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You must remember this: Casablanca, 75 years on

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First screened in New York in late 1942, Casablanca has for decades been regarded as one of the most entertaining as well as admired movies ever made. And justly so.

Any Casablanca anniversary affords an opportunity to wonder anew at the backlot alchemy that gave us, against all the odds, a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. At the time it was produced, Casablanca was one among hundreds of features made in Hollywood every year. Warner Brothers alone produced more than 50 feature films in 1942.

Notwithstanding the somewhat sketchy special effects, back projection and forced perspective – to say nothing of the heavy-handed use of newsreel footage – Casablanca creates the illusion of a world in which viewers can also lose themselves.

Melodramatic without seeming insincere, the film comes across as committed rather than contrived.

Melodramatic without seeming insincere, the film comes across as committed rather than contrived. The film is all the more extraordinary given the fact that no one involved in making it had any notion of how much audiences would later come to appreciate their work. Casablanca was not a conscious blockbuster, like say Gone with the Wind, and the production benefits from being kept on a human scale.

The film does not waste any time establishing the scene, delineating the characters and telling the story. The highly literate and often witty screenplay teems with well-defined minor characters and stories within stories. Something as innocuous as the casual sweep of a searchlight across the entrance to Rick’s Café Americain adds substantially to the rhythm and mood.

Like countless similarly well-made films of the monochrome analogue era, Casablanca makes extensive use of the wide range of the expressive yet relatively inexpensive lighting effects and subtly suggestive tonal variations offered by the palette of black and white photography.

The music, including the famous song that everyone knows, is just right. Clearly, everyone involved in the making of Casablanca knew what they were doing and hit the ground running. Paradoxically, the brisk pace of the storytelling allows for the inclusion of frequent longer scenes of reminiscence and reflection.

A film made under the constraint of wartime shortages, Casablanca transcends the practical limitations placed on the production as well as making the most of the normal tight budget and short shooting schedule. Casablanca even managed to make a virtue of the fact that the script was still being finished after filming had commenced.

A warning against Nazi aggression, Casablanca politically has the advantage of being on the right side of history.

Working to deadline and making it up as they went along seems to have concentrated the minds of the film makers. The fact that the leading actors did not know exactly how the story would end may well have enhanced rather than detracted from their performances as displaced people living in desperately uncertain times.

A warning against Nazi aggression, Casablanca politically has the advantage of being on the right side of history. The specific message that the film was intended to deliver to its American audience is anti-isolationist – a theme worth revisiting in an era of the apparent drift under President Trump towards American disengagement from the rest of the world.

Regardless of any contemporary geo-political resonance, it is hard not to be seduced by the principled resistance to oppression embodied by Paul Henreid’s Victor Lazlo, the charismatic though impetuous underground leader being hunted by the Nazis. At the same time, the world-weary scepticism expressed by Humphrey Bogart’s Rick is not nihilistic so much as defensive – the cynic as a disappointed romantic.

Ilsa is played with a disarming combination of naturalness and mystery by Ingrid Bergman.

None of the main characters is devoid of empathy or incapable of meaningful personal change. Even the Claude Rains’ roguishly duplicitous Vichy police chief proves to be not entirely beyond the possibility of redemption.

Above all, what makes the drama of Casablanca endearing as well as compelling is the character of Ilsa, a thoughtful, emotionally complex woman played with a disarming combination of naturalness and mystery by Ingrid Bergman.

In a successful political thriller the fiction is woven seamlessly into the headlines of the day. Inseparable from current events, Casablanca is a domestic human drama involving the reawakened emotions of the past in conflict with the urgent responsibilities of the present – regret versus hope, nostalgia versus reality.

Each of the main characters is faced with difficult personal choices that can only be determined by acknowledging something in themselves, and each other, that is bigger and more important than purely selfish personal interests.

7 responses to “You must remember this: Casablanca, 75 years on

  1. And don’t forget the wonderful performance by Humphrey Bogart. It is extraordinary to watch the (well-established by then) cynical tough-guy Bogey persona crumble to the brittle vulnerability of “If she can stand it so can I” (or whatever that line is!).

  2. The last time I saw this almost perfect movie was in the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh. It was the original version. I.e the hand holding the toy aeroplane-at the beginning-was visible and the wooden benches for the audience made their presence felt. But nothing could erase the joy I felt at seeing this treasure. Just wonderful.

  3. A gem of a movie, made in the year I was born. Like a good book, Casablanca needs to be revisited from time to time.

  4. My favourite film. Its dialogue is quoted more often than any other film, although “play it again Sam” is a misquotation of the original exchange between Ilsa and Sam, “Play it once Sam for old times sake.” There are others:
    “Here’s looking at you kid.”
    “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
    “We’ll always have Paris.”
    “Round up the usual suspects.”
    And lots, lots more. First saw if many years ago in my teens lard at night of course. Now gave the DVD.

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