29 March 2004 | RWiggum
We'll Always Have Casablanca
Spoilers ahead, but then again, who isn't familiar with Casablanca, even if one hasn't seen it?
I've been watching 'Casablanca' over and over again since I bought the Special Edition DVD, and is there any film out there one can watch again and again without ever being tired of it? And does any film appeal to a broader audience? Just everything about it seems to be as close to perfection as it only can be.
But what exactly is so special about it? Is it its great genre mix, never equaled by another film? When we think of 'Casablanca' first, we remember it as a romantic film (well, most of us do). But then again, its also a drama involving terror, murder and flight. One can call it a character study, centering on Rick. And there are quite a few moments of comedic delight, just think of the pickpocket ("This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere!") or the elderly couple on the last evening before their emigration to the US ("What watch?").
But 'Casablanca' is not only great as a whole, it still stands on top if we break it apart and look at single lines of dialog, scenes or performances alone. Is there any other film which has more quotable dialog than 'Casablanca'? 'Pulp Fiction' is on my mind here, and 'All About Eve' and 'Sunset Blvd.' come close, too, but still I think 'Casablanca' tops everything else. And not only is the dialog great, it's unforgettably delivered, especially by Humphrey Bogart ("I was misinformed.") and Claude Rains ("I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here"). Many of scenes have become a part of film history; the duel of 'Die Wacht am Rhein' and 'La Marseillaise' is probably one of the greatest scenes ever shot (the only I can think of that would rival it for the #1 spot is Hynkel and the globe from Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator'), and the last scene is probably even familiar to the few people who've never seen 'Casablanca'. Am I the only one who is absolutely convinced that the film wouldn't have become what it is today if Rick and Ilsa would have ended up as the lucky couple?
About the performances: So much has been said about the uniqueness of Humphrey Bogart's and Ingrid Bergman's chemistry as Rick and Ilsa, about Claude Rains' terrific turn as Renault, about the scene-stealing performances by Peter Lorre (one of the 10 all-time greatest actors) as Ugarte and Sydney Greenstreet as Ferrari and about Dooley Wilson stopping the show as Sam. I'd love to emphasize here two other performances, one that is not mentioned quite as often and one which is blatantly overlooked: Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser had a really difficult task here, as his character is the only evil one, but still Strasser is not a one-dimensional character, and it took more than 50 years until another actor gave an equally (maybe even more) impressive performance as a Nazi, Ralph Fiennes in 'Schindler's List'. But why no one ever mentions S. K. Sakall, who plays Carl, the jolly waiter at Rick's Café Américain, is beyond me. He has definitely more screen time than Lorre, Greenstreet and Wilson, and probably about as much as Veidt, and he's a joy whenever he's on the screen. I simply love his reaction when the pickpocket ("Vultures everywhere!") accidentally bumps into him, or the reaction to the "What watch"-dialog. Or how he says he gave Strasser the best table, "being a German, he would have taken it anyway". His performance is simply criminally overlooked.
So is there a weakest link in 'Casablanca'? Every film, no matter how close to perfection, has a minor flaw or two, so one can find them in 'Casablanca', too, if one really tries hard. So yes, one might ask how much sense the entire mumbo jumbo about the letters of transit makes. One might point out that Paul Henreid, although his performance is certainly good, doesn't come close to the greatness of any of his co-stars. However, the film is so close to perfection that I'm almost ashamed that I'm so desperately trying to find less-than-perfect elements.
So whatever films will come, how many sequels will overflow the screen, and how much junk we will have to sit through, one thing is certain if we're desperate to see a great film: We'll always have Casablanca!