CASABLANCA (1942)

CasablancaA brief note on history: In the first few months of WWII, Nazi Germany overran most of mainland Europe. As France was being invaded, the French government split into two factions. The first was composed of those who accepted defeat and surrendered to Germany. The other refused surrender and continued fighting abroad, forming a government in exile. The remnants
of the French government that had capitulated formed a state that came to be known as “Vichy France”, after the French town it was based in. While nominally an independent nation, it was more like puppet regime of the Third Reich. The setting of the movie, the French colony of Morroco, exists in a sort of grey area: not under occupation by fascists, yet not really free from
them either.
 This was the second time I’d seen Casablanca, and I really love it. I actually asked at the beginning if Casablanca was a real place, because it does feel like a hazy, gray in-between – not quite real. From our first introduction to Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick, we are given clues as to his history. The question of why he is in Casablanca reveals itself in time. Rick, or Richard, delivers many of the one-liners that have made Casablanca one of the most quotable movies of all time. The real strength lies in his dry, deadpan delivery. One detestable character, Vichy Captain Louis Renault, is an unscrupulous character throughout the film. A casual acquaintance of Rick’s who regularly polices his saloon/gambling den, he uses his power to distribute traveling papers as leverage to procure sex from young women desperate to fly out of Casablanca to Lisbon and then on to the United States. By comparison, Rick is fiercely ethical – he takes decisive action on behalf of others and is very fair. But he begins to crumble when his former lover Ilsa walks into his bar.
Here we are at a real Golden Age of Hollywood classic, no obscure footnote in film history here. Casablanca is a film about passions. Of course there is the love story/love triangle at the plot’s core. But also hatred, nationalism and heroism- the passions of the World War still ongoing at the time of production- and with the outcome very much uncertain. Casablanca’s great strength is it’s dialogue. Character is revealed and plot is moved along by the words of the characters, but rarely in the “now I am going to explain something” tones found in more pedestrian fare. The characters don’t so much converse as spar. Its like verbal kung-fu theater. Aaron Sorkin is probably jealous for not having written it. And it is in these exchanges that Claude Rains comes close to stealing the movie. I have to admit to loving Captain Renault. Yes, his actions through most of the movie are reprehensible, but I think Rains played this cad of a man with just the right smirking charisma to elevate him to “loveable asshole.” By the way, the jerk who hangs around with the good guys and comes through for them at the end is my favorite film character, the classic “Han Solo.” And while we’re on the subject of scene stealing, let’s discuss Peter Lorre, maybe the greatest shifty eyed creep ever to skulk out in front of a camera. No wonder he doesn’t live 15 minutes past the credits.
Ah, the loveable asshole. You had to go there. I don’t know if I can get on board with that, given he extorts sex. This film is so incredible, but the cringeworthy moments ARE. SO. CRINGEWORTHY. For example, when Ilsa explains her plight, torn between two lovers, in an impossible position, and says to Rick, “You have to think for both of us.” I couldn’t help it – I threw up in my mouth a little. I know people flipped out about Ingrid Bergman, but to me she is impossibly eclipsed by Bogart. I suppose, though, that her character is written that way. It is also hard to imagine what she would have looked like not in black and white. I do want to point out that the scene in which Rick is reading Ilsa’s Dear John note and the rain is smearing the letters is dramatic art at its finest. It’s also super emo.
We are definitely watching a movie from 1943, not 2013. Perhaps it does deserve a caveat: women rarely do much in this movie except follow men around and no one so much as blinks when a full grown black man is referred to as a boy.
 And that, fair readers, is why I sometimes do hunger for more modern films!!! Although, only time with this blog will tell how many advances we’ve made as a society in terms of representation.
I think it was Mark Twain who said a classic is a book everyone praises but doesn’t read. That probably describes Casablanca, and that’s a real shame. It regularly ranks in critics’ “best ever” lists. It’s been quoted and misquoted so much it has become like Herotodus or the Bible or Shakespeare in that people know the words so much more than they know the source- and usually botch the words anyway. I think people would be surprised to find out what an engaging, funny and moving film it is. And remember: when he says the line “Welcome back to the fight. This time, I know our side will win.”, no one knew at the time they actually would.
Next film: THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)
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3 Responses to “CASABLANCA (1942)”

  1. If you’d like to see a Bogart film that treats black people and women (sort of) better, check out 1936’s Petrified Forest. It’s not Casa Blanca, but then, what is.

  2. Joan A. Shelton Says:

    The one who gives Ilsa some emotional & practical space is her husband, Victor. He allows her to say “no” to the visa at the Blue Parrot Café, to side-step his question about Paris at the hotel, and to frame her own plans for how to get back those letters of transit–Victor promises to go on believing and trusting in her, the exact same thing Ilsa’s “Dear John” letter asked Rick to do. For some reason Rick chose to believe the worst. Now watch Paul Henreid as he shows Victor constantly leaning in towards Ilsa, touching her hand, trying to reassure her. His love for her ran so deep he is willing to give up his life for hers when he begs Rick–his victorious rival–to use them to take Ilsa away to safety. No wonder Rick was surprised. Ilsa lucked out when she joined Victor on that plane.

  3. I completely agree with your comments about the film’s dialogue. To me, it feels compelling and energetic to listen to, despite the film’s age. Even though it has so many great one-liners, to me they didn’t feel like one-liners wedged into the script for the sake of being witty and clever. They all seemed nonchalantly organic to the story, in a way, without calling too much attention to themselves. I think this is owing to the fact that the film had great actors who deliver a line and really sell it.

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