Friday, February 3, 2012
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 3
Writer: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch (adaptation), Murray Burnett, Joan Alison (play)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Star: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
Everyone knows the old quote Howard Hawks used to describe a good movie: “Three great scenes. No bad ones.” “Casablanca” is a movie with a seemingly endless amount of great scenes and not a bad one anywhere to be found. I suppose that’s why it’s almost at the top of AFI’s list, and why it’s so easy to fall in love with. Here is a simple story, extremely well told, where every minute or two you smile with recognition as you see a classic moment and realize what made it so special and perfect in the first place.
We open in the title city, a place where everyone seems eternally stuck, hoping to escape to America away from Nazi forces. The only one who doesn’t seem to want to leave is Rick (Humphrey Bogart). He owns a bar where everyone finds themselves every night, good or bad, poor or rich. One night, Rick’s lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into the bar…with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and it just happens that he’s enemy number one for Nazi officials, who are desperate to find a reason to arrest him and take him to a concentration camp before he can get to America. Though the movie isn’t a thriller, it involves one hell of a McGuffin: To get out of Casablanca, Ilsa and Laszlo need “letters of transit,” impossible to get, and Rick just happens to have what seems like the last two in the city.
It may seem as if the movie is purposely manipulative just by reading the synopsis, but it never seems forced or overwrought when you are watching it. That begins with the casting—has there ever been another movie where the cast is, as a whole, so uniformly perfect for their roles? Bogart, known for his tough guy roles, plays another one here…but we get to see him fall head over heels for Ilsa and lose her in flashback, so instead of just being a dick we understand his pain. And Bergman was never lovelier, and the way she plays the small intricacies of the love triangle she is at the center of would have been lost on a lesser actress. That lesser actress would have simply been making love to Rick with her eyes from moment one, but Bergman rightly plays it cooler. Henreid is great at playing the straight man, interesting enough to be the hinge the story moves on but not engaging enough for us to root that he sticks with Ilsa.
And then there’s the supporting cast, filled with character actors doing their very best to steal scenes. Claude Rains gives the performance of his long and celebrated career as the sort-of-bad/sort-of-good police captain who gets all the best zingers (he shuts down Rick’s bar because of gambling while being handed his roulette winnings). Conrad Veidt is menacing as the one genuinely bad guy in the movie (the Nazi insignia is the first hint), and then there’s S.Z. Sakall and Dooley Wilson as Rick’s trusted confidants and employees. The film throws a nice twist early when Peter Lorre shows up as an oily ne’er-do-well. We assume he’ll stick around to make trouble throughout the film, but then is grabbed and we learn later he’s murdered, a true shock considering we expect someone like Lorre to have more of a fundamental role. Though the love triangle is the film’s center, it’s a fuller, better movie because the supporting cast help to paint in the edges.
Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch’s screenplay takes variations on scenes that seem long familiar, shine then and reverse our expectations until they seem genuinely new. I want to cite examples, but I could literally pick any scene in the film. Okay, fine, let’s talk about the moment Ilsa finally caves and admits she still loves Rick. When she enters the scene Rick (and we) knows she just wants the letters of transit, they play a mind game and Rick tries to give her the cold shoulder once too often, so instead of trying to seduce him she pulls a gun on him.
Rick’s character arc is so very inspired. This woman he once loved who left him for reasons unknown has returned. Now he’s cold and can’t open up…and because of that won’t give her the letters. To finally do the right thing, he must admit to himself that he does still love her…but by doing that he’ll lose her forever. It’s a fantastic Catch-22 where, even though we know it’s an inevitable ending, it still affects us deeply. After an hour-and-a-half of bluntly stating that he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone, he makes her get on that plane even though, let’s face it, there’s no real reason she couldn’t stay in Casablanca with him. But he knows it would kill her, and he’d rather die himself than see her suffer.
Director Michael Curtiz filmed the movie in a straightforward, understated style…and thank God for that. Yes, there are the shadows of a noir, but another director would have either exploited the thriller elements or emphasized the romance. That would have been a mistake. Curtiz simply let the film be what it was instead of forcing it to be a cookie-cutter studio picture, and the results give “Casablanca” all the more power. I must ask a silly question about the atmosphere he creates, though. Why is there a searchlight constantly searching the streets of the city? What are they looking for, exactly?
And then there’s the music. I prefer Max Steiner’s score in this film to his more lauded work on “Gone With the Wind”…there’s just something about the way he incorporates the song “As Time Goes By” into the score subtly while still creating several other themes that are just as timeless (seriously, I didn’t mean it as a pun). Then again, I’m always a pushover for the Henry Mancini style, where the entire score for a movie is built out of a single song (for example, “Moon River” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”).
I also adore how this movie seems built on fate, both in the storytelling device of having Ilsa walk into Rick’s bar after all these years, and in how it seemed like all of these Hollywood workhorses (who had worked with just about everyone) finally came together for this specific project.
I would also like to note that you, dear reader, should be very proud of me for not inserting endless examples of the classic quotes from the movie, about ten of which have become so well-known they have become part of public consciousness. And, really, there were a ton of opportunities. Especially here, at the end of the article. But I’m not going to do it…but if I did, you know which one I’d choose.
My Score (out of 5): *****