I guess I should explain why I’m so drawn to this film. I mentioned in my review of “Singin’ in the Rain” that the summer film series hosted by Virginian-Pilot film critic Mal Vincent at the Naro Cinemas in Norfolk, Virginia was an annual event I tried to attend every year. This year’s series began with Casablanca as the opening film. At the event, Vincent admitted to being surprised by the turn out (the theater sold out of seats), and was even impressed that there would be a lot of young people at the show. To him, such an obvious and classic film seemed like such a strange choice that no one would be interested in seeing.
To his credit, it’s a fair assumption to make, but why wouldn’t people want to see Casablancain theaters? This is a movie that everyone knows about. It won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has been featured on numerous lists of the best American films and the best films ever made. Wearing a fedora and a trench coat equates having an air of Humphrey Bogart coolness. Saying farewell to a lover while standing near an airplane is considered one of the saddest departures a couple can have. A toast is preceded by the phrase “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It’s simply one of the most memorable films ever.
In the course of one evening, Rick’s cynicism begins to dissolve. He first receives some letters of transit from the thief and murderer Ugarte (Peter Lorre), which would allow anyone to leave Casablanca without any issue. Then his former lover Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) arrives at his bar with her husband, Victor Laszlo, a Czech freedom fighter wanted by the Nazis (Paul Heinreid). Ilsa and Laszlo are desperate to get to America, and need to leave before Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) finds reason to arrest Laszlo and send him to a concentration camp. As a result, Rick is torn between his cynicism and his longing affection for Ilsa, and has to make the choice of whether to help her or not.
I’ve seen Casablanca twice before I saw it again this week. Every time I see it, I always manage to enjoy it. There’s so much to like in the film, and plenty of reasons to rewatch. I find that the more times I see it, the more I’m able to appreciate it. The first time I saw it was in high school as a Netflix rental, which I enjoyed, but took away as a “yeah, that was one of the best movies ever” kind of films; the ones where you see the value but don’t really put it on your personal favorites list.
I saw it again in my last semester of college. In my screenwriting class, we learned that film scholar Robert McKee claimed Casablanca has the best screenplay of any film ever made. The film is analyzed as one that defies genre. Casablanca is drama, comedy, romance, war epic, political thriller, noir, and even musical. These elements are all present, and in a way, the viewer is allowed to look at the film through all these lenses and still appreciate it as a marvel in whatever genre they see the film as.
At the same time, while I was now more educated when watching the film, I suddenly found myself being more emotionally invested in the film. When Rick learns Ilsa has dumped him, I found myself feeling really sorry for him, more than I felt the first time I watched the film. Even the famous scene at the airport had me tearing up as Rick discusses how “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” I had seen the story play out before. I understood the characters a lot better the second time around. I could understand the subtleties in their actions and character, and now I could find myself more intrigued by what they were doing.
I don’t really mean to make this review just one guy gushing about one of the all time greatest films ever, but there really is still so much to appreciate with Casablanca today. Sure, there are some dated elements to the film, both in the story and in the production of the film, that make it a little cheesy. There is also the fact that it has been referenced so many times that and that so many lines are memorable that the viewer might find himself or herself absolutely bored by the film. There is also the fact that there’s been some analysis of the final scene that has called questions over whether or not it’s considered a plot hole or not.
Honestly, I really doubt that anyone will care. Even though there’s so many memorable lines and scenes, there’s still a whole lot more really good stuff in the film that the viewer might not know about. Even then, there’s still more to discover when you sit down to watch it.Casablanca is a movie that never really fails to live up to its hype and prestige. It does everything right, and there’s so much to learn from it. It’s simply one of the most important and best films ever made, and it’s definitely one to watch if you’re looking to watch the best of classic Hollywood.