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August 28, 2007 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | August 28, 2007 |

When I was a kid, I basically had a standing boycott against black and white movies; a boycott which lasted until well into my college years, when I would finally be forced to realize how moronic such a thing was. See, I grew up with my grandparents living right around the corner, and I spent many of my pre-tween weekends at their house. And a good hunk of that time was spent chilling on the couch with my grandfather and watching whatever invariably black and white movie he stumbled upon on one of the UHF stations’ Afternoon Matinee Specials. (If some of you whipper-snappers don’t know what this high-fallutin’ “UHF” thing is, just look it up on the Goggles, or whatever it is you kids use today.) And because these flicks generally didn’t have bloody shoot-outs or explosions or the types of things that rule the day for young lads, I thought they were capital-B boring, and my boy logic said, “If some black and white movies are boring, then surely all black and white movies are boring.” (Yes, ladies, we really are that simple, despite our protestations to the contrary.) This stupid reasoning was compounded by another wonderful bit of boy logic — my father also loved older flicks, especially Bogart flicks. So in my tween-to-teen years, my boycott grew only stronger because of nature’s Male Maxim #3: “Anything my father loves is never cool.”

Fast forward to my senior year in college — I was taking a fantastic course on the history of cigarettes, and I decided that my end-of-term paper would be about the intersection of the worlds of Big Tobacco and Hollywood. While this included “real world” elements like marketing and product placement, the paper largely focused on cigarettes in film. And by all accounts (which were, of course, absolutely correct), such a thing could not be written without including discussion of John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. And as Casablanca is the quintessential Bogey cigarette flick, I was finally forced to watch the best movie ever put to film.

I suspect most of you are familiar with the flick, but for those who aren’t, it’s basically one-part thriller, a splash of film noir, some sharp black comedy, and a heaping pile of heartbreaking romance (and I’m most assuredly not talking about the shit that passes for “heartbreaking romance” these days, like The Lake House). Set in late 1941, the film focuses on the town of Casablanca, located in the unoccupied French Morocco. Refugees have been fleeing France for the African town in the hopes that they will be able to obtain exit visas which will get them to a better life in the Americas, although most of the refugees simply “wait in Casablanca. And wait. And wait. And wait.” Things are tenuously stable in the city, at least for our main characters, until Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his gal Ilsa (the luminous Ingrid Bergman) roll into town looking for some letters of transit to get themselves to America. Laszlo is a resistance leader who’s running from the Nazis, which is why Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has also turned up in Casablanca, as the Nazis would prefer to see Laszlo stay put and out of the way in Casablanca (unless they can get him back into a concentration camp, of course). The arrival of Laszlo, Ilsa and the Nazis complicates things for many in the town, particularly Rick Blaine, an American expatriate and owner of Rick’s Cafe Americain, and Captain Louis Renault, the head of the French police keeping watch over Casablanca (and I suppose an argument could be made that things also got rather complicated for Signor Ugarte, a Casablanca resident who sells travel papers on the black market, although his situation is, uhm, resolved before the main event starts up).

While the complications for Rick (Bogart) stem in part from the presence of the Nazis, the real meat of his problem (and the center of the film), is the fact that Ilsa is an old flame. We eventually learn that things didn’t exactly end smoothly between the two of them, so it comes as little surprise that there are some unresolved this-and-that’s to deal with. In fact, the Rick we’re introduced to as the film opens is a bitter and cynical man who is only looking out for number one. Only a later flashback showing his time with Ilsa in Paris (a time when, unbeknownst to Rick, Laszlo was in a concentration camp and presumed dead) lets us in on the fact that Rick used to be a very different man who has since been damaged by the way Paris ended. Further complicating matters, Rick also happens to be in a position to get Laszlo and Ilsa the papers they need to get out of dodge, which puts him in a bit of an ethical and moral bind — even putting the relationship muck-a-muck aside, Rick’s twice-repeated line of “I stick my neck out for nobody” goes directly against the notion of, well, sticking his neck out for Laszlo and Ilsa.

Chief Renault (Claude Rains), meanwhile, also finds his life more complicated by the arrival of the Nazis. He’s not a fan of the Third Reich, and their presence in Casablanca means he’s not quite the big cheese anymore. And because he must bend to their control, he doesn’t have Rick or Laszlo’s luxury of overtly showing his displeasure with their presence. Instead, Renault walks a fine line between keeping Major Strasser and his pals happy and not letting them know that he’s not so much with the “Heil Hitler.” Plus, as Rick gets more mired in the Laszlo drama, his “relationship” with Renault (and, of course, we famously know that they don’t yet have a friendship) becomes more confrontational:

Renault: Rick, there are many exit visas sold in this cafe, but we know that you’ve never sold one. That is the reason we permit you to remain open.
Rick: Oh? I thought it was because I let you win at roulette.
Renault: That is another reason.

Both the romance and letters-of-transit storylines move at a fast pace, ultimately converging at Casablanca’s little airport. (Is a spoiler warning necessary for a ridiculously famous 60-year-old movie? If so, I guess you should consider yourself warned.) In addition to Rick’s love for Ilsa being rekindled, Rick finds himself able to once again fight on the side of a righteous rebellion, even if his part is only a small one. And thus, Rick does not wind up double-crossing Laszlo and stealing his gal, and things end the only way they can:

Rick: Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you….
Rick: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now, now… Here’s looking at you kid.

In response to Dustin’s review of Double Indemnity, folks commented on the fact that the era’s production code actually made Indemnity a better flick as it forced the writers and director to be more creative. Well when I say that “things end the only way they can” in Casablanca, I mean it quite literally — that same production code dictated that a flick could not show a woman leaving her husband for another man. So while the film was able to sneak past the code in insinuating that Ilsa and Rick slept together in Paris, there was simply no way for them to end up together in the end, without having Laszlo killed off. And yet, this ending doesn’t feel forced or unnatural in the least. In fact, it’s far more satisfying than the ending today’s Hollywood would likely give us, with Laszlo making some grand sacrifice in furtherance of his cause and, in so doing, freeing Ilsa to spend the rest of her days with her Ricky-Pooh.

In its execution, Casablanca is a virtually flawless film. Bergman, helped by some soft lighting, is absolutely radiant throughout the film, and her performance is only outshone by the Oscar-nominated performances of Bogart and Raines (which is certainly due, in no small part, to the fact they were both given a little more to work with, in terms of character depth and complexity). While these three performances could easily carry the film on their own, they don’t need to, as everyone else is equally up to the task, from Henreid’s morally unwavering Laszlo down to Peter Lorre’s deliciously slimy Ugarte. And everyone looks damn good giving these performances thanks to absolutely wonderful cinematography. In fact, for those who, like my former self, fear or boycott the black and whites, Casablanca serves as a brilliant example of how beautiful and rich a flick can be without a lick of color. And while the film won in three of the Oscar categories it was nominated — taking home the picture, director and adapted screenplay golds — I think it most deserved an award in the black and white cinematography category (where it and eight other nominated movies lost out to The Song of Bernadette). Ditto that for Max Steiner’s majestic score, which brilliantly mixes the French national anthem and the tune “As Time Goes On” (the song which Sam is famously asked to play) into a brilliant aural tapestry which perfectly punctuates the entire film (but here, too, the Oscar went to Bernadette).

(Let’s pause for a quick aside. While the film’s eight Oscar nods are impressive, I find another film’s nominations almost more impressive. I’m not talking about another film of that year, or even that era, nor am I talking about Oscar nominations. Rather, I speak of 1996’s Barb Wire, probably the most notorious based-on-Casablanca movie. Barb earned itself six Razzie nominations, and Pam Anderson managed to take home the Worst New Star award, although her “impressive enhancements” disappointingly lost the Worst Screen Couple award to Striptease’s Demi Moore and Burt Reynolds.)

Of course, this movie is probably best known for a slew of famous lines:

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Round up the usual suspects.”
“We’ll always have Paris.”
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

These five quotes all appeared on AFI’s recent list of the top 100 movie quotes, as did a sixth line, which may be the most mis-quoted line in movie history: “Play it again, Sam.” “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” And it’s simply amazing that so many lines have endured and remained in the popular culture for over six decades. I think this is due to the fact that the film still holds up so damn well. Not only does it stand up to the test of time, but it stands up to endless repeat viewings. I’ve probably seen it seven or eight times since that first “forced” viewing, and it’s so well-crafted and deftly executed that it just never feels old or stale. And no disrespect to either of The Godfather’s or to Citizen Kane (although I agree that Kane doesn’t quite stand the test of time), but Casablanca is simply the best movie ever made and will likely remain so, “no matter what the future brings.”

Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. His favorite snippet of dialogue in the film would be Rick’s response to Major Strasser’s question of his nationality: “I’m a drunkard.”

The Fundamental Things Apply as Time Goes By

Casablanca / Seth Freilich

Film | August 28, 2007 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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