The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Casablanca (1942/USA/dir. Michael Curtiz) appeared at #57 on my original list.
What it is • Do I really need to tell you? The legend of Casablanca is well-established by now, although I also have to wonder if its star hasn't dimmed a little in recent years. Even for very young viewers in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, its zeitgeist seemed within reach - the World War II generation was still very much among us and this film belonged to our grandparents' generation; with constant TV and film references, black-and-white classic Hollywood felt a stone's throw away, culturally, even as it was a half-century or more in the past; and Casablanca was one of the most accessible titles at a time when classics were not so easy to see. Today, the youngest WWII veteran is eighty-nine, a teenager has grandparents who grew up with Saturday morning cartoons not Hollywood double features at the local movie palace, and most new releases reflect video-game or comic-book aesthetics rather than Old Hollywood. So, then, a quick explanation: Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is an American in North Africa early in World War II, after France had fallen to the Nazis and before his own home country, neutral like him, had committed to the fight for freedom. Rick lived in Paris before the German invasion, romancing a young widow who, as it turns out, was not as widowed as they both thought she was. Now the lady Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) shows up at Rick's fashionable cafe/casino with husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a member of the Resistance. Rick must decide between helping or punishing her old lover, honoring a worthy cause or maintaining his steadfast, above-it-all cynicism. Romantic heartbreak, but also commitment to political action, are the subjects of Casablanca.
Why I like it •
Where to start with the things I love about this movie? I love the sense of homemade exoticism one can only find in Hollywood films of about a thirty-year span, in which the whole world can be crafted on a large soundstage in a suburb of Los Angeles. I love the colorful characters, and their even more colorful conversations (a list of memorable quotes could be double the length of this review). On this day of all days, I appreciate how confidently the movie is able to acknowledge the world around it in a way movies have struggled to do in recent years - I love the film's sense of history, a mythologized history certainly, but borne directly out of the conflicts of the time and the values people held. I love how casually the film references recent touchstones like the Spanish Civil War or the invasion of Ethiopia, world-shaking current events plausibly inserted into a universal romance without cheapening the one or dating the other. I love the clean, crisp, clear pleasure the film takes its marvelous storytelling (some of which was crafted only during production), weaving its spell as a one-film band sounding the theme of an assembly line process that hardly ever worked this well. I love the way you can watch the film through the haze of its reputation, each classic shot, each classic line or glance or gesture, amplified by decades of celebration in Disney World theme parks or late-night parody sketches or spin-off narratives - and yet it can still work as purely and effectively as it did the first time, as a simple story about a complicated world. I love the propeller-tipped airplane taking off into the fog, the sound thrilling us as much as the image. This is the movies, folks.
How you can see it • Casablanca has been released on DVD many times over the years and is available to rent on DVD and blu-ray from Netflix. Digital copies can be rented or purchased at quite a few sites. I wrote about the film for my "Big Ones" series five years ago, focusing very much on the World War II/Popular Front angle - for all its associations with old-fashioned conservative values of honor, duty, and stoicism, Casablanca was the product of a left-wing milieu.
What do you think? • How has your view of the film and its characters evolved over the years, especially if you first saw it decades ago? Do you wish Ilsa stayed with Rick - do you think they will see each other again? Which line of dialogue is your favorite?
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Yesterday: Annie Hall (#58)
Tomorrow: The Last of the Mohicans (#56)