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No. 2 (tie): “Casablanca” (1942)

“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
~~Rick Blaine

“Casablanca” is remembered as the motion picture industry’s happiest accidental success, and there’s much evidence to suggest the film deserves that reputation. This was a motion picture of meager ambitions: tight budget, hastily scribbled lines, an ending even leading lady Ingrid Bergman didn’t know until the last moment. It should have been a fiasco.Yet in a display of jaw-dropping magic, these elements combined to create a sly, wistful, sizzling romantic drama and one of the greatest films ever made.

Surely there are scads of essays and reviews to support this claim, but it’s better to speak from the heart. And “Casablanca” reminds this heart why directors keep making motion pictures: because they create worlds outside our own, with characters with hurts and longings that mirror our own yet seem so much bigger. We have room to explore all our feelings in these worlds. “Casablanca” reminds this heart why people love movies: because a cherished few take us on journeys we don’t want to come back from. “Casablanca,” adapted from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” takes us on such a trip, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman leading the way. The film captivates so partly because of their talent and their palpable chemistry; they don’t make onscreen pairings like this anymore. They don’t make leading men like Bogart anymore, either, actors who exude charm and crack wise while hinting at emotional damage that’s nearly beyond repair. When Bogart bites into lines like “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he doesn’t leave a crumb behind.

Thus, Bogart is a fine choice to lead the A-list cast of “Casablanca.” Bogart is Rick Blaine, a scornful merican expatriate living in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. Rick runs Café Américain, the local watering hole with a back room for gambling, and his ever-so-slight nods determine who sees that back room. His café is home of sorts for the downtrodden and the ones who trampled on them: Nazi officials like Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a member of the German army, and self-serving local police captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains); underhanded wheeler-dealers like Signor Ferrari (first-rate character actor Sydney Greenstreet) and small-time crook Ugarte (Lorre, always a delight), who stole coveted letters of transit — a free pass from German-run Europe to Portugal to the U.S. — from two murdered couriers; and refugees hoping to get to America. Rick welcomes them all, but he’s loathe to take up any cause that doesn’t benefit him … until Ilsa Lund (Bergman), the woman who burned him, turns up at the café wanting papers for herself and her husband Victor (Paul Henreid). This is the one thing that flaps the seemingly unflappable Rick: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Bogart’s weary, wry delivery of that famous line remains unmatched. It also suggests Ilsa’s reappearance is about so much more than letters of transit.

So many iconic lines are there in “Casablanca” that the movie nabbed six of the 100 spots in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movie Quotes.”  There must have been a cap to let other films in, for nearly every snippet of dialogue is exquisite enough to deserve a spot. Every line has a purpose. Unearthing old hurts or covering them up. Generating intimacy or backing away from it. Kowtowing to German authority or subverting it. “Casablanca” is one of the rare films with a script where every line feels deliberate and faultlessly placed. Arthur Edeson’s cinematography offers stunning backlighting for a script like this, with his palette of blacks and grays surrounding Bogart — the lighting in Bogart’s drunken scene with pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) is masterful — and special lighting used to envelope Bergman in a hazy cloud. Details like this do more than set the mood; they provide a look for the characters that is potently unforgettable.

The performances, too, are the kind that don’t fade. Bergman’s Ilsa is innocent  and yet has seen too much, sagged under the weight of the mistakes she’s made. Her beauty is ethereal, undeniable, but it’s her spirit and her will, dented though not broken, that beguiles us. She’s bewitching, and still she finds her match in Bogart, an actor renowned for his ability to play cynics ready with a quip and a cigarette. He deserves more attention for what he can do with his face, at once handsome and remote and amazingly expressive. Every time he says “here’s looking at you, kid,” those eyes make it different. Just as every time we see “Casablanca” it is different. It is never less incredible.

(Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait 10+ years to watch “Casablanca” again, discover it’s awesome and have to revise your Top 100 list. Again.)

16 Responses

  1. But this is our hill
    And these are our beans!

  2. The *winning* side would have paid you *much better*.

  3. Dammit, I can’t think of any good quotes!

  4. That’s a bad hat Harry.

  5. As close to perfection as you can get, I can not think of a single thing that would have made the movie better.

    “every snippet of dialogue is exquisite”

    That is so true ven in the little less significant scenes. The scene that always springs to mind id the old couple who are about to leave for America. They declare that they will be speaking nothing but English so they will feel at home when they get to America. He asks his wife the time:

    Mr. Leuchtag: Liebchen – sweetnessheart, what watch?

    Mrs. Leuchtag: Ten watch.

    Mr. Leuchtag: Such much?

    Carl: Hm. You will get along beautiful in America!

  6. Excellent review for a masterpiece of the seventh art. Claude Rains nearly steals the show: “Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so. “

    • @ Fandango: Every exchange is a thing of beauty. Here is my other favorite:

      Captain Renault: This is the end of the chase.
      Rick: Twenty thousand francs says it isn’t.
      Captain Renault: Is that a serious offer?
      Rick: I just paid out twenty. I’d like to get it back.
      Captain Renault: Make it ten. I’m only a poor corrupt official.

      @ Castor — That one ran a close second for the coveted “Quote at the Top of the Review” honor!

  7. He..he.. how uncanny! People were berating me yesterday (sort of) for not having seen this classic. I don’t want to read too much into this review until I’m done watching this, M, then I’ll ask you why in the world did he say ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’? I guess I SHOULD’ve seen this one because my aunts told me my late dad was a huge fan of Bogart, and what an influence he was on him (he was in the film biz for a while as director/screenwriter).

    • I hate it when people tell me I “have to see _______” because I just have to; that tends to make me resent the film before I even see it! But this is one everyone should see because it’s iconic; it’s a pop-culture touchstone; and, most important, it’s just that good. It surpasses the hype.

      Do come back and comment once you’ve seen it. I want to hear your thoughts. It might be a good thing you waited only a few years longer than I did to see it; having grown up and had a few life experiences, I think I appreciated “Casablanca” more. I wouldn’t have been ready for it at 13 or even 20.

      • Will do, M. Even just to get people to stop saying: ‘You haven’t seen Casablanca?” 🙂 But I guess I deserve it.

    • There is no shame in having not seeing a 70 year old film but when you see it you will kick yourself for not seeing it sooner. This isn’t some worthy piece of cinema history that you should see because some geek tells you its important this is a great film that is enjoyable and despite the sometimes weighty subject matter the amazing dialogue makes it fun. I have never heard it described as “a pop-culture touchstone” or anything like that but unfortunately I don’t have Meredith’s way with words. Just watch it, its one film that I can confidently recommend, anyone who likes movies will love this one!

  8. It really is an incredible film and you described it so well. I cry every time at the ending, even though you know he done it for all the right reasons the romantic part of me really wants him to leave with her *sighs*. One of my most heartbreaking scenes for sure.

    I need to watch it again sometime soon!

  9. Hands down, my favortie and most cherished movie of all time. Is it weird that I actually try not to over-watch it becasue I don’t want to spoil it’s magic? I hope not…but as far as quotes, I could do it backwards and forwards…my personal favorite dialog is between Bogart and Raines:

    I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man, it’s the romantic in me.

    It’s a combination of all three.

    Then what on earth brought you to Casablanca?

    My health, I came to Casablanca for the waters…

    Waters, what waters? We’re in the desert!

    I was misinformed:)

  10. Am I the only person that did not fall in love with this movie? I liked it, but I don’t think it’s the end all be all of film.

  11. […] not one element left uncalibrated, from the score (equal parts “Chinatown” and “Casablanca”) to the colors (all gray-tinged) to the dialogue (make friends with words like “yegg” […]

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