Tuesday, February 20, 2007

CASABLANCA - wonderful contradictions

What can I say about CASABLANCA that hasn't already been said by more articulate reviewers - that hasn't been confirmed by continuous sales over the last sixty-odd years and countless accolades in those AFI Best Of.. lists? As with THE THIRD MAN, all I can give is a personal response. I first watched CASABLANCA on a scratchy video copy at college and was struck not so much by the famous love story but by the dry wit of the script. And as I continued watching it - and I have watched it many times since on video, DVD and restored at the cinema - I am always struck by the inherent contradictions in the movie and I am convinced that it is this tension and subtle complexity that make CASABLANCA such an outstanding film. *Spoilers follow*

So to take it from the top....The protagonist is a bundle of wonderful contradictions. Rick Blaine is a wry, apparently cynical night-club owner who professes to protect no-one's skin but his own. And yet, he has fought on many a losing side in Europe and ultimately makes a sacrifice not merely for love but also for the Czech independence movement. He is played by Humphrey Bogart, an unconventionally handsome man, famous for his roles as wry private eyes with a penchant for white knight behaviour that gets them beaten up and not much love or money when all the fighting's over. In other words, despite Rick's superficial cynicism, he is a romantic.

The heroine is a superficially modern woman called Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman at the height of her beauty. She had an affair with Rick in Paris, but left him for the Czech freedom fighter, Victor Lazlo. Despite the fact that she is beyond the conventional morality of the time - she will eventually leave Casablanca with Lazlo rather than staying with Blaine, to become, essentially, a conventional First Lady figure and emotional support. Blaine may push her onto that plane but I believe Ilsa has a strong enough character to refuse if she really wanted to.

The supporting characters are also a rich rogue's gallery of witty, politically slippery refugees, black marketeers and military officers. The contradiction here is in the film-makers deliberate attempt to make the rogues likeable and to allow Rick to find a certain camaraderie among these slippery people.

Further to this, we have a lushly romantic film - with one of the most emotionally devestating final scenes - wherein the best remembered lines are remarkably ordinary - remarkably colloquial and everyday. "Here's looking at you kid" is a classic example: hardly a dramatic, flowery declaration of passionate love, and yet the fantastic chemistry between the two leads makes us believe that that's exactly what they feel. But let's take this further and look at the tone of the film in which this passionate love story is played out. I give you the following dialogue as an example:

Captain Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

This dialogue is funny in its own right, but I think it does more than that. It's sharpness cuts through the heavy romance of the core story and stops it from becoming cloying. Which is why, while we adore CASABLANCA because it is a noble story of love renounced for a greater good, we watch it again and again because it is also good fun. To wit, up with all those famous lines of dialogue about love, perhaps one of the most famous lines has nothing to do with the love story at all: "Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship."

You know all about this, of course. CASABLANCA is a genuinely great and popular movie. Memorable characters, general character development, a narrative that keeps you hanging even when you've seen it before, witty dialogue and an emotional payoff at the end...... But it is worth seeking the movie on re-release because you'll better really appreciate the skillful and economical direction of Michael Curtiz (ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES) and the photography of Arthur Edeson (THE MALTESE FALCON) on the big screen.

CASABLANCA was originally released in 1942. It won Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay but bizarrely lost out on the Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Photography and Orchestral Score gongs. It is currently on re-release in the UK.

1 comment:

  1. Haha. I love the "I was misinformed line"!

    Once I used that line with someone and they kind of looked at me funny.

    It's amazing how many lines from the film have seeped into our consciousness like "Here's lookin' at you, kid. People say them but have no idea (they need to see the film!)where it came from.

    Good post and the best of luck to your site!