In every creative artform, there are certain inevitable rites of passage. Everyone who picks up an electric guitar will, at some point, eventually bang out the riff to “Smoke on the Water.” For every Shakespearean actor, there will come a day where they feel the need to craft “their” Hamlet. And if you happen to be a film critic, sooner or later, you will write about Casablanca. So let’s do this.
I’m not going to describe the plot to Casablanca, because you already know it. Along with Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Beatles, quoting Casablanca has become so ubiquitous that many people refer to it daily without even realizing it. When I saw Casablanca for the first time (which, I’m ashamed to admit, was within the last five years), I was surprised to realize that I knew literally everything that happened in the movie, more or less beat for beat. Granted, much of this was likely the result of having seen both Play It Again Sam and Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, but even without those two feature-length homages, I suspect my experience would have been the same. Let’s take two arbitrary examples: “Round up the usual suspects”; “This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.” Both of those phrases have transcended their source material to become idioms in their own right– and that’s just the last thirty seconds of the film.
What’s curious about Casablanca, in terms of modern film criticism, is that it could serve as a direct repudiation of the auteur theory; the film deserves unlimited credit, but it’s tough to know where to assign it. The script began as an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, which was handed to studio screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, who then passed it off to uncredited script doctor Howard Koch. Director Michael Curtiz was a quintessential studio man; his filmography includes such classics as White Christmas, Mildred Pierce, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, but also over a hundred films you’ve never heard of. And the cast, while uniformly excellent, all appear as part of their contract to Warner Brothers. Yet, despite being essentially made by committee, Casablanca never, ever feels impersonal. The climactic scene in which the Nazis are drowned out by an impromptu rendition of the French national anthem– which, I’m trying not to lean too heavily on current politics in every piece I write, but holy fucking shit– is so emotionally raw and authentic that it seldom leaves a dry eye in the house.
So what’s the secret? Roger Ebert, in his excellent commentary track on the film’s DVD, makes the argument that, with the exception of the Nazis, no character in the film is entirely bad. This is probably true, but I would disagree slightly; I think the heart of the film’s appeal is that, with the exception of Laszlo (who, perhaps not coincidentally, is the most boring character in the film), no character is really that good, either. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is a textbook lowlife and scoundrel; Captain Renault (Claude Rains) is shifty and mostly amoral; Ugarte and the Fat Man (Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet) are straight up criminals; and even the otherwise pure Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) comes damn close to tossing away everything she’s ever fought for, and, by extension, possibly the fate of the Western World. Fortunately, that’s when everyone else’s consciences kick in, and Rick delivers the mother of all pep talks.
That ending, of course, spawns another paradox (again, I’m assuming every human on earth knows how Casablanca ends, but if you feel that the world needs to cater to your failure to see a 75-year-old classic, consider this a spoiler warning). Casablanca is considered one of the great cinematic romances, and tonight’s screening is a beloved Brattle Valentine’s tradition. And yet, not only do the iconic central couple not wind up together, but the film ends with a monologue about how romantic love, in comparison to the world’s real problems, amounts roughly to a hill of beans. Yet unlike, say, Annie Hall (another “romantic” classic which has no doubt caused many an awkward date), the ending doesn’t exactly feel unhappy. Somehow, the fact that Rick and Ilsa cast aside their once-in-a-lifetime romance for the greater good plays as the most romantic goddamn thing ever filmed. Maybe it’s the sight of Rick, the lowlife expat bartender, suddenly sobered into kicking everyone in the pants to do the right thing. Or maybe it’s the fact that the “common bad” in this case is phenomenally bad (again, draw your own parallels to certain bigly forces).
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s simply this: Casablanca is really, really good. Like most modern corporations, the Hollywood studio machine would never have gotten anywhere if it hadn’t once turned out exceptional product, and Casablanca truly is that. More than just about any other classic Hollywood film– more than Citizen Kane, or Gone with the Wind, or even any of Hitchcock’s– Casablanca set the platonic ideal of what a movie ought to be. The screenplay dazzles (even if its central MacGuffin, “papers of transit,” were never actually a thing), it looks great without being showy, and every single performance perfected an archetype which still stands today. Every film critic might write about Casablanca, but the irony is that they don’t need to. It speaks for itself.
dir. Michael Curtiz
Screens Tuesday, 2/14 and Wednesday, 2/15, 4:00 & 7:00 @ Brattle Theatre
Part of the ongoing series: Great Romances