Casablanca

Tonight he’ll be at Rick’s.  Eventually everyone goes to Rick’s. 

Casablanca (1942) is one of the best movies of all time.  It came out during World War II and yet doesn’t come close to the cheap tricks or laborious lectures of a propaganda movie.  Still, the context is there and there’s an agenda.  It won Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.  Parts of dialogue are known by everyone.  But there are plenty of movies that won awards and had quotable lines, but it’s the story that turns this into classic.  It’s a time that Americans venerate with values and melodrama that are sound and tasteful.  Thank goodness for censors—the fathers of subtle wit—for requiring that kind of gymnastics.  It’s just perfect in all respects.  If you don’t see this movie, you’ll regret it.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Play it, Sam.

The trail out of Europe goes from Paris to Marseilles and then into Africa, through Casablanca.  Once in Casablanca, refugees buy their way out to Lisbon if they have the money or the influence.  Otherwise, they wait.  Two German officials were killed on the train, carrying letters of transit that cannot be rescinded.  Ugarte (Peter Lorre) is a sleazy helper of refugees (for a price) and he’s got his hands on the letters.  They’re worth a lot and he gives them to Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) to hold onto.  “I don’t object to a parasite, just a cutthroat one.”  We don’t know much about Rick, who owns Rick’s Café, except that he sold guns to the Ethopians, fought for the Loyalists in Spain (for a fee), and is persona non grata with the Germans, so he’s a mercenary with a conscience.   Capt. Louis Renault (Claude Rains) is the local prefect in Casablanca—when it comes to women he’s a real democrat—who is completely without scruple.  Into Rick’s comes Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) who escaped a concentration camp, leads the resistance, and is in Casablanca to get an exit visa.  Two, in fact. He’s with a beautiful woman, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who knows Rick from Paris.  When Ugarte is apprehended, the letters destined for Lazlo are suddenly in play, and it’s up to Rick what to do.  Rival café runner, Mr. Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) –a monopolist on papers out of Casablanca—is interested in buying the letters (as well as Rick’s Café and pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) and expanding his monopoly to entertainment).  There’s more!  The Germans, in the person of Col. Strasser (Conrad Veidt), are in Casablanca to take care of Lazlo.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she had to come into mine.

I said Casablanca is a perfect movie, what do I mean by that?  I mean that it not only does no wrong, but does everything incredibly well.  The writing, the cast, and the direction all come together.  The writing (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch) is top notch—witty, moving story, and focused pacing.  The cast is not only filled with stars, it’s actually well-acted for any audience.  Leslie Howard was a star, but is a ludicrous presence–hunk-wise–to a modern viewer.  It may not be gritty realism, but it is a representation of reality, like a novel or short story, where characters are odd (and eloquent), but recognizable.  The direction (again, to me, a short hand of cinematography and editing) from Michael Curtiz is sharp and dynamic.  Time is well spent on the setting, the story’s background, and the characters are given room to be.

To get you out would take a miracle, and the Germans have outlawed miracles.

This movie also represents an entire era in film.  There’s something about Bogart—I won’t be as revolting as to call him Bogey like I knew the man—in a fedora and a mac.  Iconic is the word.  The soft glow of an ingénue’s face, dirty mustache of the villain, and shooting from the hip all get a place in this movie.  The grand string-filled score by Max Steiner is also particular to the times.  In those days, as in these, when they really tried to get something right in the score, they could come up with something spectacular.

I beg of you, madame and monsieur, be careful.  There are vulture, vultures everywhere.

I’m not blind to the fact that modern viewers want different things.  Its being in Black & White is a particular barrier for some.  However, if you keep a hold of what you want, you’re sure to get it.  For those looking for romance, and I mean real, good romance, then you won’t find a better example than with Rick, Ilsa, and Lazlo.  There’s even a Bulgarian couple to melt your cheesy heart.

If you want intrigue, then you’ve got plenty of that.  In the form of the hilarious Renault, Ugarte, and Rick with corruption abounding and subtlety rising.  Action?  There’s some of that, but I won’t lie, it isn’t a Bourne movie.  If you loved The Expendables (2010), you’ll have to have a wide spectrum to like Casablanca.

Comedy, as I said, is brilliant and ubiquitous.  If you’re a fan of linguistics, come to Casablanca and giggle in ecstasy.  In fact, if you’re unfamiliar with the era, you will find this to be one of many wonderful examples of terrific comedy.  The lines are delivered at break-neck speed here and elsewhere, so you’ll need to pack your sharpest ears.  At this moment in time, I’d lay a wager that it’s this quality that separates the lovers from the haters of classic (read: old) movies.  When enjoying a movie turns on the focus you use and you anticipate boredom, you won’t upset expectations, but you will be doubly cheating yourself of a good time.

Here’s looking at you kid.

When I watched this movie—I believe my third viewing—I wrote down about a dozen lines.  That’s a lot for me.  Usually, I’ll write down one that strikes me as emblematic and relax for the rest of the movie unless something brilliant jumps out.  I was about to settle on “Play it, Sam” as an antidote to the idea that Bogart says “Play it again, Sam” but couldn’t stop putting them down.  There are so many charming lines that are either great for their delivery or on their own.  There are plenty in here for your own discovery.  It’s a bit like Pope’s An Essay on Criticism in that way—plenty you recognize but there’s enough there to gratify yourself as smarter than you may actually be.  You can get that when dialogue isn’t functional.  And say what you like about old dialogue, it was never only functional.

In Casablanca, human life in cheap.

The question I have is whether it can or should be remade.  Apparently, Warner Brothers tried a couple times to make Casablanca into a television show.  The first I heard of that was when I watched the special featurette just now.  The fact that those ventures failed isn’t particularly surprising.  First of all, remaking something great that wasn’t itself an adaptation of something beloved—like a Dickens novel, for example—limits interpretation and originality.  A plausible attempt could be made, I think, with a more emphasis on context and less romance.  But why do it?  “There’s no originality in Hollywood anymore!”  I’m afraid the reality is that there is no originality in the taste of consumers anymore.  You may shake your fists at comic book films, but I also see the box office returns for comic book films as well as *eye roll* Madagascar and Ice Age films as well.  Don’t watch nothin’, won’t be nothin’.

That’s no reason to why, I suppose.  Here’s one.  To make it ours.  To put a stamp on something.  “We recognize this as good and wish to see it retold.”  You wouldn’t complain about a revival on Broadway or even seeing Shakespeare on the stage rather than on a DVD you particularly like—as if.  When you love something, it is nice to see it in a different form in order to experience that initial love afresh.  I don’t find that particularly cynical or unjustifiable.  And I’m willing to see that positive motive for something that is deeply loved by a small clique—like The Lord of the Rings films—than for the new shallow and widely popular pulp fiction of the day like The Da Vinci Code (2006) (Twilight (2008) was too low-hanging—I must add value).

That’s no reason to why for Casablanca.  It’s a great movie because of dialogue, character, and story.  Two of those are timeless.  The dialogue, however, would have to be scrapped for the most part.  Vaudeville’s been out of style for a long time, we just don’t joke like that anymore.  The story, however, of trying to escape a politically ambiguous region in conflict is timeless.  The Killing Fields (1984) could be so described as could Blood Diamond (2006) or Spy Games (2001).  Still, the network of characters is quite distinct and could be repeated to another time with another tone.

As with most Hollywood-oriented eye-rolls, this one is based on a lack of trust.  There have been too many cheap remakes–which is completely antithetical to the motivation of producing a remake—for there to be any confidence in a quality attempt.  I direct you to a very near parallel in The Ladykillers (1955) and its remake of 2004.  Although done by the reputable team, the Coen Brothers, the result was a film far inferior to its original with only a tiny alteration in setting to distinguish it.  One must point out that with DVD (and VHS before it), there is no justification for a shot-for-shot remake outside of a film school project.

Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I think Citizen Kane (1941) is nearly a terrible movie.  What are camera angles and innovation with a story that runs at a snail’s pace to nowhere?  Some people disagree with me strongly.  I say Casablanca deserves the spot at number one, perhaps even over The Godfather (1972) (another perfect movie) because it can be seen and enjoyed by all.  And yet, I acknowledge that some people find Casablanca slow and even boring.  I can’t understand it.  At its slowest point, the flashback to Paris, you have music, images, love, and a very nice piece of story.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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2 Responses to Casablanca

  1. bkmom says:

    Would the movie have a different outcome if it were filmed in modern times?

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