There are some works of art that are almost impossible to review, not because of their own complexity, but because of their legendary status which prevents the reviewer to say anything original. One of such masterpieces is Casablanca, probably not the best film in the history of the seventh art, but definitely the most popular one. Its popularity can be measured not in a multitude of more or less disguised remakes that were made in more than half a century since its premiere, but also in countless tributes and references that movie makers use in their works to this day. Casablanca is also a movie that has the very rare virtue of both being praised by the critics and loved by general audience.
One of the things that makes this film even more unique was the fact that it was doomed to fail, at least judging by conventional movie-making wisdom of its time. It was based on a Broadway play so mediocre that it hadn't been produced on stage; screenplay by three writers - Julius G. Epstein, Philip J. Epstein and Howard Koch - was being written as shooting went along; the main actors were producers' second choice, and, finally, man behind camera, Michael Curtiz was considered to be capable, but not great director. However, the movie was commercially successful and earned three "Oscars", including the one for the best film. Until this very day, it is considered to be the best example of Hollywood film-making in its own Golden Age.
The plot of the movie was heavily influenced by the needs of WW2 propaganda, yet it also used rather complicated and now almost forgotten political circumstances of that global conflict in order to make intriguing story. In December 1941, Casablanca, exotic port on the Atlantic coast of North Africa is controlled by officially neutral, yet Nazi-collaborating French Vichy government. Thousands of refugees from war-torn Europe are stuck there on the way to Lisbon and safety of America, and ready to pay any price for precious exit visas. Many shady characters thrive on their misery, including the corrupt police chief, Captain Renault (Rains). His best friend is Rick Blaine (Bogart), who used to be idealistic antifascist, and now owns popular night club in Casablanca and lives by his own cynical philosophy of "sticking his neck for nobody". However, everything changes when he gets in possession of two precious extra visas. This event coincides with the arrival of two new refugees to Casablanca. One of them is Victor Laszlo (Henreid), Czech resistance leader who escaped three times from Nazi concentration camps and became the legend of enslaved Europe. He is accompanied by his beautiful wife Ilsa Lund (Bergman), with whom Rick had a stormy affair in the eve of Nazi occupation of Paris. The couple needs visas, especially because of the Gestapo Major Strasser (Veidt) being on their trail. Rick is now forced to choose between love, wounded pride, self-preserving interest and his own hatred of fascism.
The casting for this movie seems influenced by divine inspiration - Humphrey Bogart, most legendary actor in the history of cinema, is one of the rare character actors who elevated his persona to the star status. Bogart's portrayal of Rick as complicated man, torn between idealistic past and bitter present, was so perfect, that his icon would forever be connected with that character. Another icon in his company is Ingrid Bergman, great actress of Old Hollywood, here in her artistic and visual prime. The cinematic coupling of Bogart and Bergman became one of the main symbols of that era of filmmaking - some happier times when the romance on the screen didn't look childish nor trite like in some more contemporary works. For many people, Casablanca is probably the best romantic film ever made. But the reason for that isn't the romance itself - it's the realistic story of people forced to make tough, and often wrong choices in their lives.
The casting of Casablanca was right on target not just in a case of main leads. The supporting actors also did a marvellous job. Sidney Longstreet and Peter Lorre were here mainly to give a mystic flavour spotted in a previous Bogart classic - John Huston's Maltese Falcon; yet both of them managed to portray colourful and original characters. Another shining example of good casting is now almost forgotten Paul Henreid as the weakest part of love triangle; character of Victor Laszlo has believable charisma and looks like a somebody who could inspire millions of people to rise against Nazi tiranny. Unfortunately, the charisma that burdened Laszlo, leaves little place for difficult choice, making his character forever overshadowed by Rick/Ilsa coupling.
However, Rick and Ilsa actually have a serious competition for most memorable character in Casablanca. Captain Renault, brilliantly portrayed by Claude Rains in a role of a lifetime, was embodiment of perfect, almost unmatched balance between ethical corruption and physical charm. Despite being the undoubtful villain in almost entire movie, Rains managed to make Renault sympathetic character, and his final conversion to the side of Good, symbolized in not so subtle gesture at the end of movie looked unnecessary. Rains also gave another dimension to the movie, making it even more ambiguous; people who like to analyse movies to death discovered signs of homosexuality in Renault's relationship towards Rick, and Rick's final words leave room for even more outrageous speculations.
Together with well-drawn characters and exciting story, the movie was good in creating his own atmosphere. Professional nitpickers would probably have a field day in discovering numerous historical and geographical inaccuracies, but Casablanca is still a shining example of Hollywood WW2 movie that is beliavable, if not realistic. Any way, even if we don't see it as a historical document, Casablanca is movie that can be source of entertainment as well as infinite inspiration.
RATING: 9/10 (++++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on May 22nd 1998)
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