Today I get to write about what is, hands down, one of the greatest movies of all time. It is a love story, full of suspense, wartime intrigue, sacrifice, and redemption. This movie is proof that alchemy exists. When everyone is at the top of his or her game and the stars are aligned, something special and lasting can be created. Please forgive the shameless hyperbole, but this is what happens when I talk about Casablanca. I gush.
Meet the imperturbable Rick
We are in the throes of World War II. The Third Reich is gobbling up Europe and eking its way across Africa. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), cynical, hard-bitten, owner of Rick's Café Américain, a Casablanca hotspot, has carved a comfortable little niche for himself in this godforsaken enclave. An expatriate in a city of refugees, he has found a way to live among the desperate throng, yet remain isolated. As he is fond of saying, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Richard Blaine is a recluse not only from the world at large, but also from his own emotions.
The ice begins to melt
Until, that is, a woman--the woman (Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa)--comes back into his life. The pain and anger he felt on the day she abandoned him in Paris, without explanation, return like a savage punch to the gut. The facade of Rick’s assured disposition begins to wither, churning up emotions he thought he had successfully and permanently buried.
We soon begin to witness the melting of the ice packed around his heart as he gradually finds his way back into humanity’s messy embrace: he helps a young couple obtain money needed to buy their passage out of Casablanca before the wife must submit to Captain Renault’s (Claude Rains) lascivious demands; he gives the house band the go-ahead to play “La Marseillaise”, which leads to a rousing rendition that drowns out the handful of Nazis who are trying to sing their cheesy German march song.
Rick’s icy reserve continues to succumb to the heat provoked by the friction of allowing others to get too close. When he finally learns the reason for Ilsa’s sudden desertion back in Paris, Rick is ready to feel again. At the film’s climax he makes a surprising sacrifice and prepares, once again, to engage the world.
Let me count the ways
Casablanca is a film that succeeds on so many levels (all brought together under the brilliant direction of Michael Curtiz), I don't think any one can be singled out as the reason it's become the beloved classic that it is. First, for those who have never seen the movie, the story is a great yarn that keeps you guessing to the very end. Then there are the pithy, memorable lines scattered throughout: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “We mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” There are the disarming tête-à-têtes between Bogart and Claude Rains, competitive and playfully combative.
There are the performances of Bergman (luminous) and Bogart (seething). When an emotion crosses Ilsa’s face, you don’t think Bergman is playing anger, or fright, or confusion--you believe she is angry, or frightened, or confused. Humphrey Bogart understood the power of the camera and how it could convey big emotions through the smallest of tics. Watch his eyes and you will see the deep and lasting scars that Rick has suffered in his life.
The power of the cut
There’s the editing, which can heighten a moment through the juxtaposition of shots. A rhythm is created by the timing of the cuts, the lengths of the shots between each edit, and the actions that take place within each of the shots. For example, during the unforgettable airport scene, tension mounts through a series of simple head turns. The plane's engines rev up. Everyone looks toward the plane. Then, in a series of close-ups: Rick turns toward Ilsa; Ilsa turns toward Rick; Rick and Ilsa turn toward Victor (Paul Henreid). Each edit, timed to the rhythm of turning heads--not a frame too long or too short--adds more and more tension to the sequence. And it all leads up to Victor’s question: “Are you ready, Ilsa?” Whether we realize it or not, it is the moment we have been waiting for (and dreading) because it is time to say goodbye. Rick and Ilsa will never see each other again.
Why we go to the movies
There are countless other facets that contribute to the lasting appeal of Casablanca; I will close on one that I haven't heard mentioned before. The ambiance created by all those minor characters, refugees sharing a common goal--a dream, a need, a desire--desperate to get to some place, to achieve some thing--not just freedom, but something that is fundamental to who we are as human beings. It strikes a chord that we, the audience, can understand even if we can’t articulate it. It’s one of the reasons we go to the movies.
Toward the beginning of the film there's a moment when the camera pans over a throng of refugees, all of them looking up at a plane flying overhead. That plane is taking someone away to a land that will allow him to achieve his dreams and find fulfillment in his life. And all those people below, grounded in this hard and unforgiving world, are hoping that someday soon they too will have the opportunity to bring their dreams to fruition, because suddenly that plane is more than a mode of transportation. It is a symbol for their very salvation, the means that will enable them to soar, so that they might achieve some measure of fulfillment in their own lives. Not unlike a similar desire, shared by so many, sitting in a dark auditorium, staring up at those shadows on the screen.