Lost in the Movies: Casablanca


This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

* Today I learned that a fellow blogger, who was an enthusiastic commenter on The Dancing Image, passed away. Ironically, his final post references Casablanca as does the name of his website (though I didn't realize it until now). I encourage you to visit Laszlo's at Lex, and I now dedicate this piece to Gerald Stewart. *

What are the fundamental things in life? A kiss? A sigh? So the Casablanca cult would have you believe - after all, we are told, the film is a romance first and foremost, a gauzy Hollywood myth full of larger-than-life themes, iconic close-ups of glamorous stars, and an exotic locale and wartime backdrop that serve to heighten the emotional tenor and raise the narrative stakes, though only window dressing for the main attraction: a love story to end all love stories. Everyone knows that the film was meant to be nothing special, just another Warners release, that it even shifted into B territory with Ronald Reagan considered for Rick. We've heard how, miraculously, the elements all clicked into place: ideal stars, a perfect supporting cast, the right writers and crew behind the camera, last-minute rewrites to ensure that the film ended on its memorable, ever-more romantic bittersweet note. Love lost is that much easier to savor.

I've felt this way about Casablanca before - watching the movie several years ago, the World War II trappings seemed almost surrealistically artificial. I think I had been watching later, more hard-hitting films on the war, so it felt bizarre to see these actors roaming around an elaborately decorated soundstage in sunny Los Angeles, pretending to be struggling in life or death with the Nazis who were half a world away. True, America had joined the war by this point, but this also served to make the heightened stakes of the films' German dominance and American neutrality seem safely past. No, Casablanca might be many things but a true reflection of the war and the wartime mentality, it was not - just a fun, exciting, romantic slice of Hollywood mythology, right? Wrong.

I've come to a different conclusion, one I think many others concur with (though the Casablanca-as-good-time attitude tends to prevail). Sure, the stars, the director, the screenplay, the coincidental circumstances, the song, the classic lines are essential to preserve Casablanca in the amber of cinematic immortality. But the crucial ingredient, in this case, is not the cast, crew, style, or even to a certain extent, the story - but an attitude, a mindset, a sensibility; or rather, the combination of the Hollywood myth machine with that very real, very immediate (and very timeless) sensibility. That "the problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" isn't just a fake-out to make us even more invested in the romance, it's a genuine sentiment, and it is the heart of the movie.

To appreciate Casablanca in this light, it helps to think where Hollywood, "the movies," and the world had come from, and where they were going. The Epstein twins and Howard Koch, who wrote the film, were all leftists. Koch was later fired and blacklisted (thrown to the wolves after Warners and FDR asked him to write the screenplay for Mission to Moscow, which became very dated, very quickly and very dangerously). The Epsteins managed to get off the hook after Jack Warner badmouthed them to HUAC, but they filled out a questionnaire rather cheekily and pointedly, answering "Were you ever a member of a subversive organization?" with "Yes, Warner Brothers."

From a right-wing perspective, Warner Brothers was a subversive studio in 1942, and so this was a subversive film. But then, in the world at the time you didn't have much choice: if one wasn't marching with the Nazis, one was a subversive, and this is what gives Casablanca its charge to this day. It is a left-wing movie, from a time when the whole non-Nazi world seemed to be left-wing; this is a leftism that downplays the class struggle and recognizes instead a more existential struggle, taking place on the world stage and also within each human heart. As the song says (no not that one): "Which side are you on?"

Every character in the movie must answer that question for themselves; as Victor Laszlo says to Rick, "Every man has a destiny - for good, or for evil...I wonder if you know that you're trying to escape from yourself, and that you'll never succeed?" Laszlo has gotten a bad rap over the years; his rather one-note political fervor (the favorable would call it "intensely focused") may pale next to the more complex and human passions and questions of Rick and Ilsa. But the characters in the film do seem to genuinely admire him, and without him the film would go limp and flat, just another melodrama without the stakes and the dialectic between personal happiness, self-preservation, and collective commitment which makes the film so rich.

Though it's understandable that, watching the movie today, we find it difficult to relate to Victor Laszlo, I think we've lost something in not being able to at least look up to him. Personally, I find the most stirring moment in the film to be the sequence where he marches up to the orchestra at Rick's, downcast and dejected while Strasser and his goons throatily serenade their "Fatherland." He nods, lifts his hands, and suddenly the whole cafe bursts out into the "Marseilles." It's been called hokum and perhaps - like other aspects of the narrative - the scene does not give the Nazis enough credit for their control over the territory they occupied, directly or indirectly. But however much we might want to snicker, I can imagine an audience of beleaguered European emigres bursting into cheers while watching this on the big screen, perhaps even joining in themselves, an ocean away but still in the fight.

This is why Casablanca is so powerful - not because it is sheer escapism, certainly not because it is anything like a documentary, but because it takes the material of the real world, of mass experiences, and translates it into the language of the larger-than-life, the mythological, the romantic, which was Hollywood's lifeblood. It serves as a conduit between the world of dreams and the world of reality, the individual experience which movies of the time so effortlessly captured and the collective cognition of international crisis which spread its spider legs into every consciousness over a period of about a dozen years. It's a dream moored in history.

Casablanca is in this sense a culmination. Rick's might be an idealized portrait of a Europe where the "Marseilles" was more likely to be greeted by a bullet than a spilled drink, but there are also other connotations to the crowded cafe and its seamy underworld (does any film have more moving parts, more of a sense that one could wander into corner of a locale and find a dozen different stories worthy of their own movie?). Rick's seems like a metaphor for 30s Hollywood in which everyone worked and played by the rules but also led not-so-secret lives of resistance, organizing labor unions, joining antifascist fronts, asking themselves and their co-workers "which side are you on?"

The film also borrows - along with its cast of refugees and exiles - a film sensibility from Europe. Its debt to Pepe le Moko has been well-noted, but really it is a Hollywoodization of all French poetic realism, transmuting that movement's fatalism into a fiercer, more optimistic sense of endurance. Out of this mix of Hollywood 30s leftism and the poetic realism of Carne, Duvivier, and Renoir, the Epsteins, Koch, Michael Curtiz, the Warners machine and the American and European actors created a movie that can almost seem like a one-off: a throaty declaration of commitment in terms that the movie world and American movie audiences could understand.

Though the film didn't appear in my video series (I still own it only on VHS), it would have been sandwiched between two chapters called "Storm Clouds Gather" and "Dreaming in Wartime." And it serves as the perfect bridge between those two approaches (explicit recognition of the world situation and displacement into a dreamlike atmosphere), albeit moving backwards toward the former rather than into the sheer otherworldiness of the latter. It is a film that puts the dream factory on wartime footing. But it also looks forward to the chapter which follows, "Noir and Naturalism."

Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet were fresh off of The Maltese Falcon, a film often credited as the first noir, and the movement/sensibility/genre was already developing when Casablanca, more like a cousin than an immediate family member (given its common lineage in poetic realism), was born. Casablanca has been written about from a noir perspective, and it does share the noir spirit in many ways, between the moody, shadowy, smoky sets, the complex intricacies of narrative and character, and especially the ethos of wounded romanticism, hardbitten cynicism, and the existential desire to do good in an evil world.

Where the film differs from the noir universe is in its sense of community - most noir heroes are alone, their struggles solitary and exhausting, with no beautiful friendships to lighten the burden. They are like Laszlo might have been if he'd made it to America but Ilsa had stayed behind. This communitarian vibe, a "we're all in it together" sensibility, is also what gives the film its hopeful tinge though that word may sound too soft in a struggle for the soul of the world; I prefer my earlier characterization of the movie's spirit as a fiercer, more optimistic sense of endurance.

As such, the movie glimpses the idealism and sense of commitment which must have preceded the despair of so many noir heroes (a key difference between modernism and postmodernism may be that the modernists have lost something, while the postmodernists don't quite know what they're missing). We meet those figures on their downward slide, after the police force has kicked them out or a dame has already broken their heart, late of any sense of being part of something bigger than their own ambivalent desire to wake up still breathing the next day. We meet Rick on this downward slide too, but the world won't let him stay in that state - it forces him to decide: either sink into the desert sands or crawl his way out. Importantly, it gives him something to crawl to. And by the end he's found heart, and not just romantically, though it is his love for one woman, Ilsa, that reminds him of his love, and hope, for the rest of the world, and for himself.

Though the world war was won, the even larger war in which it was just one battle - the war on apathy, indifference, selfishness, and small-mindedness - seemed to have been lost (not only by outside forces but by the perniciousness of some of the supposed good guys, those who explicitly betrayed the cause, and those who "stuck with it" but betrayed it worse by subverting it from within - no doubt adding to that sense of wounded betrayal which haunted many in noirland). Into this confused and desolate barren battlefield swarmed the thousand voices of defeat, endurance, escape, and disillusion. In this light, the film may have seemed a fantasy, but it was also a reminder of something else - a flickering yet larger-than-life projection of a world charged with meaning.

Rick thought he'd lost his old fire but once he gets it back, the spirit stays even as the girl goes. So it could be for many more. As Rick says to Ilsa, "Well always have a Paris." And the rest of us will always have Casablanca to remind and, perhaps, inspire us once more.

Tomorrow: Citizen Kane
Yesterday: Breathless

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