Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

11Apr11

Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund). Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein et al. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Rating: U. Running time: 102 minutes.

At the time of Casablanca’s release, viewers could have undoubtedly analysed it with ease, blissfully ignorant of the blessing time would lavish upon it over the years to come. I have no such privilege, and possess mixed feelings about whether my position is a good one. Would I have been capable of recognising Casablanca’s quality and predicting its enduring popularity, or would I have been only quietly impressed by this Bogart-Bergman romance unfolding in the context of World War Two?

Even when partially blinded today by its legendary status, I have reservations about its love affair. Whether this was how people expressed themselves back then or whether films were gagged by conservative censors, I do not know. But either way the stunted ‘outpourings’ of ’emotion,’ and tongueless, cold kissing are so unreal that they almost alienate. The same staleness is present in The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Sayonara and countless other old movies, and Casablanca in no way bucks the trend. ‘I love you’ has never sounded so unconvincing, and seems to be said either too quickly, without the groundwork of a blooming longterm relationship, or at least based on a background of time together that we’re not given the opportunity to observe. The result isn’t nice: we’re left with little choice but to imagine that the love is somehow real, despite all unfortunate appearances to the contrary. That this vice even infects Casablanca is tragically undeniable.

Let’s take that as a given, though, and brush it to one side. For even when Casablanca makes this lofty demand of us, it still does ample work on our behalf elsewhere. The majority of its 100 minutes revolve around Rick Blaine’s – Bogart’s – bar. A combination of bourgeois refugees fleeing from German-occupied Paris, most on their way to America, and political and police heavyweights, all relax and do late night business here. At the roulette table, your own table or by the piano – all combine to give the image of a place of paradise in this home away from home.

But after this brief scene setting comes the drama with the arrival of Ilsa – the staggering Ingrid Bergman. She is, confusingly, both the wife of a political dissident called Laszlo, and also the apparent past lover of Rick. He at least comes across as a bitter, cynical man, but also ends up a coincidentally powerful one: Ilsa and husband need visas if they are to escape to the US. Rick possesses such valuable documents, and the dilemma begins.

The problem stems from the fact that Rick’s past with Ilsa torments him. The film’s remembered for the final line about the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but for me the winner lies earlier: “of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” She’s perplexed, and torn between two men; he’s split between selling the visas to strangers, giving only one to the husband, taking them for Ilsa and himself and finally letting them both go as originally planned. His egoist aura apparently precludes the latter, but then his sympathy with Laszlo’s cause seems obvious, even if going unsaid. The result is a clash of self-interest and altruism, personal love and detached political principle; a recipe, in short, for a nightmare in life, but a dream in cinema.

I love Casablanca. I love it because where the aforementioned Maltese Falcon is supposed to be the classic Bogart style-fest, it’s Casablanca that lacks a lunatic wild goose chase, instead having an all too human plot around which to hang Humph’s effortless, smooth presence and Bergman’s barely paralleled beauty. The lack of real romance is a minor penalty in a film still totally driven by its stars, characters and terribly tricky scenario. Collectively they constitute a classic that is, indisputably, rightfully named.

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