In terms of films you’re really supposed to have watched by a certain age, Casablanca pretty much ticks all the boxes.
Epic backdrop? World War Two. Check.
Silver screen icons? Bogart and Bergman. Check.
Not-so-straightforward romance plot? Where do I even begin on that one? Check.
But I have (gasp) never quite worked up the interest to sit down and watch this oh-so-classic, eternally misquoted masterpiece. So in the spirit of adventure, I decided to give it a shot.
For those of you, like me, who have never quite gotten around to watching it, Casablanca is set in a town of the same name on the coast of Africa, a stop on the refugee route to America as the Nazi invasion continues across Europe. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is the embittered and cynical owner of a local nightclub who comes into possession of two letters of transit which would allow the bearers to leave Casablanca. He faces the dilemma of choosing to abscond with his former lover, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), or let her walk away with her husband, a leader of the resistance movement, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid). In the background, we are also treated to the supporting characters of Sam, part musician, part Rick’s therapist, and Captain Renault, the corrupt officer/womaniser who is just a tad too camp to be believable (played by Dooley Wilson and Claude Rains, respectively). Throw in a few murdered Nazis and a musical showdown, and there you have it.
To be honest, as much as I tried to go into the film with an open mind, I fully expected to hate it. The clichés of the bitter cynic ruined by a woman, the treacherous dame, and the crazy war which throws them back into each other’s arms is trite and overdone. And yet… I can honestly say, I really, really enjoyed Casablanca.
Casablanca is virtually a black hole that everyone’s trying to get out of, and this really comes across during the establishing scenes. The shots of the smokey haze of Rick’s club, wistful piano-playing and well-dressed patrons cut to individuals across the bar, desperately bargaining for money for a flight out of town. Despite the apparent glamour, no one wants to be there and people will do whatever it takes to get out. Corrupt police forces arrest at whim, and shoot if they’re resisted, and as much comedy as Captain Renault brings to every scene he’s in, it’s hard to forget he obliquely admits to bribing young women with promises of freedom in exchange for sexual favours. Casablanca is portrayed as a hellish, desperate place to be and such a backdrop suddenly makes Rick’s cynicism and later indecision all the more understandable.
Furthermore, while the film’s narrative relies heavily on Rick and Ilsa’s previous relationship, Casablanca is very much Rick’s story. Bogart plays the broken cynic to a tee with no hint of irony, and I found myself cheering him on in the final confrontation with Major Strasser. Throughout the film he is compared to both Captain Renault and Victor Lazlo, each offering a different way to respond to the war, and the film’s real dilemma hinges on which side he chooses – the one that’s easiest or the one that’s right.
The film’s only weak point, for me anyway, came in its leading lady. The character of Ilsa is open to interpretation, and while I have only seen the film once, I admit my take could change on multiple viewings. However, Ilsa felt more like a plot device at times, like a cold-hearted manipulator at others. She remains undecided about her affections to the bitter end, and while I on one hand cheered Rick’s sacrifice, I also wanted to give him a slap. Or two.
Overall, Casablanca has, in my eyes, earned it’s reputation as a cinema classic. It manages to balance a number of plot elements which could easily have overwhelmed the story, and still manages to have a heart. Perhaps the doomed romance is the aspect the film is sold on, but it’s certainly not the only story in this film, and certainly not the more important.
Want a romance where the men are sulky and the women can’t make up their minds? Go watch Twilight.
Want a redemption story about a guy who chose the better path? Then watch Casablanca.