“Casablanca” Movie Review

Oh come on, who doesn’t enjoy a good old-fashioned Hollywood romance every now and again? Even if you have the coldest, blackest heart known to man, I will be left in a legitimate state of shock if you aren’t won over by the end. This war-time romantic drama was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. on November 26th, 1942, before going wide in theaters the following January. Made on the budget of about $1 million, it managed to gross just under $7 million at the box office, half of which came in from foreign markets. It then went onto win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Director, and has sustained a lasting influence on the film industry in the years since. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film is adapted from the novel Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. While it was initially written by brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch came into finish the script while producer Hal B. Wallis scrambled to put everything in motion. The film also fell to the mercy of the Hays Code, which forced the filmmakers to change several scenes, some of which were arguably for the better. And Wallis’ working relationship with Jack L. Warner became so strained that after the Academy Awards, he left the studio for good. Set in the titular Moroccan city in December 1941, Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who runs an upscale club and gambling den. Despite professing to be politically neutral, he is secretly known for running guns to Ethiopia and helping refugees stranded in the city. One day, his former lover Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, walks into his establishment and begs for him to help her and her husband, who’s a Czech Resistance leader, escape to America. Rick is now forced to choose between staying with the woman he once loved and doing something right for the burgeoning war effort. Much like some of the other films in my New Year’s resolution, this is one of those “classic” movies that most people have likely heard of even if they’ve never seen it. Regardless of your familiarity with the film overall, odds are that you’ve probably heard the line “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” at least once. I myself had never really seen it before until early last year, though I had definitely known about it for a long time before hand. Like The Shawshank Redemption or Throne of Blood or Life of Brian, this New Year’s resolution has given me the opportunity to watch some highly regarded films I had always tried to see. I was especially curious to see how well the film would be able to hold up on my third viewing. And lo and behold, Casablanca is indeed one of the few “classic” films that’s actually deserving of all of the reverence it’s received over the years. Interestingly, if I had tried to watch this movie over a decade ago, I likely would have turned it off before the halfway mark. I just didn’t like watching romantic movies back then, at least ones that didn’t have a ton action in them. But now I’m older, wiser, and have realized that I had just been looking at the wrong ones at that time. Casablanca is not as glossy as a lot of rom-coms or dramas in the years since, but it still feels unmistakably old-fashioned. There’s a rhythm to this film that so few others in the genre have, even musical romances that have actual song and dance rhythms. In all seriousness, when people talk about Humphrey Bogart, they’re really talking about Rick Blaine. The first in a slew of suave romantic lead roles, he so expertly tries to hide his good nature under a world-weary cynicism and alcoholic coolness. Reflecting on Ilsa’s untimely return into his life, he drunkenly remarks, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Ingrid Bergman is his perfect onscreen partner, exuding a vulnerability and regret for some of her past actions. While she may not be quite as strong-willed as the writers may have intended, for the most part she retains her emotional poise and is genuinely wanting to die to get her husband back to the States. Paul Henreid shouldn’t be overlooked as Victor Lazlo, the Czech resistance leader who’s trying to carry on his guerilla war with Nazi Germany. His reluctance to trust people in the titular city is convincing and real, undercut by a certain tenderness for his wife. They are also flanked by a supporting cast of colorful and interesting characters. There’s Dooley Wilson as the energetic club musician Sam, Sidney Greenstreet as an underworld business figure who has a friendly rivalry with Rick, Claude Rains as the shamelessly corrupt prefect of police under Vichy rule, Peter Lorre as a petty crook able to get his hand into deep places, and Conrad Veidt as the ruthless Nazi emissary Major Strasser. Despite the film only running about 102 minutes, you really feel like you get to know these characters and the dire situations they find themselves in. Meanwhile, on the technical side of things, Casablanca is Classic Hollywood at its most lush and posh. Arthur Edeson’s black-and-white cinematography has many traits of film noir and expressionism. These include precise lighting and fantastic use of shadows, which emphasize the moral ambiguity of Rick’s position. Bergman is mostly shot from her left side, an effect which makes her eyes sparkle and her face glisten with beauty. It uses a number of steady shots to follow the carefully blocked action in every scene, while also allowing actors room to breathe with their iconic rapid fire dialogue. Owen Marks’ editing is also notable for its precise use of cuts between different shots and moments. The most memorable example is our introduction to Rick, which cuts between different parts of his hands and body before revealing his face. Not only that, but the subtle fades between the present day and his past life with Ilsa creates a certain nostalgia effect. The prolific Gone With the Wind composer Max Steiner provides the instrumental film score and boy its a doozy. One of 24 Oscar nominations Steiner would receive over his career, it masterfully mixes different melodies that are familiar but not quite patriotic. With a sweeping orchestra befitting of David Lean epics, the main suite has a wide range of classical instruments, including strings, brass, and piano. The way it’s infused into each scene makes it feel like a romantic adventure on a grand scale, as well as a more personal tale of intrigue. The soundtrack also has the famous song “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld, here performed by Dooley Wilson. Using a soft piano as the backbone of the song, the jazzy and slow-tempo tune makes for a perfect dance number between Rick and Ilsa. Although Wilson himself could never actually play the piano, Elliot Carpenter provided the playing on set, which comes together to create one hell of a memorable song. I really feel like if you wanted an intro into classic films, there’s no better place to start than here. One iconic scene moves to another, the script is as sharp and whip-smart as ever, and it all just makes filmmaking look so easy in the process. It’s also eminently quotable, with all of the characters each having at least one memorable line. When it comes down to it, Casablanca is perfectly conjured and fantastically produced bubble of escapism. Whether it’s the way Michael Curtiz and Hal B. Wallis put together the final product or the chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, there isn’t an inch of this film that doesn’t work. This is what we talk about when we talk about the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood.

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