Inspired partially by Flickchart, we at Filmhash endeavor to whittle down our Lists of Shame. As we cross them off, we’ll we write about them!
Note: I have owned Casablanca on DVD since approximately Christmas of 2005, but I had never gotten around to watching it until this past weekend. I have always acknowledged this as a colossal mistake,and now perhaps redemption is achieved in writing this post.
I’ve always suspected I would walk away from viewing this film with a deep sense of reverence and respect. What I did not expect is how much I would enjoy watching it, and just how much I would love the film. There have been many films that are considered classics that I have not particularly enjoyed for one reason or another (Citizen Kane, Dr. Zhivago) but understood why they are so iconic in spite of this. Jill and I are trying to broaden our knowledge of older films (as well as Jill’s knowledge of the films of the 80s), and even more than Roman Holiday, Casablanca is a classic that no modern audience would find to be out of step with modern film production. This is truly a perfect film.
I often joke that there is a formula for a perfect film: Action/Adventure + Romance + Strong Female Lead + Witty Dialogue + Nazis = Perfection. It’s a tried and true formula, and usually hitting three or four out of five can make a fine film. The Sound of Music lacks Witty Dialogue, and Star Wars lacks Nazis.* Blues Brothers lacks a Strong Female Lead and Romance. When you hit all five you get Raiders of the Lost Ark and Casablanca.** Two absolutely perfect films.
What makes Casablanca so great isn’t simply the tragic romance between Humphrey Bogart’s Rick and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa. While I fully acknowledge that this is the main crux of the story, and is one that is well told with fully fleshed out characters (rare even for today’s films), what enhances the experience of Casablanca is the rich and full milieux that the film has for a setting. And I don’t really mean the city itself. The setting itself is romanticized, as few refugees used Casablanca to leave Europe at the time. The “letters of transit” don’t really make any sense when reality is taken into account. But that doesn’t matter. Like the Ark of the Covenant in the aforementioned Raiders, the letters function as a MacGuffin, a Hitchcockian term for an object used to set the plot in motion. The cast of characters is simply great, and it is the mark of an excellent supporting cast when it makes an entire universe feel fleshed out. Peter Lorre’s brief appearance as Signor Ugarte leaves an indelible mark on the proceedings, and Claude Rains’ Captain Renault is fascinating to watch.
Now the film is definitely set in a specific time, December 1941, after the fall of Paris to the Vichy, but before the Allied invasion of Morocco (which it was premiered to coincide with). At times, there is a feeling of propaganda that bubbles up, as when rival nightclub owner Ferrari says, “My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world, today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” The film is taking a definite stand. The Nazis here feel pretty evil, and Rick, the American, is the only one left in a position to stand up to them, either clandestinely or directly. I resist attempts to paint the film as an allegory because it seems to address the issues of the day directly, though there is a certain symbolism within each character that the film itself even addresses as Rick is explaining to Ilsa about why she must go with Lazlo: “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
And of course real life bleeds into the picture even when it may not be deliberate. Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, and more than a dozen other members of the cast were refugees from the Nazis, some from France, but many from Austria and Germany as well. This included Curt Bois, who played the pickpocket, a German Jew, Helmut Dantine, who played the Bulgarian roulette player, an Austrian who was imprisoned in a concentration camp after the Anschluss, and S. Sakall, who played Carl the waiter, a Hungarian refugree. Some of Sakall’s close family, including his three sisters later died in a concentration camp. All of this adds extra impact to watching the “duel of the anthems” sequence, and according to on set accounts, much of the cast was in tears during filming.
All of these factors combine to give Casablanca a timelessness enjoyed by only the rarest of films. Truly essential viewing.
Jill speaking: I just want to say I that have seen Casablanca prior to this viewing. I may have some shame, but not as much as Ryan.
*The Empire my be terrible, but I would argue against them simply being Space Nazis.
**And Jaws if I could ever figure out how to prove the shark is a Nazi.