|Directed by:||Michael Curtiz|
|Written by:||Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch|
|Cast:||Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains|
So begins the opening narration of 1942's Casablanca, set within a backdrop of desperation, fear and with the impending specter of yet another World War. When two of the highly coveted "Letters of Transit" find themselves in the hands of jaded, American nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Bogart) his cynicism and self-preservation are put to the test. But when a woman (Bergman) from Rick's past unexpectedly reenters his life he becomes emotionally and morally conflicted, leading to an ultimate decision between love and a greater cause.
I recently sat down and rewatched a classic ... and it got me thinking and I felt it was finally time to really pop my MFC film review cherry. (Although my full review with pics and other goodness can be found over here!)
So hold on, because we are going way back on this one!
Casablanca is a damn good film, but you shouldn't have needed me to tell you that. But what exactly is so exceptional about it?
When it was being made nobody involved expected it to be anything out of the ordinary and was, in fact, a very rushed production. The odds were stacked against it from the beginning, but something came together and produced one of the greatest films of all time. Was it the breakout performance of Humphrey Bogart? The current world socio-political climate? The chemistry and emotional depth brought to the table by Bergman? The dignified Henreid? The stellar supporting cast? Flawless dialog, one of the most tragic love stories or ingenuitive filmmaking? Surely it was all of these things that solidified Casablanca as the quintessential Hollywood Golden Age film, but there is so much more to praise and these only scratch the surface. We are going to take a closer look into the nuances of what exactly make Casablanca a timeless classic and essential viewing for anyone that professes to love film.
Let's start where are films start, with the writing. Adapted from the play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" Casablanca would go through an intense series of rewrites at the hands of at least 4 credited screenwriters who, for the most part, were working their separate versions in seclusion. It was a tumultuous start and even when the cameras began rolling May 25th, 1942 the script was far from finished. Despite several writers working on adapting Casablanca for the screen a solid story always remained the core with the different writers playing to their strong points it was a collaborative effort from the very beginning, and ended up winning the 1943 Academy Award for screenplay. Tight, witty dialog is a great basis for a film but it takes a whole lot more to make it something special. Between the four of them they took an unproduced play and turned it into a passable melodrama, but when the cameras started rolling that is where Casablanca really begins to shine.
If there is one thing that defines Casablanca it is it's diversity and this group of writers exemplified that, but not more than the cast. Of the cast there were only four credited American actors, the rest was an international who's who affair. Many were real life expatriots that had recently escaped to the U.S. adding their personal experiences to there roles, however brief. This rich background cast adds an extra depth that you rarely see in cinema, then or now, and the fact that so many people had a shared experience similar to what shown (in an albeit romanticized version) in Casablanca make it a time capsule of early World War II socio-political issues and is a unique look at the people that lived it.
Now on to some of the screens most celebrated performances, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henried and Claud Rains. Prior to Casablanca Bogart was more or less a hardboiled thug, while he still carries a similar persona into Casablanca there are so many more facets of his immense that he manages to exhibit. Through his apathetic exterior it is clear that there is a tortured soul that lies underneath and much, if not all, of Casablanca centers around and emotional and moral struggle within the character of Rick Blaine. When he finally breaks down into tears you share his pain, when he resolves to run off with Ilsa you can empathize. It is unquestionably Humphrey Bogarts film and everyone else feeds off of his performance and character and none so beautifully as Ingrid Bergman as Rick's former lover Ilsa. Bergman's passionate performance can only be matched by Bogarts tortured one. She is a woman divided between love and her cause (Personafied by the great Paul Henreid) and she tries with every essence of her being to do right by the latter. The history between Rick and Ilsa will threaten that devotion and Bergman's slow and emotional breakdown through out the course of the film will culminate in her choosing one over the other but at anytime throughout the course of Casablanca you know it could really go either way. Bergman's brilliant portrayal of Ilsa is truly what makes Casablanca a thrilling romance because it takes two to make a love story.
Far and above, however, my favorite aspect of Casablanca is the relationship between Rick and the the captain of the French police, Louis Renault (Claud Rains). Both have their jobs to do and it often means interfering with eachothers work but at no time does that strain their friendship, or as close to friendship as Rick's character will allow, and the banter between Bogart and Rains is a treat to watch. These two characters are the heroes of the story, even if it isn't obvious at first, with Rick as the bold anti-hero and Captain Renault as a passive aggressive Nazi subordinate. I would argue these are both the roles of each actor's career and anytime they share screen time is cinematic gold. You are never sure of what either man is capable of or if they have some kind of endgame in mind but they compliment eachother flawlessly. Both men have their own personal battles to wars to fight and it takes a climatic ending for them to both openly realize that their causes are one and the same.
Casablanca is dark and dire tale of love lost but there is also an underlying, and more important, theme of hope and a greater cause. The cause is worth sacrificing, worth dying, for and that was a hell of a powerful message when the world was engulfed in the middle of a second world war. It may have been made almost seventy years ago but it is a message that continues to resonate to this day, Casablanca is a film that will always be relevant and it was not one single thing that made this so. The combination of masterful writing, brilliant performance by the stars and the rest of the cast and some ingenius filmmaking under the restrictions of war time film production made it so.
Casablanca is a timeless masterpiece of cinema that is a film lover's sin not to experience. It is beautiful film in so many ways.
Hopefully I'll find time to post more reviews here and it can be the start of a beautiful friendship ... we'll see! :D