Casablanca (1942): 75th Anniversary Review

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When someone inquires if I consider Casablanca one of my favorite movies, I don’t quite know how to respond. Yes, I do love this film passionately but I feel as if Casablanca is more deeply America’s favorite classic movie. It is not for me to call my own and I will gladly share a joint appreciation for it. Because it’s a film for all of us. As it should be. It’s the perfect articulation and expression of that former Hollywood that existed during the studio age as brought to us by Michael Curtiz.

When we are finally allowed to enter into Rick’s Cafe Americain, it almost feels like hallowed ground. It’s a mythical place that never existed in reality and yet feels so immersive to us as an audience. Curtiz moves through the space with such intent that it makes us completely involved with every person his camera settles on. This is a picture for romantics and sentimentalists to be sure but it caters to those with a cynical edge too. It suggests a deceitful world of pickpockets, unscrupulous officials, and of course, Nazis.

The political tides of the times are reflected in that cinematic bastion of a man Rick Blaine (Bogart). His foreign policy is that he sticks his neck out for no one. But that’s only on the surface. That’s the beauty of the character. There’s a sensitivity and a sacrificial nature that wells up deep inside him, hidden from view. Tortured and embittered as he is, that is not the last word.

There’s also an undeniable undercurrent to the film. Yes, this is not reality. As enveloping as it is, this is wholly a Warner Bros. aesthetic but moreover there’s a sense that the emotions that deluge over Casablanca are very real.

Aside from Bogart and the lovely, incomparable Ingrid Bergman, our cast is made up of a plethora of emigres, men and women, who fled the Nazis for this reason or that. Whether they were Jewish or had different political affiliations or just couldn’t bear to live under such an oppressive regime.

Director Michael Curtiz was originally from Hungary and in him, we find someone who totally understood the plight of those fleeing and the context of the moment where Casablanca was only a pitstop for America. Because take the picture out of its context and something would be lost. Firmly plant it in the era and you have blessed the production with something enduringly special.

Furthermore, in the scene where Lazlo (Paul Henreid) calls on the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out the German’s proud merrimaking it ceases to be a mere scene in a film but becomes an event that swells with real emotions. You can see it in the very body language, the tears in the eyes, and the fervor that comes over everyone. Madeleine Lebeau (the film’s last surviving cast member who passed away last year) singing defiantly, with the tears freely flowing. No longer acting but pure feelings incarnate.

When so many other minority characters make me cringe in pictures of the 30s and 40s, Sam, the piano man (Dooley Wilson), remarkably rarely does. That’s because he’s endowed with a certain autonomy attributed to him in part by Blaine. They are partners, friends, and they watch out for each other.

His singing holds the love story together. Like many of the film’s greatest faces, he’s not a mere sideshow attraction. There’s a necessity to his characterization that adds another dimension to the world that has been conjured up on the Warner Bros. lot. What would Casablanca be without Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sazall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, etc.? It would lose so much color — so much definition.

Another joy of the picture after you see it too many times to count is the continued relish of the script, waiting for your favorite lines only to be taken with new quips that you never picked up on before. For me, most lines of this nature come from the wonderfully amoral and yet completely personable Captain Renault (Claude Rains). But there’s also so much going on around the edges of the frame. One of my favorites involves the young woman who fled from Bulgaria with her husband. The young lady is played by Jack Warner’s step-daughter Joy Page.

Here we see a relationship that mirrors that of Rick and Elsa in a way that only becomes apparent later on. Because she is a woman desperate to get to America with her impoverished husband. He is trying to win money gambling but it’s a desperate even futile situation.

She loves him so much, she is willing to try and use her own beauty and the influence of another man, Inspector Renault to help the man she truly loves. There’s so much subtext to the scene written with the production codes in mind and the sincerity is immediately evident even if some of the import can be lost on us. The same can be said for the foreshadowing.

Part of what makes the picture’s final act work is the fact that Lazlo is such a decent human being. He loves his wife so much, he’s willing to have Blaine take her to safety by using the Letters of Transit if need be. Thus, this dichotomy is set up and Rick must make a decision. He must do the thinking for both of them but that request from Lazlo saves Rick’s reputation no matter the decision that he makes. We know that either might be right. Even though deep in our hearts, there’s only one denouement we want.

Did I even need to write this review? Certainly not but it’s more for my sake than anyone else’s. Casablanca is a dear friend of mine and after 75 years it still comes up smelling like roses. Its themes are timeless in the sense that it allows romance to be its guiding light while still tempering it with the disillusionment and licentiousness that often is so prevalent in this world of ours. That makes its bittersweet interludes ring with a certain deep-seated truth that never comes off as fake. It’s as evocative and witty now as it was in 1942. Perhaps even more so.

5/5 Stars

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das-Cabinet-des-Dr-Caligari-posterI’ve never seen anything like it, and I mean that in all truthfulness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has the esteem of being called the original horror film, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. Perhaps I’m more partial to Murnau’s Nosferatu that came out two years later, but this film directed by Robert Wiene is really the epoch of German Expressionism. The German Expressionism Movement, after all, was not simply about painting, or architecture, or theater. It bled into the Weimar film industry as well, drifting as far away from realism as was possible at the time. Some say D.W. Griffith wrote the rules of moving pictures as we know them today, and if that’s so, then it was this film that tried to push the boundaries to the limit.

In an effort to be transparent, I will acknowledge that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does not engage me, narratively speaking, like some other silent films. It follows a Dr. Caligari as he presents his spectacular somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) at a local carnival. But all is not as it seems as a string of murders terrorize the town by night. Also, I was not a big on the score that accompanied this version. It was rather a discordant cacophony and it did not seem to go well with the action, but that is often a problem with silent films if they do not already have a score to go with them.

CABINET_DES_DR_CALIGARI_01Nevertheless, the images alone are striking, and it is still fascinating for the very reasons I mentioned above. It boasts the craziest sets, highly stylized, and made up of every type of angle and shape imaginable. We know resolutely that this is not reality, these are simply facades being put up to engage our eyes. It features a mise-en-scene for the ages, with no attempt to try and be the least bit objective. There’s no effort to aim for realism; none whatsoever, and that level of audacity is impressive. Furthermore, it’s mind-boggling to think that so many people and so many films were influenced by this movement. Especially in Hollywood.

Without it, we would not have 1930s horror films like Frankenstein and Dracula. There would be no Film-Noir or at least not the same moody, atmospheric creature that we know today. In truth, it was many European directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and even Alfred Hitchcock, who channeled this movement in their own work. It proved to be so important to the medium of film and thus, it’s important to remember these roots. So maybe The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not as engaging today, but there is much to be admired and extracted from it still.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Casablanca (1942)

It was over 70 years ago that Casablanca hit the silver screen for the first time. All the main players are dead and gone now. The Golden Age of Hollywood, where pictures were being churned out with factory-like efficiency, has given way to a modern era of blockbusters. To borrow a quote from the movie, it doesn’t seem that one little film would “amount to a hill of beans” in our present world. Still, somehow Casablanca is beloved to this day, despite the numerous other films that have undoubtedly entered the black hole of film oblivion. It seemingly will not die and for good reason.

Considered one of the greatest films of all-time, this well-loved classic deserves to be here. It is the hallmark of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s careers. It also has one of the greatest scripts of all time, and it has achieved legendary status over the years. Many consider it purely the best film ever made and in all honesty, I would never try to refute that.
The film opens quickly and we are immersed in a world that is at the height of the Nazi terror, and many people are fleeing Europe by way of Casablanca. It is a treacherous place full of pickpockets, corrupt authorities, refugees, and naive tourists as well. Two German couriers have been murdered and some invaluable letters of transit have been stolen. That’s when we are first introduced to Rick’s Café Americain and its cynical proprietor Rick Blaine (Bogart).
A shady fellow named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) comes to Rick with the letters and asks Blaine to keep them for him. However, later that night Ugarte is taken into custody, and things begin to get even more complicated. Wanted resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is now in Casablanca, however, a Major Strasser has arrived from Germany to take him in. To top it off, Laszlo’s wife Ilsa (Bergman) was Blaine’s old flame in Paris and, needless to say, it didn’t end well.
Laszlo desperately needs the letters of transit to escape, and he inquires about them. Soon he is led to Blaine, but as Rick often admits he sticks his neck out for nobody. Knowing all too well that he is in danger, Laszlo still shows his defiance against his enemies by leading the people in a round of “La Marseillaise” and as a result, Rick’s is shut down.
All the memories of Paris begin flooding back, and then Ilsa confronts Rick in order to get the letters. This is possibly the most critical point in the film because this tense altercation ultimately renews the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. Rick asks her to trust him, and he begins to take things into his own hands. The results of his actions created one of the great romantic and cinematic moments in the history of film. The whole film leading up to this point hints at it, but Rick truly is a sentimentalist at heart. He can live with the notion that they will always have Paris and that leads him to commit a selfless act of love.
This film holds such a tremendous presence in movie history, and upon seeing the movie it makes complete sense what all the hype is about. What more could you want than Bogey, Bergman, Casablanca, and some of the greatest quotes ever uttered? Do not forget the corrupt, but nevertheless lovable French Captain Louis (Claude Rains), who delivers some terribly witty lines. Honestly, he may be my favorite character in the whole film, and that’s saying a lot!  Then, of course, there is the immortal tune of “As Time Goes By,” sung by Dooley Wilson which will forever be ingrained in film lore.
However, you also gain an appreciation for the other interesting characters of Casablanca, some comical, some sympathetic, and others despicable. We have a rogue gallery of everybody under the sun from Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, German soldiers, various guests, and all the staff at Rick’s Place. This movie has conflict and the uncertainty of war in practically every scene because at the time World War II was in full force. There are a broken romance and a forlorn hero who shows his courage in the end. As an audience, we come to realize the transformation of Rick into a truly great man. Ilsa on her part has the most radiant face I have ever seen.
 It is wonderful that Casablanca succeeds as entertainment despite the fact that it is not modern. In fact, part of its charm is the black and white cinematography that helps make Rick’s Café so atmospheric. It effectively makes each interior shot moodi34 and every romantic scene even more striking. I am very doubtful that they would ever be able to pull this film off in color. It just wouldn’t work.
You do not need explosions and violence either, only great characters and a story with both drama and humor to reel the audience in. Up until the final moments of the movie you are captivated the entire time. Then, fittingly, you are left with the two men walking off into the night with the words, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
In fact, with this film, my thoughts always go back to the script. Lines like “Here’s looking at you kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Round up the usual suspects” are so rampant that you cannot possibly remember them all, and I doubt there will ever be another film that is so immersed in American cultural lexicon. Still, many of my favorite lines in the film are those that get overshadowed by the more famous ones. That is the sign of an amazing film that never grows old. Even those who have not seen this classic film like to think they have, because the influence of Casablanca reaches everywhere. I guess I’m rather an idealist myself so I would like to think that even if 70 more years pass, we’ll always have Casablanca.