey, Bergman or Rains, but so many of the lines are terrific on paper. The acting is terrific, but some of the dialogue so brilliant it would be tough to screw up.

My personal favorite in this film is Rains -- he looks like an actor having a hell of a lot of fun with a colorful part.

As for the Rick-Victor debate, I think it works. Rick is like the high school bad-boy boyfriend with whom everything was passionate who will never quite settle down. Victor is the safe guy from college. As the film shows, if it comes down to spending just one night together, it's Rick and always will be. If it comes down to a stable life in unstable times, it's Victor.

Nice to talk about a classic. Happy Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for Only The Cinema!

Shubhajit said...

Nice review!

Casablanca is one of my favourite films as well. The fact that despite being a romantic movie it has a very palpable noirish feel about it, without, however, overshadowing the basic intent of the movie, is the principal reason behind its magic.

Bogart's Rick, who is unapologetic in his cynicism and speaks in hard-boiled dialogues, quite like the private eyes of Chandler and Hammett novels (characters that Bogart made his own), yet with a deeply sentimental streak about him, make his character so brilliant and appealing. His is perhaps the kind of character that every guy secretly aspires to be - with a perfect combination of wry humour, apparent detachment from the hullabaloo of the world, a strong and sacrificing romantic on the inside, and ability to rise above the situation. This was really a role tailor-made for Bogart.

Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa, contrarily, is the perfect foil for Rick. Where Rick is cynical and tough, Ilsa's fragile, enigmatic and arresting beauty is nearly devastating in its impact and appeal. She is indeed the kind of woman whose loss would make anyone bitter and experience disdain for all the so-called good things of life, and for whom any man would turn chivalrous and heroic at the drop of his hat. She is the kind of woman men wouldn't lust after, rather would experience complex feelings that could very well qualify as love.

Indeed, nothing about the movie falls wanting in its effect - be it the brilliant photography with its fascinating usage of shadows (again extremely noirish), the crisp editing that rarely lets the viewers relax, or the free-flowing direction with a strong signature of the director. This is one movie that is romantic without being mushy, cynical without being sarcastic, edgy without being nihilistic, and sentimental without being maudlin.

Thanks for reviewing this timeless classic.

Marc Raymond said...

In the 1940s, Hollywood rarely made big, event pictures. They instead relied on a steady stream of films. CASABLANCA was one of these, but at the same time it was seen as an "A" prestige film. It won an Oscar, and Warners even paid to borrow Bergman from Selznick.

What is most interesting about the film the question of why it became so enduring. Certainly the quality is one thing. But it goes beyond this, as Robert Ray has argued so eloquently in his book A CERTAIN TENDENCY OF THE HOLLYWOOD CINEMA, 1930-1980. It is unusual as a "great film" because it is also a very typical and ordinary film as well. It plays like a template example of the outlaw-official hero dichotomy that structured (and continues to structure) so many Hollywood films (and today, TV shows). It also uses the narrative of the reluctant hero, a character that goes far back into 19th century American myth (example: Huck Finn).

The ending is extremely important as well. If Laszlo, for example, been killed and Rick taken his place as resistance hero and Ilsa's husband, it is doubtful the film would be as remembered today. Ray argues quite convincingly that Rick, as representative of America (he's the only American actor in the first ten named actors in the movie), needed to maintain his autonomy despite becoming involved in global affairs. Entering WWII has a decision that provoked a great deal of anxiety in America, anxiety that America would lose its traditional autonomy. By having Rick save civilization and yet not enter it (like the hero of so many westerns), CASABLANCA served a clear ideological purpose.

Another provocative analogy Ray makes is with THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, which uses the same archetypes and yet is a contemplative film about these myths. As Ray puts it, LIBERTY VALANCE is like CASABLANCA except you would have to imagine CASABLANCA with a framing story in which the head of the UN Victor Lazslo returns to Casablanca to bury an unknown man named Rick Blaine.

All this is to reinforce the old adage about Hollywood: it really is a cinema for connoisseurs, in which minor variations make all the difference.

And thanks for the blog, Ed, your ability to not only see but write intelligently about so many films is remarkable to a slacker like myself. Keep it up.

Ed Howard said...

Some excellent points from everyone here -- thanks for all the substantive comments.

Jason - I certainly should've mentioned Rains, who is a lot of fun here, and whose character walks a very tight line in collaborating with the Nazis and still retaining enough of his own personality to be somewhat likable. I'm still not convinced by Victor, though, who conforms to the old Hollywood rule about love triangles, where in most cases you're obviously rooting for one guy to get the girl. This film subverts those expectations because Rick does not in fact get the girl, but part of the tragedy is the audience's knowledge that Ilsa really loves and belongs with Rick, and is really only with Victor out of loyalty and respect for his cause. It works in that sense, but it doesn't make Victor any less boring as a character. The only "love triangle" film I can think of in Hollywood, where the two leads have equal standing in the audience's eyes, is George Cukor's Philadelphia Story, where it's hard to choose between the very different but equally charismatic Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. There's no such competition here, and if Ilsa winds up with one man or the other at the end it's only because of the plot, not because she's made a real choice of her own.

Shubhajit - Nice analysis. I think you're right about the film's appeal, in that "sentimental without being maudlin" sums it up quite nicely, and explains why it has such a broad audience. It's a film that combines tragic romanticism with a noir aesthetic, and the chemistry of its stars doesn't hurt either.

Marc - I like your reading of the film's political subtexts. It's interesting that the original play the film was based on was written and performed pre-Pearl Harbor, and was a clear piece of propaganda intended to convince Americans to enter the war. The line "they're asleep all across America" comes from the play and that context, though by the time the film was made America was already in the war and its purpose had to be different.

Evangeline Holland said...

I really liked Casablanca, but I'm assuming my experience was colored by reading a scriptwriting book that proclaimed the movie to be the best ever written, and then preceded to break down every piece of dialogue. It sort of ruined the magic for me, being able to see the bits and cogs. But Ingrid is always great.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment Evangeline. Sometimes that kind of finicky analysis can indeed ruin the magic, but it can also improve one's appreciation of a truly great work. It's my opinion that to understand how a great film works will only increase one's opinion of it -- and Casablanca is probably one of those films. Roger Ebert's commentary on the film is one of the few commentaries I've really enjoyed, because it drew out the film's aesthetic workings without diminishing its immediate emotional impact.

Moanerplicity said...

This was a wonderfully written piece to a hallmark in Hollywood history. The comments are equally enlightening and relevant.

In retrospect, I think it helps to view Casablanca at various times in one's life, as it becomes, like a fine wine, far better appreciated with age.

My first memory of the film was at age 15. At that time, I'd heard it was 'great' and yet I couldn't much relate to a film that delved into the issues of a period I knew almost nothing about. The text of the film didn't capture my attention so much as the actors, their faces and their emotions. I fell blindly in love with Miss Bergman's beauty, at 15, and the affair continues until this day. Bogart for the first time showed me something other than the black and white gangster of nano emotion.

It was only later, while in college, that I could grasp the nuances of storytelling, the idealism of Henreid's character, the crucial nature of those letters of transport, the exquisite, sometimes heartbreaking silences passed between its stars, the dark humor of Rains, and the absolute filmic polish applied by the director. It was only then that I recognized the quality of the peerless writing.

Having viewed the film recently, it has taken on a far more mythic presence. It's the little things that capture the grace of greatness. As was so eloquently stated, it is a commingling of many things. It's in the care and attention paid to the art of storytelling. It's in every frame whether subtle and blatant. It's in the way its lit, the smallest gesture of Miss Bergman's full lips, the world-weariness presented in Bogart's face, the knowing secret now apparent in Henreid's glances.

There is so much golden in this film and it's shocking now to know the script was still being tailored and rewritten even as it was being shoot. It's astounding that no one knew quite what the ending would be, that the actors were told t play it be ear, that B & B were virtually strangers who didn't socialize and yet, this all forms a certain alchemy. Maybe it is awareness that greatness isn't always something that's meticulously planned. Sometimes the cosmos align, the elements come together, and magic, a timeless, unforgettable magic simply happens. Casablanca is a testament to time, talent, chemistry and fortune, providence, romanticism and Hollywood magic.


VG said...

highly impressed by ur review of casablanca its my all time fav movie!!!! in my opinion no movie comes close to casablanca even after 67 years!!!!

Anonymous said...

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.

I think your description is a little too simple for my tastes. Your description of Ilsa doesn't describe the woman who was willing to seduce Rick in order to get the Letters of Transit for her and Victor. Or threaten him with a gun.

". . . some unrealistic plot contrivances, the idea that the totally boring Henreid is any kind of romantic rival to Bogey."

I never had a problem with Henreid's portrayal of Victor. Nor did I found him boring. I get tired of fans dismissing him as such, simply because he lacked the "cool factor" of Bogart's Rick. I refuse to be that shallow.