Friday, January 29, 2010

Everyone Watches Rick's

Film: Casablanca
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

Years ago, I worked with a guy who had a Casablanca poster on the wall of his office. I commented on it one day, and he replied with something about how the director (Michael Curtiz) made one of the greatest films in history and never did anything else noteworthy. I never asked if he was joking, so to this day I don’t know if the guy was seriously that unaware of the career of Curtiz or if he thought he was yanking my chain.

Curtiz, of course, is one of the great film stylists of the 30s and 40s, and still one of the greatest film directors to ever stand next to or behind a camera. While plenty of his films are worth watching over and over, Casablanca is the masterpiece. No other film has such a wealth of incredible memorable lines—it feels like half of the great lines in American cinema are from this film. Even toss aways like “Round up the usual suspects,” if they didn’t come from here, were made famous and immortal here. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest, for instance, that “Here’s looking at you, kid” was around long before this film, but it’s a rare person who doesn’t associate that line with this movie.

An American named Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a bar in Casablanca, in what is still Free French territory, at the end of 1941. The Nazis have taken over most of Europe, and the only route to America is through Lisbon. The only safe route to Lisbon is through Casablanca. So, in addition to the usual residents, the Vichy French, and some Germans, Casablanca has become a city of refugees looking for a way out.

Also in Casablanca is Captain Renault (Claude Rains) of the police. He is an amiable but thoroughly corrupt official, willing to let people leave the city for enough money or, in the case of attractive women, other favors. He allows Rick to keep his club open because Rick lets him win at roulette and because, to his knowledge, Rick has never helped anyone secure the papers necessary to leave the city.

Ugarte (Peter Lorre) does arrange such trips, and he has recently killed two German couriers who carried papers that are usable by anyone and cannot be questioned—a prize worth a huge fortune in the city. He gives these to Rick to safeguard, and is immediately captured by Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) of the SS. As Ugarte exits, a refugee couple arrives: Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Lund is an agitator wanted by the Germans. Renault is told to never let him leave Casablanca alive, but Rick has a way to get him out of the city. Unfortunately for Laszlo, Ilsa had a torrid affair with Rick in Paris when she thought her husband was dead. Now, Rick has to decide if he wants to let Laszlo go, to flee with Ilsa himself, or keep Ilsa with him in the doomed city.

It is a nearly perfect love triangle. Ilsa truly does love both of the men completely, and is torn between them. Laszlo, in many ways, is the true ideal. He fights for what he believes in, is daring and courageous, strong and true. He has survived concentration camps and weeks on the run to stay with her, and as they ran from Europe, he never left her at his own peril. Rick, on the other hand, is gruff on the exterior, but frequently shows throughout the film that he is completely sentimental and frequently acts in ways that go against his best interests. Ingrid Bergman was never more beautiful than in this film, making the decisions that the two men make both heartwrenching and believable. Any man would make tough choices for her.

A running (and famous) theme through the movie is the song “As Time Goes By,” mimicked on the piano by Rick’s pet musician, Sam (Dooley Wilson). In reality, Wilson was a percussionist and watched someone off-screen to copy the movements. The song was evidently Rick’s and Ilsa’s in Paris, and when Sam plays it, it immediately returns the pair of them to their affair in Paris and the invasion of the city by the German Army.

The story is a great one, and there are memorable scenes throughout the film. Peter Lorre is great in his role as always, and incredibly memorable despite the fact that he’s only in the movie for a few minutes. The most moving scene in the film involves the singing of the French National Anthem in Rick’s club as the expatriates drown out the singing of a group of German soldiers. It is this scene that causes the third act of the film, and ultimately one of the most unforgettable climaxes filmed.

If you are the type of person who refuses to watch a black and white film because it is black and white, shame on you. Casablanca would not be improved by being in color in any way. Casablanca will still be worth watching and still be studied 100 years from now, 200 years from now, and 300 years from now.

Why to watch Casablanca: There has never been a greater romance filmed, and the rest of the film is pretty damn good, too.
Why not to watch: Because you are a stupid, stupid person.


  1. We are completely in line here and really, it is difficult not to be. How can anybody not love Casablanca?
    I did not know that Dooley Wilson did not actually play the piano. It looks quite believable. Well, at least that just shows he was a good actor.
    A curious detial is that all the Nazi in the film are played by actual germans who fled the nazi regime. must have felt weird.

    1. This is one I reviewed very early on this website. It probably deserves another look, because a great film really deserves my best.