“Is it really that good?” I wondered as I hit play for the first time in a decade.
It’s really that good.
Casablanca is one of the peaks of the studio system that plays up all the strengths of classic Hollywood storytelling: Larger-than-life stars playing well-drawn characters in a memorable scenario with beautiful production. Full-tilt American romanticism: Bittersweet lost love gets its second chance, but self-sacrifice and nobility win out. Cinematic romance raised to perfection.
The movie is absolutely gorgeous, shot mostly in dim and smoky rooms, the rich lighting and busy sets suggesting a decadent, sweltering Morocco. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman fill the frame with charisma and electricity. Bergman, in particular, is often shot in hazy, glowing lighting, as if her beauty is so commanding it borders on divine.
The script is a masterclass in storytelling centered around Rick’s arc. With the Allied cause’s icon on the line, can the love-weary loner learn to “stick his neck out”? Can he mend the broken heart that made him that way? It’s a beautiful bit of character growth, rounded out with memorable accomplices who challenge or shape Rick in some way: Ilsa the lost love, of course, and Victor Laszlo, the idealistic hero, the shifty Louis, the cutthroat Strasser, plus the many other friends and agitators. All perfectly cast and acted.
More than the overall story, though, it’s the individual moments that steal your heart: Rick and Ilsa locking eyes for the first time; their drunken argument; Rick rigging the roulette table to save a poor soul; and, of course, those foggy final few minutes.
I have two minor complaints about the film; neither enough to knock it from its pedestal, but both nuisances. First is that, as great as the final scene is, the amount of contrivance and double-crossing in the third act required to set up those last few minutes is a bit convoluted; if you can easily summarize what Rick, Laszlo, Ilsa, Louis, and Strasser each understand at any given moment, you’re savvier than me. Thank goodness what it leads to is satisfying enough to wash everything else away.
My second complaint is not the movie’s fault, really: It’s been so over-referenced and -quoted and -parodied that it’s hard to take the iconic moments at face value. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” is an absolutely beautiful turn of phrase that will never feel as lovely and heartbroken as it should… because, e.g., it’s also the name of a Fall Out Boy song.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to top Casablanca for pure Hollywood magic and storytelling. I know it’s such a cliche to call it one of my favorites, but it undeniably is.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100