16 January 2005 | slokes
The Fundamental Things Apply...
"Casablanca" remains Hollywood's finest moment, a film that succeeds on such a vast scale not because of anything experimental or deliberately earthshaking in its design, but for the way it cohered to and reaffirmed the movie-making conventions of its day. This is the film that played by the rules while elevating the form, and remains the touchstone for those who talk about Hollywood's greatness.
It's the first week in December, 1941, and in the Vichy-controlled African port city of Casablanca, American ex-pat Rick Blaine runs a gin joint he calls "Rick's Cafe Americaine." Everybody comes to Rick's, including thieves, spies, Nazis, partisans, and refugees trying to make their way to Lisbon and, eventually, America. Rick is a tough, sour kind of guy, but he's still taken for a loop when fate hands him two sudden twists: A pair of unchallengeable exit visas, and a woman named Ilsa who left him broken-hearted in Paris and now needs him to help her and her resistance-leader husband escape.
Humphrey Bogart is Rick and Ingrid Bergman is Ilsa, in roles that are archetypes in film lore. They are great parts besides, very multilayered and resistant to stereotype, and both actors give career performances in what were great careers. He's mad at her for walking out on him, while she wants him to understand her cause, but there's a lot going on underneath with both, and it all spills out in a scene in Rick's apartment that is one of many legendary moments.
"Casablanca" is a great romance, not only for being so supremely entertaining with its humor and realistic-though-exotic wartime excitement, but because it's not the least bit mushy. Take the way Rick's face literally breaks when he first sees Ilsa in his bar, or how he recalls the last time he saw her in Paris: "The Germans wore gray, you wore blue." There's a real human dimension to these people that makes us care for them and relate to them in a way that belies the passage of years.
For me, and many, the most interesting relationship in the movie is Rick and Capt. Renault, the police prefect in Casablanca who is played by Claude Rains with a wonderful subtlety that builds as the film progresses. Theirs is a relationship of almost perfect cynicism, one-liners and professions of neutrality that provide much humor, as well as give a necessary display of Rick's darker side before and after Ilsa's arrival.
But there's so much to grab onto with a film like this. You can talk about the music, or the way the setting becomes a living character with its floodlights and Moorish traceries. Paul Henreid is often looked at as a bit of a third wheel playing the role of Ilsa's husband, but he manages to create a moral center around which the rest of the film operates, and his enigmatic relationship with Rick and especially Ilsa, a woman who obviously admires her husband but can't somehow ever bring herself to say she loves him, is something to wonder at.
My favorite bit is when Rick finds himself the target of an entreaty by a Bulgarian refugee who just wants Rick's assurance that Capt. Renault is "trustworthy," and that, if she does "a bad thing" to secure her husband's happiness, it would be forgivable. Rick flashes on Ilsa, suppresses a grimace, tries to buy the woman off with a one-liner ("Go back to Bulgaria"), then finally does a marvelous thing that sets the whole second half of the film in motion without much calling attention to itself.
It's not fashionable to discuss movie directors after Chaplin and before Welles, but surely something should be said about Michael Curtiz, who not only directed this film but other great features like "Captain Blood" and "Angels With Dirty Faces." For my money, his "Adventures Of Robin Hood" was every bit "Casablanca's" equal, and he even found time the same year he made "Casablanca" to make "Yankee Doodle Dandy." When you watch a film like this, you aren't so much aware of the director, but that's really a testament to Curtiz's artistry. "Casablanca" is not only exceptionally well-paced but incredibly well-shot, every frame feeling well-thought-out and legendary without distracting from the overall story.
Curtiz was a product of the studio system, not a maverick like Welles or Chaplin, but he found greatness just as often, and "Casablanca," also a product of the studio system, is the best example. It's a film that reminds us why we go back to Hollywood again and again when we want to refresh our imaginations, and why we call it "the dream factory." As the hawker of linens tells Ilsa at the bazaar, "You won't find a treasure like this in all Morocco." Nor, for that matter, in all the world.