The first film in the marathon is a doozy!
Screenplay By: Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch & Casey Robinson
Directed By: Michael Curtiz
A lot has been said about Casablanca over the years by many great men and women who are much more intelligent and far more capable writers than I. With that being the case I don’t know what I can add to the discussion, it might be that there isn’t a thing I can add. Whether it is Gene Siskel, Pauline Kael, Bosley Crowther, Roger Ebert or Mark Kermode, they have all looked at and dissected Casablanca from every possible angle. They have showered it with praise, looked upon it with a keen eye and discovered faults, they have done what critics do and given a classic movie the once over many, many times. So, it is with some trepidation that I will add my voice to theirs and undoubtedly cover much of the same territory they have already grazed. But, people have been dissecting The Bible for years, and I don’t see that coming to an end any time soon, so I do what I must do.
I’m not going to get too technical with Casablanca, because I think its technical brilliance is easy for all to see. The use of lighting, smoke and fog to create a perfect atmosphere. The use of shadows and worn down sets to create that weathered look that 1940s movies are so famous for. The character actors mesh perfectly with the extras and the main stars to present a group of people that you believe in, even when they are doing things we shouldn’t believe in. I had never seen a Michael Curtiz film before Casablanca but he shows tremendous skill in his direction, always getting the right look, zooming in or out at the right moments and capturing the characters at their best, and at their worst. The screenplay is incredibly witty, there isn’t a moment in the film where a line doesn’t catch your attention or stand out as the best line of the film, that is until the next character talks and then that becomes the best line of the film. From a technical and professional standpoint Casablanca is a perfect movie.
Among that perfection there are still a few things that manage to stand out and take center stage. First and foremost is the acting of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. Humphrey Bogart is, well, Humphrey Bogart and he is perfectly chill as the moralist forcing himself to believe that he has no morals left. Fru. Bergman is wishy-washy, and I mean that in the best way. She is a conflicted character, Ilsa doesn’t know who she loves or why she loves or even if she should love. What made Ilsa so enjoyable for me was that I believed she loved Rick, but at the same time she loved Laszlo. Two very different types of love mind you, but love nonetheless and that is why I was instantly able to buy into her crisis of conviction. Mr. Rains was surprising to me as the amoral cop who has quite the scruples hidden under his amoral nature. I knew Mr. Rains was a superb actor, but he surprised me with the nuanced nature of his character, and I honestly did not see his turn coming at the end. He was able to infuse Renault with just the right amount of blasé attitude towards the happenings around him that it is very enjoyable to watch those final twenty minutes as layer and layer of his outer persona is stripped away to reveal the sentimental and caring man that is hidden at his core. In a movie full of greatness, those three performances were the greatest of all.
The music in Casablanca was also a treat, mimed on the piano by Dooley Wilson as Sam. Casablanca has a certain mood to it, one of melancholy and a loss of hope while at the same time containing a hint of hope renewed underneath. Jeez, I’m getting so far into myself that I don’t even know if that made sense. Oh well, on we trudge. The music helped to further the mood established by the lighting, the actors and the shadows, but it did more than further that mood, it drove it home. But, where Casablanca is most endearing is in its ability to make us care about and revel in a very schlocky story. It’s very sentimental and very much in the unbelievable act of self-sacrifice vein. But, like all great stories or works of art, the entire package of Casablanca takes a story that is standard fare and rather schlocky and renders it in near perfect fashion. There’s nothing wrong with a standard story or a story that is full of clichés when they are delivered in perfection. Casablanca delivers everything to perfection, there is a reason it is so revered after all.
There you go, now my treatise on Casablanca can be added to the myriad of other works on this great film. I doubt I added anything new to the discussion, actually I know I didn’t. But, greatness needs to be talked about and it needs to be seen. I was happy to talk about the greatness that is Casablanca and to add my voice to the thousands of others that have done the same. If you haven’t then you need to see Casablanca so that you can add your eyes to the millions of others that have borne witness to this modern masterpiece.