The Good: Excellent acting, Interesting characters, Decent plot, Exceptional sense of time and place.
The Bad: Hard to find any, actually, none.
The Basics: Oft-quoted, Casablanca remains one of the few perfect films I've seen to come out of the Golden Age of Cinema.
I'm not a fan of old movies. In fact, I have an antipathy toward most old movies. It's not the lack of technology or even the lack of sophistication of cinematography that gets to me. Usually, it's the writing. There are a lot of terrible movies from the "Golden Age of Cinema" that are written with the most hackneyed, stilted language, populated by characters that are simply "types," not individuals. A lot of the classic movies everyone shouts about, I've hated. Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, and On The Waterfront remain three of the best reviewed movies that I could not stand. But everyone in my life had told me I would enjoy Casablanca.
They were right.
Casablanca tells the story of Victor Laszlo, fleeing the Fascists throughout Europe, who ends up in Northern Africa in Casablanca (Morocco). Laszlo is working to get papers to flee to the United States with Ilsa, the woman he loves. In these desperate times, the man who has the connections to get Laszlo and Ilsa to the States is Rick Blaine, a nightclub owner and a former lover of Ilsa's. The reunion of Ilsa and Rick stirs up old emotions, old issues and old desires and as the Fascists begin to exert more influence, the situation becomes more tense, forcing the three to make decisions that challenge them to their cores.
Casablanca is pretty much the archetypal character-driven story. There are big things going on in the world around the principle characters, but it is the choices they make that move the story along. That's what a perfect character story does; individuals act, changing the circumstances and then they must deal with the consequences of their actions. Casablanca does that perfectly.
In fact, one interpretation of Casablanca is that - outside the rise of the Fascists - all of the important action in the film is a result of the consequences of earlier character decisions. Rick and Ilsa's prior relationship and how they each left it, determines much of where and who each of them is at the beginning of Casablanca and dealing with the consequences of each of their actions leads to much of the film's tension and intrigue.
And for a film made in the early 1940s, Casablanca is incredibly well-shot. The cinematography is wonderful and the message of the movie is quite daring for the time. But beyond the simple look of the movie, the sound is also quite impressive. Director Michael Curtiz has a great sense of camera timing as well as use of music. The song "As Time Goes By" is threaded throughout the movie and it never once seems intrusive or out of place. Curtiz deserves a bit of credit for balancing the visual and audio in a way that captivatingly creates a very distinct sense of time and place.
Casablanca is essentially about the essential human relationships: love and loss, set in a time and place that are very distinctive. There are time factors as Laszlo is being hunted but even that feels organic and real as opposed to contrived. And the characters all pop, they all seem real and they each seem distinct.
A great deal of credit must go to the actors. Claude Rains is wonderful as Captain Renault, using his face and body language to create a sympathetic officer who feels out of his element. Dooley Wilson creates Sam as an entertainer without a hint of tension or difficulty. And Paul Henreid creates Victor as an intellectual who one may easily believe has worked to undermine the Fascists, thus earning their rancor.
But the film hinges on the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart (Rick) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) and they make it work. Bogart is given the difficult task of playing a character who must appear indifferent and cold while projecting loss and pain from wanting Ilsa and he largely succeeds with that. Bergman balances the nostalgia for Rick with the love of Victor in a way that makes her character compelling and makes the film entertaining as opposed to tortured.
Now on deluxe Blu-Ray and DVD set with a bunch of cool swag - a set of coasters from Rick's, photo album and French movie poster - Casablanca on Blu-Ray has some very cool bonus features. The Roger Ebert commentary track is entertaining and exceptionally informative. The other commentary track sounds like the commentator is simply ready a book on Casablanca. There are other cool featurettes and bonus features, like an introduction by Lauren Bacall. The bonus disc with the deluxe Blu-Ray is a fascinating documentary on the making of the film.
Casablanca honestly is one of the few films everyone ought to see. It has pretty much everything one could want from a historical love story and, like Shakespeare's works, a timeless quality able to touch us all. And for those of you who are skeptical, go in an enjoy; odds are you've heard almost every line in the movie before!
As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here!
For other films that are strongly character-driven, please visit my reviews of:
The Spitfire Grill
Gods And Monsters
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2009, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.