This is one of those movies that everyone knows about, but not many have seen. Its iconography has made its way into pop culture so completely that we can’t escape its influence, but its reputation as being an artsy-fartsy slow ponderous film has alienated it from a lot of contemporary viewers, which is a shame.
Even if you’ve never seen this film, you’ve probably heard any number of the film’s legendary quotes which have made their way into our cultural vocabulary, including the oft-misquoted “play it again, Sam.”
Based on the then-unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, it tells the story of a cynical bar owner (Humphrey Bogart) who is doing his best to remain neutral during the events of WWII, even as refugees from Europe, fleeing the advance of the Nazis, flood the Moroccan city of Casablanca eager to book passage to America. Rick’s existence is threatened when an old flame, Elsa (Ingrid Bergman) arrives with her husband, the freedom fighter Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), Rick has to decide just how neutral he’s going to be, especially with Captain Renault (Claude Raines), the morally dubious police captain, breathing down his neck.
While one would expect Bogart and Bergman, who have wonderful on-screen chemistry, to steal focus, the whole cast is so good that it still feels like an ensemble piece. Major Strasse (Conrad Veidt), Sam (Dooley Wilson), Ferarri (Sydney Greenstreet), Ugarte (Peter Lorre), and Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau) all give the story a deeper resonance. This isn’t just the story of two lovers who missed their chance, this is the story of all of Europe reacting to the threat of Nazi occupation. I’ve even heard some critics say that the story itself acts out the events of World War II with each person representing each country involved, but I think that may be a bit of a stretch. In any case, it does lead to some fascinating analysis.
What makes this film work so well is how seamlessly the script juggles the huge cast and makes the audience care about everyone involved. Yvonne is a relatively minor character, but by the time, she stands up, belting out “La Marseillaise” in defiance of the Nazi soldiers who were singing their own national anthem, your heart breaks right along with hers as you experience her grief at being displaced from her home.
It’s one of the film’s most powerful moments, but it never would have worked if Yvonne was treated as a throwaway character. That’s the beauty of the film; everything fits together so neatly that, by the time the plot reaches its denouement, you feel like you’ve experienced something important.
But let’s not ignore the central duo. Rick and Elsa’s history is beautifully conveyed in the body language of the two leads. They’re familiar but hesitant, bitter but tender, and their feelings toward each other are both unresolved and resolved. Bogart and Bergman are so electrifying on screen, you really feel a pang of loss when they don’t end up together.
Lastly, I have to mention Claude Raines’ character, Captain Renault, who’s my favorite character in the whole film. He’s a charming, slimy rebel whose allegiances waver as often as a flag in the wind, and yet you can’t help but like him. In the end, he makes the right decision, so it’s OK to adore him as much as I do. *hugs Renault*
It’s a gorgeous film with a brilliant cast, and you need to watch it. I know I say that about all of these, but it’s true because they’re glorious! So do it!
If all goes well, I’ll be back on Monday with a review. I’ve heard good things about Free State of Jones, so I’ll try to see that this weekend. If life gets in the way, I’ll see you on Saturday!
It’s time for another entry in The Gem Collection!
It’s known as the Greatest Film in History (though recent lists have placed Hitchcock’s Vertigo in that position). I had a film studies professor tell me once that students were often disappointed by it since its groundbreaking visual and stylistic achievements have been so often duplicated by pretty much every director on Earth that they don’t seem all that mindblowing to contemporary viewers. As a result, many modern viewers have labeled it overrated, undeserving of the heaps of hyperbolic praise that swarm about this film like screaming birds. Continue reading
Last week’s post about the days of classic mid-century fantasy films was a boatload of fun, so I wanted to throw some reviews of my favorite film classics in to dilute the onslaught of Disney mania that overtakes me…well, all the time. Also, since most of what is coming out now is remakes or sequels, I thought it would be fun to plumb the depths of the Hollywood archives and revisit some films that are super amazing all on their lonesome. Continue reading