Wednesday, February 2, 2011
#32 Casablanca (1942)
"Here's looking at you, kid"
We’ve finally arrived at the big one. Casablanca is one of those movies, akin to Citizen Kane which is widely considered to be among the top five greatest movies of all time. This was another of those movies which are just plain great movies which I hadn’t actually seen until I started this list, although I am remiss to admit it. This is, as I said, because I absolutely abhorred black and white movies until relatively recently, and once I started liking black and white movies, I never was able to get around to watching it. A desire to see this movie, alongside such classics as Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon was the primary reason I started this list in the first place. Now having seen the film, I must say it is a superb film, and has not only met every expectation I had going into the film, but surpassed them handily. This is, simply put; among the greatest films I have ever seen.
1942, the world is engulfed in a World War. We are told that many Europeans caught under Nazi rule are trying to flee to America, but the going is tough. The easiest way out is through Portugal, but getting to Portugal is no easy matter, and so many refugees are taking a more roundabout route, generally from Marseille to Algeria to Casablanca, in Unoccupied France, and from thence to Portugal, and while getting into Casablanca is easy, getting out can prove to be a much more difficult venture. After this introduction, we are thrust straight into the action as recent murders have rallied the police who are racing through the streets, rounding up the “usual suspects”. One man is gunned down after he turns out to be carrying out of date papers. We are then taken to the arrival of some planes, which we learn are carrying a number of German high brass, looking for someone. The head of Casablanca, Captain Renault welcomes the Nazis to Casablanca, and they leave the airport together. After this we are introduced to our main character, Rick. Rick is an American, who, like many residents of Casablanca, has been stuck in the town, unable to receive visas to leave the country, and so he has given up trying to get away, instead opening a cantina which has become one of the most popular bars in town. Rick is a cynical, selfish man, who “never sticks his neck out for anybody”. Rick, we find, is well acquainted with Renault, who informs Rick that a freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo, who is highly wanted by the Nazis has recently arrived in Casablanca, and is presumed to be on the lookout for visas so that he may flee to America. He is also told that one Major Strasser has arrived from Germany with the intent of not letting that happen. Later on in the night Rick comes into the ownership of some visas which had been stolen recently; visas that are irreversible, can be given to anyone, and would guarantee passage out of the country. Sometime after this happens, Laszlo enters the cantina with his wife, Ilsa Lund. It turns out that Ilsa knows Rick very well, as we learn in a flashback that Ilsa and Rick had been lovers in Paris before the Nazis arrived, they had even talked of marriage, but when the Nazis arrived, and Rick asked Ilsa to flee with him to Casablanca, she left him waiting in the rain at the train station. This, we learn, is the reason for Rick’s extreme apathy and selfishness; we also learn that in spite of her slighting him, he is still madly in love with the woman.
Laszlo tries a variety of methods to get himself and his wife out of the country, but are stopped by Renault and Strasser. Eventually Strasser decides that Laszlo is too dangerous to be allowed to live, and so pressures Renault to arrest and execute him. Ilsa, meanwhile, visits Rick and attempts to get the visas he has, by force if necessary. Rick threatens her to shoot him, but Ilsa cannot do it; she still loves him. Later that night, Laszlo is arrested, and Rick, the jaded freedom fighter who never sticks his neck out for anyone embarks on a plan to rescue him and get both he and his wife out of Casablanca. After a number of crossings and double crossings, Rick gets Laszlo freed, and takes Laszlo, Ilsa, and Renault (who he is holding at gunpoint) to the airport, with Strasser right on his tail. Although Ilsa and Rick love each other deeply, Rick realizes that Ilsa is Laszlo’s motivation for fighting, so he tells Ilsa to go with Laszlo to Portugal. Reluctantly she leaves, following Laszlo into the mist. Shortly after their plane takes off, Strasser arrives on the scene to confront Renault and Rick. Rick shoots Strasser, but Renault, another man who has never stuck his neck out for anyone, covers for Rick, and the two of them flee the country together, Rick saying those eternally famous lines, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The acting in this movie is simply stunning; it’s hard not to be so with such legendary actors as Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains. Everyone in this movie was good. Bogart, who plays Rick, was superb. You really see him as a cynical, selfish man, who hates the world and everyone in it, but at the same time you can really feel the underlying drive behind this philosophy; you can feel the pain of being literally left out in the rain by Ilsa. What I loved even more was his change from selfish man to selfless man, as his reawakened love for Ilsa drives him to stick his neck out for more and more people. It’s a very touching change. Bergman was equally good as Ilsa. You can see she cares deeply for her husband Laszlo, but you can also feel the underlying love that still remains for Rick. Perhaps the most moving moment in this movie is when Ilsa has Rick at gunpoint, trying to get the visas out of him. Rick challenges Ilsa, daring her to shoot him, but ultimately she cannot and breaks down in his arms. It is an extremely moving scene, and one that made the movie for me. What’s even greater than the two actors is the incredible and oft-noted fantastic chemistry between Bergman and Bogart. I don’t feel that I can aptly describe it for myself, but it was just outstandingly good, and will probably serve as the metric with which I rate romantic chemistry in movies from here on out. I liked Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo as well. He conveys his character extremely well, and I could see him actually being a freedom fighter, so moving were his speeches and the way in which he carried himself. Finally, is Claude Rains, who played Renault. I think he was my second favorite performer in this movie next to Bogart. He plays his character with such gusto; showing a man in many ways similar to Rick in his apathy and general unconcern with the problems of the people in town were conveyed very well. Unlike Rick, however, Renault carries underneath the heart of a pragmatist, a man who sees opportunity in a town in which everyone needs his help, and is perfectly willing to exploit this position. So while he is friendly and affable towards Rick, at the same time he is cruel and mean to just about everyone else. Beneath all of this, however, he has a soul. Although he gives the sense of unconcern, he truly does care for the plight of the people, or should I say certain people. When he delivers those lines at the end of the movie, “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.” I must say my mouth was agape for a good 5 minutes afterwards, that’s how great of a “Crowning moment of heartwarming” it is. Rains carries the complexity and contradiction inherent in Renault very well and very believably.
The directing in this movie is just as good as the acting, if not better. This movie was directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz, who is on a number of other movies on this list, such as the already reviewed “Adventures of Robin Hood”, which I have already reviewed. The cinematography in this film is fantastic. In Robin Hood I mentioned that, while the scenes are for the most part well shot, the shooting isn’t a major player. In this movie we see something wholly different. Everything in this movie is very cleverly shot. One scene I particularly like is the introduction of Rick. The scene starts at his hand, which signs his name to a bill, the camera then pans up until his whole face is shown. Even better than this is the lighting in this movie; just like in Robin Hood, Curtiz really likes to play around with shadows. I really like the way Curtiz plays with shadow and lighting in this movie to tell a story outside of the actual story. It is a facet of this movie which I don’t think I can adequately describe on paper, so I will just trust you to see it for yourself. I also really liked the pacing in this movie, namely, the contrasts. What I mean is that Curtiz has a manner of delivery in which he gives us a calm, serene scene, and then immediately contrasts that with a break marked by action and noise. It’s jarring, but also very well done; on the whole it’s very good.
The writing in this movie is just fantastic. The pacing is great; there was never a moment in this film in which I found myself checking the clock. There’s a nice flow of story, and it never really bogs down, which is awesome. What’s more is the movie tells a very compelling and epic story in a mere hour and a half. Another great thing about this movie is the dialogue. There are so many classic lines in this movie; that’s a given, but even better are little pieces that are just as good. One example is a German couple who’s finally gotten leave to go to America, and they explain that they are speaking exclusively in English now. Then one of the asks, “What watch?” referring to the time, to which the other replies, “10 watch”, little things like these make the movie for me. I also really like the casting in this film. What one may not realize is that the vast majority of this cast is European; in fact only 3 actors in this movie are American. The fact that the movie employs a wide range of actors and extras from all over the world really helps contribute to the “melting pot” feel of Casablanca that Curtiz was going for.
Finally, I loved the music in this movie. “As Time Goes By”, which comes to be the thematic linking music of the whole movie, is just wonderful and heartwarming. Added on to this is a lot of jazz, and I love jazz, so those moments were very good. On top of these is some wonderful loud ominous brass sounds mixed throughout, which really help contribute to that Curtiz style of sharp contrasts. It’s all just wonderful.
I don’t really feel like I need to say why this movie is on my list. A quick visit to Casablanca’s IMDB page will tell you as much immediately. It is considered by many to be somewhere between the 1st and 4th greatest movie ever made, intermixed with Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and The Godfather. 7 or 8 of the lines in this movie are listed among the best in film. Moreover this movie has become legendarily famous for the powerful performances of Bogart and Bergman and the magical chemistry they bring to the whole thing. Everything about this movie, from the acting, to the directing, to the music, to the pacing, to the writing, to the dialogue, even to the editing is absolutely flawless. Simply put, this movie doesn’t just live up to the hype, it exceeds it.