Count me among those who adore the film classic Casablanca. For my taste, it is the perfect Hollywood film from that Golden Era when the studios operated as dream factories and churned out picture after picture, most of them forgettable, but when they worked, oh my, how they made magic. This most iconic of American films from that era has so much to admire about it that one doesn’t quite know where to start. Suffice to say that every element in the film is masterfully rendered, which of course is what makes a film great. Every line of dialogue, every glance, gesture, action, camera angle and movement, every plot point, every musical note, et cetera, is honed to its finest, most nuanced possibility. The film is like a gem that has been polished to its maximum effect, yet it never feels packaged or manipulated. It all comes off naturally, capturing you from the opening shot through the closing shot, your sense of disbelief thoroughly suspended in the drama’s grip. The following article I wrote about Casablanca for The Reader (www.thereader.com) previewed a special screening of it. If by some strange fate you’ve still never seen this movie, make sure you do. It will capture you, too.
‘Casablanca,’ A Film Classic Still Enchants Us As Time Goes By
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Casablanca. The very name drips nostalgia. The 1942 Warner Brothers film classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman still enthralls viewers with its story of star-crossed, wartime lovers. An emblem of intrigue and romance, it’s one of those rare movies whose popularity only increases with time. Perhaps more than any other film, it embodies the textured chiaroscuro look and feel of Old Hollywood studio-bound productions. It really sets mood, time and place. Notice too the fluid camera work that brilliantly utilizes closeups to reveal character and relationships. Add bigger than life personalities, a conflict drawn in both human and political terms, a witty yet pungent script, mix well, and you have a masterpiece.
In recognition of this ageless treasure Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is screening Casablanca on Saturday, October 21 in Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall as a benefit for the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands. The 7 p.m. program will include remarks by special guest Stephen Bogart, the only son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogart was 8 when his famous father died of cancer. He’s the author of a 1995 memoir, Bogart: In Search of My Father, that describes the struggle of being the legend of an icon-father he barely knew.
To help set the Cafe Americain mood, local jazz pianist Orville Johnson and his vocalist wife Servalia will perform “As Time Goes By” and other standards.
A sure sign of the movie’s enduring appeal is the honored place it holds in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” polls voted on, as AFI puts it, “by a blue-ribbon panel of leaders from across the film community.” The picture has been selected number one among Love Stories and number two among the “Greatest” American Films ever made. Also, no fewer than six lines from Casablanca, more than from any other film, made AFI’s Best Movie Quotes ranking.
Memorable line after memorable line grace the Oscar-winning script by Howard Koch and twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “We’ll always have Paris.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Bogart, perfectly cast as the world-weary but noble Rick Blaine, fittingly has most of the best dialogue.
Any discussion of Casablanca, released in special edition videos and the subject of documentaries in recent years, must touch on how this masterpiece came together as if by fate or luck. The Hal Wallis produced pic was adapted by a team of writers from an obscure play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Then, as now, Hollywood looked for material anywhere it could be found. In this case, an unstaged play.
America was at war and the play’s basic narrative of refugees caught in a no-man’s land where humanity is cheap and courage in short supply, remains unchanged on screen. The story contained everything studios-audiences want, namely, a topical story, suspense, sex appeal, a tragic hero and a redemptive ending. The film would have surely ended up routine, even forgettable, had the original casting discussed for it come to pass: Ronald Reagan as Victor Laszlo, the selfless freedom fighter Paul Henreid ended up playing with just the right note of defiance and naivete; and Ann Sheridan as Ilsa, the former lover of Rick, now the wife of Laszlo, and a part Ingrid Bergman made her own. Her wan yet radiant Ilsa is the epitome of desire. For such a melancholy film it’s remarkably engaging.
Bogart was always the first choice for Rick. His presence alone would have made Casablanca a must-see. But the elusive chemistry he has with Bergman, Claude Raines (Louie), Sydney Greenstreet (Senor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Carl) and Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt), is a magic something peculiar to him and them. It only stands to reason director Michael Curtiz, co-writer Howard Koch, who was on the set, and crew were inspired by the spark between Bogie, Bergman and Co.
As the story goes, the cameras began rolling with an unfinished script, leaving the actors unsure of the end. Would Rick reclaim Ilsa? Or let her go off with Laszlo? That doubt lingers over every frame and helps explain why the film transfixes us so. It all worked to create a film that’s as potent today as when it first came out.
“It’s a great example of serendipity, where everything just fell into place and all the stars aligned just right,” Crawford said. “This is the one film above all others that film snobs and average Joes both love. That’s very rare. It has a universal appeal. It and It’s a Wonderful Life are probably the two most popular black and white movies of all time; so deeply loved they almost transcend their own medium.”
“The film is very entertaining but also very haunting,” he said. “For anyone who’s ever been in love it touches a real emotional nerve, and that’s part of its timeless appeal. It’s completely of its era but it doesn’t date. How can a story so set in its time still seem so fresh now? I don’t know how to explain that. I think it’s got to be that love triangle. Ricks give Ilsa up and does the right thing.”
Of its time, yet timeless. Ah, yes, love and loss and desire never go out of style.
- ON CLASSIC CINEMA Here’s looking at you (tech.mit.edu)
- Written Interview: Howard Koch, Julius Epstein, Frank Miller (“Casablanca”) (gointothestory.com)
- Book Review Humphrey Bogart: Tough Without a Gun by Stefan Kanfer (blogcritics.org)
- Song: “As Time Goes By” (americanthings.wordpress.com)
- Hollywoods legendary on screen couples (funstuffcafe.com)