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Casablanca

Casablanca

By Simon Powell • January 14th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
CASABLANCA (MOVIE)
Warner Bros.

Original release: January 23rd, 1943
Running time: 102 minutes

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre

Casablanca

After more than 70 years, Casablanca is still a firm part of popular culture, with the images, songs, and misquoted dialogue possibly known by more people than have actually seen the film. For me, after 20 years and countless viewings, it’s something that still intrigues and delights me as much as the first time. What on the surface may appear to be standard Hollywood melodrama, mixed with war-time propaganda, actually has some ambiguities in character and plot, and a far from happy ending.

Set in 1942, the story takes place entirely in the titular African city, which has become one of the last stops for Europeans fleeing to the US to escape from the Nazis, and where Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American expatriate with a shadowy past runs a wildly popular bar. One night, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), a woman from that past, walks into that bar. Ilsa is now with a top resistance leader, Victor Laslo, and she needs help from Rick, to get hold of vital travel passes that will get Laslo away from the Nazis – but would Rick rather take Ilsa away himself?

Casablanca was made right in the middle of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and was one of over 30 films released by the Warner Brothers studio alone that year. Of those, most have been forgotten, while a few such as Now Voyager and The Man Who Came To Dinner are still watched and admired by film fans. But, only Casablanca seems to be so established in popular culture – so, what does it have that so many of its contemporaries lack, that has kept people coming back to it for all this time?

Casablanca

For me, the main key to the success of the film is Humphrey Bogart, and I just cannot imagine anybody else in the role of Rick. After years playing tough guys or crooks, Casablanca finally gave Bogart a chance to show a different side of his acting ability. The “tough guy” side to the on-screen character is still there, and in his first scene, we see him nonchalantly turn away people from his bar if he does not like the look of them, unimpressed and un-intimidated by their threats and bragging. But Bogart also imbues Rick with a believable vulnerability, a man who keeps his wounded feelings buried deep down, but cannot stop them eventually escaping to the surface.

He’s ably supported by Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa, a character who could come across as a bit of a harlot, betraying her flawlessly heroic husband to satisfy her lust for a handsome rogue. However, in Bergman’s hands, she becomes a vulnerable and sympathetic person, genuinely tormented by the choice that she has to make.

Special mention must also go to Claude Rains, who plays Captain Renault, and Sydney Greenstreet, as rival bar owner Signor Ferrari. Both are played as so cheerful, charming, and likeable, that it is easy to forget that they are hugely corrupt criminals, exploiting the weak and helpless for money and sex, as well as being, respectively, the Chief of Police, and an important local businessman.

Something that’s added a special layer of significance to some of the scenes is the fact that many of the cast members, both major and supporting, as well as the director are Europeans whose lives had been permanently affected by the war that was going on at the time the film was shot. Paul Henreid and Peter Lorre, along with director Michael Curtiz, were born in what then the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Henreid had nearly Casablancabeen kicked out of the UK because of his nationality. Raines and Greenstreet, both Englishmen were many miles away from the homeland, which just a year earlier had been heavily bombed by the Nazis in the Battle of Britain, and had narrowly escaped being invaded. It is also surprising to learn that many of the bit players portraying refugees on the screen were also refugees in real life, who had fled from their home lands and made it to the freedom of America, just like their characters were hoping to do.

But actors alone don’t make a film, and the other big key to the success of Casablanca is the script, which expertly blends a simple story premise (will Rick win back the woman he loves), with a proper McGuffin for everyone to chase (the letters of transit ensuring safe passage to America), with melodrama, a love story, and a cynical, bone dry wit. The quality of the writing is even more apparent when you realise that a year later, Warner Brothers tried to recreate the magic, re-uniting Casablanca director Michael Curtiz with Bogart, Raines and Greenstreet for Passage to Marseille, a tale of French fighter pilots in England. However, this time they went with a dull and muddled script, confusing the viewer with flashbacks within flashbacks, condemning the film to forgotten obscurity.

It is possible to read Casablanca as a propaganda piece, with Rick’s isolationism being a metaphor for pre-Pearl Harbour American isolationism of the time. However, there is also a more subtle form of propaganda taking place. All of the action in the film happens in Casablanca itself or in flashbacks to Europe, and CasablancaAmerica is only ever talked about, usually as an ideal, a place of freedom, the hope for the future of all the desperate souls in Casablanca. This may have been intended as a subtle way of showing Americans a view of themselves they may not be used to, of how much love there was for the country, and what it stood for.

The ending of the film is one of its most fascinating elements. For many years, I
pigeonholed Casablanca as a romantic film, a Valentine’s Day staple up there with the likes of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, but a recent re-watching has turned that idea on its head, and the truth is it doesn’t have a happy ending. Having just resolved her feelings for Rick and Laslo, Ilsa is now unexpectedly forced to leave behind the man she loves. Despite Rick’s attempts to explain and console her with the famous “We’ll always have Paris” speech, it all feels like it is being done through gritted teeth, and the weary acceptance that they will never be truly happy.

With Ilsa and Laslo safely on the plane, Rick and Captain Renault stride off together into the sunset, and, again, for years I had made mistaken assumptions about what’s in store for them. There’s talk of them coming “back to the fight”, with the implication being, they intend to join a resistance movement. However, the truth is, we simply don’t know. They walk off to an uncertain future, full of danger, possibly death for one or both of them, and no guarantees of victory. Which was, of course, exactly the situation America found itself in during WW II.

SOURCES:
Harmetz, Aljean (1992). Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca

Casablanca

Simon Powell

Simon Powell

Simon grew up on a steady diet of James Bond and Ray Harryhausen films, but has been fascinated with the horror genre since a clandestine viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager. Since then his tastes have expanded to take in classic horror from the Universal and Hammer Studios, as well as branching out into Video Nasties, Sci-Fi, Silent Comedies, Hitchcock and Woody Allen.

Apart from getting married, one of his fondest memories is buying a beer each for both Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen and Dave “Darth Vader” Prowse at a film festival, and listening to their equally fascinating stories of life at totally different levels of the industry.

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