Unrated. I remember when I was a little kid, I walked in on this movie when my parents were watching it and no one shooed me away. Sure, people die in the movie, but in a 1942 way. I also remember being bored silly because I was a little kid and the movie was black and white and only in one location for most of the film. Man, little kids and their tastes are the worst. There's some kissing. There's some Nazis. There are no kissing Nazis.
DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
Man, I hate reviewing movies from the canon that I love. There's nothing to say. Everyone knows that this movie is nearly perfect. There was one documentary about the history of film that I considered showing my film class that kind of dumps on this movie, thinking of it more as a movie than a piece of art, but that's as slammed as it gets. If I have to slam this movie, which I really don't and don't care to, I would have to agree that the movie is really the product of Hollywood. But I also don't think of Hollywood as a bad word, so there's absolutely nothing wrong with this movie.
I watch this movie a lot. It is the movie that I show as my example of Hollywood in the 1940s because it checks off a lot of the boxes of things that we study. I also think that everyone should see this movie. The thing about it is that I think that everyone who has the patience to sit down for this movie with an open mind tends to leave thinking it is really great. I don't count people who go in begrudgingly. They hate everything and I'm not going to cowtow to that bullheaded market. Rather, for being an adaptation of a stage play that takes place primarily in one location, the movie is pretty great. It also is the anchor for my theory that every movie that plays "La Marseillaise" is a great movie. (Although my kids watched Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the car the other day and I heard the instrumental in there. I can't judge that one yet because I have yet to actually watch that movie.) There's something special about this movie and I think it is in the fact that it really doesn't ever misstep. My students would disagree. They think that the most memorable ending in film history is a bad one, but they liked the movie over all. I have to write them off as "they're young and they don't know any better." Casablanca is one of those movies where just every element comes together to make a perfect film. It's really odd, too, because I watched Casablanca in a new light and it does share traits with other movies that don't have the same staying power as other movies. (I know people are going to say that these other movies are lesser films. They aren't. I actually like a lot of these movies to death, but I am using the fame as a point of comparison.) Casablanca shares many of the traits as both the film noir and the romantic drama. I can't think of why Casablanca works so much more famously than Now, Voyager. I love Now, Voyager, but I admit that there are times that I tune out. I think it is because Casablanca takes the epic romance and places it against a setting that is oddly patriotic.
SPOILERY BECAUSE YOU'VE DEFINITELY HAD ENOUGH TIME AND OPPORTUNITY TO SEE THIS: Rick and Ilsa's story works because, at the end of the day, the relationship is the perk of the story. The world exists and keeps existing outside of their love. On the most superficial level possible, Casablanca taps into an overused trope: the impossible romance. I'm thinking of so many movies where guy loves girl, but girl is married. In the romance, we are meant to get the happy ending. The husband ends up evil or terribly flawed, allowing the relationship between the new suitor and the lady to thrive. He becomes this shining knight, who (either justly or no) saves his mate from a life of cruelty or sneezing. (I still hate you so much, Sleepless in Seattle, for this very reason.) But Victor Lazlo isn't bad. If anything, he is a saint in the true sense of the term. He isn't prideful or vain, but rather wants to help others. Traditionally, this character would help others at the expense of his wife, but he does not do that. He considers her needs equal to those around him. Lazlo also understands the insanity of war. Instead of reacting emotionally, he reacts sympathetically to Ilsa's situation. Not even fully understanding it, he allows that Ilsa has something going on and does not press her. Contrasting this to Rick, Lazlo has all of the answers. The only reason that we are really rooting for Rick is that he is the protagonist of the piece. Okay, that's not the only reason. Rick, too, has been slighted. But Rick feels more like we do. We want to get angry and spiteful towards Lazlo. Curtiz never paints Lazlo as the villain of the piece, but rather as the impediment from the protagonist's happiness. Rick starts the narrative as unhappy, but stable. He is then thrown into turmoil, still unhappy but chaotic. His rule set is thrown out the window because of Lazlo's and Ilsa's arrival. From a storytelling perspective, getting rid of Lazlo is the course of the story. From a goals perspective, Lazlo is the external conflict. But what makes Casablanca interesting is that Rick cannot destroy something that is actually good. What comes across as a traditional love story is actually a battle for Rick's broken soul.
Think about all of those "soul-saving" movies. They often come across as heavy handed and sappy. There's nothing really sappy about Casablanca, but it is a tale about the true nature of romance. It is about self-sacrifice. Everyone is constantly willing to sacrifice their own happiness for the others, which is an interesting way to look at love. I can't say that the movie isn't romantic. It is amazingly romantic. I get all choked up over it as a romance movie. But what makes Rick such an interesting character is that there is this really organic transition from someone who wouldn't help another person regardless of moral need to being a hero of the revolution once again. Looking at his relationship with Ugarte shows Rick's detached nature. He is not a bad man at any point in the story, but he also does not see the need to take risks. There's this scene where he helps this girl win at craps and that's such a small telling moment. Rick's entire character is spilled on the screen and at no point does it get preachy. It's so odd to see this character who is clearly deserving of love due to his changes understand the true nature of love: a woman is not a prize. Maybe I'm giving the movie a 21st Century morality where it really doesn't intend to have one, but the movie works for that reason. I could keep going with this, but I'm going to point out something that history doesn't exactly support.
Louis is kind of gross. I get it. We all got woke only, like, yesterday. But Louis is pretty much a sexual predator. I don't think I ever saw Louis in that light until my students pointed it out. Every time I watched Casablanca, I knew that Louis wasn't a good guy. But Louis is actually an absolutely horrible human being. He's just an extremely likable awful person. Louis does change for the better at the end, but his change is so lightswitchy. I'm thinking of how that beautiful friendship is going to end up and I have to be hopeful. But if the movie is actually telling me anything is that Louis is just going to go whichever way the wind blows. That's an extremely cynical interpretation and I'm not exactly proud of that. But again, I watched this with a new light. It also helps that I've seen this movie a billion times so I'm allowed to watch a little more critically. But let's establish: Louis as a character doesn't really work today because he might be a rapist.
This movie is still so great. I get why it is a classic. While I love Citizen Kane, I never really have a good time watching it. Casablanca is a great movie all around. The performances, while kind of dated, are perfect. I don't want more nuance from this movie than Bogart or Bergman offer. I like the complex storyline and the fact that the movie chose the riskier ending out of all of them. The story works on this absolutely perfect level and I can't wait to show my students the movie again next year. This might be my favorite movie to show, perhaps tied only with Singin' in the Rain. Considering that I started this review commenting on how little I'm going to have to say, I'm pretty proud. When I love a movie this much, I guess I can expound on some greater ideas. Yay, me, I guess. Regardless, I'm going to have "As Time Goes By" stuck in my head for the next month, so you're welcome.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.