Casablanca (1942)

2010-07-09 16:00

Much like reviewing the Mona Lisa, Hamlet or Beethoven's Ninth, there's certainly an element of futility in trying to cast a new eye on Casablanca. It is, after all, a film that defines the word "classic" and in the nearly 70 years since its release, there are precious few movies that are as cherished and highly regarded as Casablanca

It has dialogue that isn't only endlessly quotable but has actually been quoted endlessly time and time again, keeping it firmly within the public consciousness as most of its contemporary films are consigned to the obscurity that passing decades would inevitably bring. But more than just the dialogue, the set-pieces, the very look and feel of Casablanca have reached far beyond the film itself. Don't even get me started on "As Time Goes By", the film's incandescent addition to the great canon of immortal original film songs.

Woody Allen's Play It Again Sam, his terrifically affectionate love letter to the magic of Casablanca is probably the most obvious example of the film's timelessness permeating all facets of pop culture, but there was no getting past the intense feeling of déjà vu that I experienced when I finally got round to watching Casablanca myself for the very first time. Like discovering a truly great song, I felt Casablanca had been part of my existence long before I'd actually seen it.

Casablanca is, in the end, perhaps THE shining example of cinema's power, of its uncanny ability to move us and enrich our lives. More than anything though, it is the very definition of "movie magic", as its disparate and seemingly incompatible parts are brought together in perfect alchemy, not by some great directorial vision but by circumstance and, if you are in the habit of believing in such a thing, chance. Unlike, say, Orson Welles' Citizen Cane, which was released mere months before, it isn't the result of auteur filmmaking, of a director fully in control of his vision. Casablanca is instead the result of a Hollywood system working in full swing to manufacture what may well be its greatest masterpiece.

The film's basic plot is simple enough: an American club owner in unoccupied France refuses to align himself with either side in the Second World War going on around him until an old lover makes a sudden and unexpected return to his life – with her very political, heroic husband in tow. What isn't so basic is the way it balances wry comedy, cynicism, romanticism with drama and some touches of war-based intrigue. It's understated genre bending of the highest order. That it is all paced so steadily, so masterfully is only further testament to both its perfectly pitched script and its impeccable direction.

It is the latter especially that should not be taken for granted. Casablanca is, as I may have already mentioned, not the work of an Orson Welles or an Alfred Hitchcock but of a workmanlike Hollywood director named Michael Curtiz, more noteworthy for his prolific work ethic than anything resembling artistic vision. A quick scroll down his IMDB page reveals a filmmaker with scores of movies to his credit, of which only a few are even remembered today – fondly or otherwise. And yet, all the experience attained by working on so many film productions clearly paid off in spades as he applied his professionalism to a film that was clearly bigger than he.

The performances did certainly help as Ingrid Bergman lit up the screen with a fragile vulnerability as our protagonist's beautiful long lost love and Claude Rains as the unscrupulous face of the law in Casablanca steals every scene he's in with a wittily mischievous screen presence. At the heart of the film, though, is Humphrey Bogart whose indisputable status as a truly legendary screen icon is as damn-near supernaturally unfathomable as anything in the production of Casablanca. He's a brutish, squat man with none of the good looks and charm of James Stewart or Cary Grant and yet he somehow enveloped the screen making it impossible to tear your eyes off him. Now that's a movie star.

And Casablanca is, undoubtedly and unquestionably, pure movie magic.

A bit of trivia (source:

* Rick never says "Play it again, Sam." He says: "You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it!". Ilsa says "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By"'.

* Actress Michèle Morgan asked for $55 000, but producer Hal B. Wallis refused to pay it when he could get Ingrid Bergman for $25 000.

* After shooting, Max Steiner spoke against using "As Time Goes By" as the song identifying Rick and Ilsa, saying he would rather compose an original song in order to qualify for royalties. However, Hal B. Wallis replied that since the filming had ended, Ingrid Bergman had cut her hair very short for For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) which was shooting at a distant locale and she therefore could not re-shoot already-completed scenes that had used "As Time Goes By".

* Because the film was made during WWII they were not allowed to film at an airport after dark for security reasons. Instead they used a sound stage with a small cardboard cutout airplane and forced perspective. To give the illusion that the plane was full-sized, they used little people to portray the crew preparing the plane for take-off. Years later the same technique was used in the film Alien (1979), with director Ridley Scott's son and some of his friends in scaled down spacesuits.

* Captain Renault's line, "You like war. I like women," was changed from "You enjoy war. I enjoy women," in order to meet decency standards.

* In the German version, the immortal line "Here's lookin' at you, kid", became, "Ich seh' Dir in die Augen, Kleines" which translates as "I look in your eyes, honey".

Memorable quotes:

Captain Renault: In 1935, you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side.
Rick: I got well paid for it on both occasions.
Captain Renault: The *winning* side would have paid you *much better*.

Ilsa: Play it once, Sam. For old times' sake.
Sam: [lying] I don't know what you mean, Miss Ilsa.
Ilsa: Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By."
Sam: [lying] Oh, I can't remember it, Miss Ilsa. I'm a little rusty on it.
Ilsa: I'll hum it for you. Da-dy-da-dy-da-dum, da-dy-da-dee-da-dum...
[Sam begins playing]
Ilsa: Sing it, Sam.
Sam: [singing] You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh / The fundamental things apply / As time goes by. / And when two lovers woo, / They still say, "I love you" / On that you can rely / No matter what the future brings-...
Rick: [rushing up] Sam, I thought I told you never to play-...
[Sees Ilsa. Sam closes the piano and rolls it away]

Ilsa: I wasn't sure you were the same. Let's see, the last time we met...
Rick: Was La Belle Aurore.
Ilsa: How nice, you remembered. But of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.
Rick: Not an easy day to forget.
Ilsa: No.
Rick: I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.

Rick: Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for.
Victor Laszlo: You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we'll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.
Rick: Well, what of it? It'll be out of its misery.
Victor Laszlo: You know how you sound, Mr. Blaine? Like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart.

A film that defines the word "classic", Casablanca is undoubtedly and unquestionably, pure movie magic.

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