Why does Casablanca appear on many "favorite" lists but few "best" lists? Is Bogart too prototypical, too obviously the film fan's male icon of choice? Or maybe it's because of director Michael Curtiz, who churned out so many workmanlike popular entertainments that to place him among the likes of Ozu, Bergman and Renoir is inconceivable. David Thomson, the best writer on film today, holds Casablanca up as fine economical storytelling, but he eventually relegates it to "searingly effective" melodrama. Few would contend it is not well made. For me, however, the key question is: Does Casablanca possess the moral undertones inherent in great art--and great storytelling?
Let's start with Rick's Café Américain. It's the movie's centerpiece, at once refuge and hunting ground, a place of repose and anxiety. We enter along with women in evening dress and men wearing fez and white suits. A waiter looks directly at us as though we are expected; after all, everybody comes to Rick's. We're taken in, so to speak, even permitted to glimpse the small cabals that have one purpose and only one: to escape Casablanca and the Nazi threat. The camera glides with deceptive ease, unwilling perhaps to settle down.
We realize we've crossed a threshold, entered a carefully delineated space. Boundaries, both geographic/political and personal, underpin and frame "Casablanca."
The movie begins with a map that extends from Europe to Casablanca in French Morocco, itself a construct of Nazi hegemony. Rick's Café Américain is equally illusory, a supposed sanctuary from a world at war. This saloon undergoes two "invasions," the first by the Third Reich in the person of Major Strasser, the second by Victor Lazlo and Ilsa Lund, who unknowingly breach the boundaries Rich has so carefully set for himself.
We are permitted further ingress into the gambling room, where even an official of the Deutschebank, with a slight sign from Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) to the burly doorman, is stopped at the door. It's our first hint that lines have already been drawn: no Nazis--or Nazi flunkies--allowed. We've arrived finally at the heart of the matter, or rather at what the French call the point d'appui, the story's fulcrum. We realize that Casablanca, part of unoccupied France, is at uneasy stasis and the slightest push in one direction can cause crises. Rick Blaine doesn't know it yet, but he is at that mutable center and his decisions will affect the course of many people's lives.
We see him as a solitary figure whose main preoccupation, he tells Major Strasse (Conrad Veidt), is to run a saloon; he may well have added "and maintain the status quo." He is a man who sticks his neck out for no one, a neutral in an untempered time. But the center will not hold: the Germans have seen to that. Michael Wood has called Bogart's face "...a picture of what isolation looks like at its best: proud, bitter, mournful, and tremendously attractive." But not a face, I might add, content with inaction. It is a face that invites curiosity. Curtiz's straightforward style insures this symbiosis between audience and screen by not having anything come between us and Bogart: no fussy camera work or artful sets or distracting sub-plots. The story and characters rule.
first thirty minutes or so Casablanca is a carefully symmetrical
work, like the opening bars of a Mozart symphony. Consider a few
pairings: Rick Blaine/Louis Renault, Allies/Nazis, Victor
Laszlo/Ilsa Lund, Laszlo/Strasser--and by extension, captivity
(Casablanca)/freedom (America). (I might be tempted to pair Sidney
Greenstreet and Peter Lorrie as well, only because through many movies I
have come to regard them as inseparable opposites.) Tellingly, this equanimity is
threatened by a song. "Play it, Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'."
What intrudes on the present is the past, not only Rick and Ilsa's past
together, but more importantly their pasts apart from each other. The young Ilsa Lund
(Ingrid Bergman) had fallen in love with a leader of the underground
resistance, with an ideal really, embodied by a rather bloodless Victor
Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Pre-Ilsa Rick had spent a good part of his
life opposing fascism, which is all we really know about him.
What is so important in this final scene is the underlying message Rick is telling Ilsa: by going with Victor she can rekindle the idealism she had when they first met. "We'll always have Paris" is more than a bittersweet reminder of love lost: it is Rick's recovering his own pre-Ilsa idealism.
Renault is correct when he tells Rick that not only is he a sentimentalist--which he has suspected all along--but now he's become a patriot. They both have. This movie is, after all, about choosing sides, and in the end everyone has made a choice.
Much has been written about the dialogue, perhaps the most quoted in all of film history, the impeccable casting of Bogart and Bergman, Greenstreet and Lorrie, Conrad Veidt and Dooley Wilson--and especially Claude Rains who energizes the screen whenever he appears. There is no need to talk of these qualities here.
I am aware
that by and large I've argued for a favorite movie rather than a best
one. I was shaped by the war, and, frankly, by Hollywood's portrayal
of it. Nostalgia has a persuasive face, yet I cannot be persuaded
that it alone is capable of holding me for these many years.
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