This is one I have been looking forward to. “Casablanca” is as legendary and classic as movies get and my expectations were sky high. It has been so many years since I saw it last time and that does strange things to the memory of good things.
Let me say right away that I was not disappointed. To use a phrase from my favorite TV-show “My Kitchen Rules”, it was cooked to perfection.
The setting is Casablanca, Morocco during WWII making this a contemporary film (already there it gets a plus in my book), an almost neutral place controlled by the French Vichy government, officially a vassal of Germany, but in reality fending for itself. Casablanca has at this time become a waypoint for refugees escaping the German occupation on their way to the safe haven of America. Wealthy or important refugees it seems because there is a certain style and class over the international crowd in Casablanca. Unfortunately it is difficult to move on from Casablanca. The next leg is a flight to Lisbon and this requires the highly coveted exit visa. These are notoriously difficult to get. Simple ones can be bought on the black market, but for anybody with a name the only way to get one is through the local police Chief Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains). That is, until two super-visa mysteriously appear (coincidentally with two dead German agents…).
The crowd waiting for an exit visa or stopped by the lack of means to get one flock around the local, classy waterhole: Rick’s Café Americain. The first half hour establishes this environment and atmosphere in Casablanca and particularly in Rick’s Café. People from all of war torn Europe are whispering, plotting, despairing or trying to have a desperate good time in every corner. This is so expertly done that you can feel the tension and danger, but also style and class. This is the romantic, old school version of Chalmuns’ Cantina in Mos Eisley (Star Wars). Above this island rules Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) a disillusioned, cynical American who keeps a strictly neutral business-only demeanor. That is probably the reason this café works so well in the first place.
The atmosphere is slowly built up and unless you have seen the movie tons of times or just recently you do not realize exactly when the principal story emerge from the background buzz. When Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a greasy and suspect character approaches Rick to entrust him with two super visa it feels so much in line with everything else happening in Rick’s Café Americain.
A number of things happen now that throws Rick into the eye of the storm. A famous Czech dissident Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) shows up as one more refugee trying to get to America. The Germans want him badly and have sent Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt, the somnambulist guy from “Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari”!) to make sure he does not leave Casablanca. This makes for some fencing between Major Strasser, Captain Renault and Lazlo, most of which takes place in Rick’s café. We are supposedly on neutral ground, but the threats are thinly veiled. This is an explosive, highly potent situation in which murder and betrayal is not to be ruled out. Lazlo is an idealist and though kept in high esteem by the resistance movements all over Europe he seems to be too naïve and noble for the underhand ways of Casablanca. It is however the company he keeps that makes the eyes pop: Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund! Not only does she make a striking figure, she also has a history with Rick, one that explains why he is in Casablanca and why he has become the person he is. He thought he had forgotten her but “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”.
This sets off the great romantic story of Casablanca. We hear Sam (Dooley Wilson) play “As time goes by”, learn how Rick and Ilsa were a couple in Paris and how she never showed up at the train station leaving him broken. The dialogue between the two of them is legendary. Do they still have a thing for each other and why is she now with Victor Lazlo? I will not spoil this too much, just say that this is the stuff legends are made of and seeing them together, hearing “As time goes by”, sends shivers down my spine.
Rick is in a crucial position because he holds the two magic exit visa. Somebody will get off this island, but who will it be? Rumor has it not even the cast or director (Michael Curtiz) knew until the last days of shooting as the script was changed on a daily basis and some of the magic uncertainty in the expressions of the characters are supposed to come from real uncertainty. The twists the plot takes also take the viewer by surprise, well the virgin viewer, and a lot of heartbreak.
Every second line in Casablanca is a classic line today: “Round up the usual suspects”, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, “Play it, Sam” and so on. In fact, watching Casablanca you realize how many also lesser known Hollywood tropes originate from this film, making it not only a master piece in itself, but also hugely influential on cinema basically ever since. Take a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Its description of (pre)war North Africa is straight out of Casablanca. And yet Casablanca feels very different from other films of its time. It is romantic, but less melodrama. It is more open ended in its conclusion and leaves a number of questions unanswered.
Casablanca is also made with a dazzling cast who do theirs to make this movie so enjoyable. Bogey was never better although he is totally recognizable. He is just totally awesome. Bergman is striking and supremely good and her fame is well deserved. It is said that it was her who made Bogart a romantic hero and not just a tough guy and that is probably correct. I am gaining a lot of respect for Claude Rains who is so good as a French officer that I can hardly believe he is the same actor who played Dr. Jaquith in “Now Voyager”. He is very believable. Peter Lorre, always the suspect, almost perverted character. If you wonder why I seek out his films read my comments on “M”. I am less a fan of Paul Henreid, but I guess his aloof style fits the character of Victor Lazlo, yet I would have loved him to be a bit less wooden. He is after all the romantic rival of Bogey.
I am still humming “As time goes by” and watching a bunch of extra material on Casablanca and I feel this “Casablanca” buzz still going through me. Maybe I should see it again, soon. Play it, Sam.