Casablanca (1942)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

What it the world do you write about Casablanca? And why would you? I suppose if I were possessed of some brilliantly critical mind that, after much groaning and mulling and sleepless nights, I might come up with some unusual insight but, given my limited cognitive abilities, that ain’t going to happen.

Yet every time I watch Casablanca, which is often, I think, “I should write about this.” I think that’s because I’ve written about quite a few movies and the list seems somehow incomplete with Casablanca not there.

But I really don’t have anything to add that isn’t, at best, redundant.

I can say this though (and it’s the same thing I said about The Philadelphia Story), apart from the fact that everything that can be said about Casablanca has probably been said, I really can’t “review” the movie because whenever I watch it, within about thirty seconds of it starting, my critical faculties are off. I’m into the stream (or dream, if you prefer) of the movie. I just sit there and watch it. Enjoy it.

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942).

Bogart isn’t Bogart. He’s Rick. Bergman isn’t Bergman. She’s Ilsa. Henreid is Laszlo. Claude Rains is Captain Renault.

Okay, although Peter Lorre plays Ugarte he’s still Peter Lorre. So there’s one exception.

The point is, the movie is so easily engaging I find it impossible to think about shots, edits, lighting, structure … anything. I just flow with the film and watch it play out, loving every moment. The actors aren’t their celebrity personas; they are the characters they’re playing.

I still don’t know how they made a movie this good. Mind you, no one else does either so I’m not alone.

I find it interesting that when I think of the movie I don’t think of it as art, though it is that. I think of it as an exceptional example of craft. I think that, if anything, is the secret of its success. Regardless of what the job was –director, writer, actor, lighting, whatever – whomever was doing that job brought their best. And there must have been some kind of happy synergistic effect.

(Yes, I’m speculating. As mentioned, I’ve no clue how they managed to make such a great film.)

Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca (1942).

I also have a theory: the best movies always tell love stories, though the love story doesn’t dominate the film. In Casablanca, as others have discussed, there’s romance, intrigue, mystery, suspense, action … the “usual suspects.” But it’s the love story, the romance, that hooks people and is what they remember.

The danger of a love story is sentimentality. Here, in Casablanca, that’s mitigated by the cynical humour, which itself is mitigated by the romance. Rick (and Captain Renault) are cynical but, as the Captain notes, it disguises a romantic. So the dark aspects of the cynical humour aren’t as harsh and unpalatable as they often are in contemporary stories where they aren’t mitigated. Black is black and largely disagreeable.

Contrary to Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that, “You are what you pretend to be,” in Casablanca none of the primary characters are what they pretend to be. Rick and Renault aren’t the hard-bitten cynics they pretend they are and Ilsa, who pretends to love Laszlo, in the end admits (as we already knew) that she really loves Rick.

Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) watch the plane carrying Ilsa fly away.

What I’m trying to get around to saying is that, while a love story and, yes, sentimental, the sentimentality that kills so many other attempts at this sort of thing never quite gets out of hand. It’s tempered throughout by the humour (and a few other elements). And that humour, largely dark and cynical, is never overwhelming because the romance tempers it.

Somehow, a fine balance is struck.

And so, I’ll watch this movie again and again and again. And also again and again and again, I’ll scratch my head and wonder how it got made and why it works so damn well.

Perhaps, as they say in Shakespeare in Love, “It’s a mystery.”

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