Historical Circuit: Casablanca (1942) (***½)

casablancaI received a fair bit of flack after my first piece as manager of the Historical Circuit.  Who knew criticizing Gone With the Wind would get me so as many defenders as it did detractors?  Let me say that I don’t intend to bash universally beloved movies; I just don’t feel that a movie made during a particular era should get a free pass and immediately wear the mantle of “flawless.”  With that being said, I went with a movie that I enjoy for this week’s review (it has also been recommended by a few commenters).  However, I’m sure I’ll get just as frenzied a response, both condemning and praising me; I’ll let the chips fall where they may.

I first saw Casablanca a few years ago as part of my early foray into classic film.  At first, I didn’t get what all the fuss was about.  It wasn‘t until I saw it on the big screen as part of a promotional re-release that I enjoyed it a lot.  At final count this is the fourth time I’ve seen it, and while I enjoy it and believe it deserves its place in the pantheon of Hollywood classics, I just don’t see it as perfection the way some critics see it.  Let me be clear: I enjoy Casablanca, the acting, and everything else about it.  I just don’t believe it’s the flawless gem – the apotheosis of filmmaking – that it’s touted as.  In a nutshell, a lot of this comes down to personal preference, but in recounting my issues I hope to explain why Casablanca is a “really good” film, and not necessarily a “flawless” film.

If you’ve never watched Casablanca – and I feel sad if you haven’t – the film follows café owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), who runs a business in unoccupied Africa.  When a woman from his past, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) comes into his life with her husband, a freedom fighter named Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), Rick will have to reconcile his past with his present and figure out where his true loyalties lie.

There are a few key things I want to discuss in this analysis of Casablanca: 1) That it is the purest representation of classic Hollywood filmmaking 2) The Nazis are poorly written and 3) This is NOT the best Ingrid Bergman movie.  I’ll get a few pros out of the way, so that you remember I like this movie!  The plot is intricate – simply summarizing it is hard to do with all the characters and various double-dealing that happens – and yet remains contained to a brisk hour and forty-five minute runtime.  All the characters are written well, and deliver bravura performances.  Humphrey Bogart found true leading man status as Rick Blaine, a man who “doesn’t stick his neck out for anybody,” and yet insidiously shows his dedication to the anti-Fascist cause throughout the narrative.  Claude Rains is deliciously smarmy as the opportunistic Inspector Renault.  Actually, Renault is a character that, had the movie been darker, could have been a sinister villain higher than the Nazis as he sexually exploits women in exchange for exit visas.

casablancRenault leads me to a flaw I take fault with: The story isn’t nearly as dark as it sets itself up to be.  The entire police force is out to arrest Victor Laszlo, and yet Nazi leader, Major Strausser (Conrad Veidt) allows Laszlo to run all around Casablanca in the hopes of finding a visa.  It isn’t until the final sequence that Strausser gets enough “evidence” – Renault calls him to alert the authorities that Laszlo is getting on a plane – to arrest him.  Why not arrest him the minute he entered Casablanca?  I’m assuming because Casablanca is still maintaining an illusion of neutrality, but considering how effortlessly Renault closes Rick’s cafe, claiming “illegal gambling” (in a hilarious sequence where the punch line is Renault gathering up his winnings from a night of gambling).    Furthermore, the Nazis come off as buffoons, running around after Laszlo and coming off as flies in the ointment than anything else; I mean, look at how closely they follow international law by refusing to arrest Laszlo!  Of course, the movie’s release precludes what we ended up discovering about the Nazis, but considering we were still active in WWII you’d think the script would make them a credible threat.

The other issue I have is the “woman problem” aka Ilsa.  I love Ingrid Bergman as an actress; she’s beautiful, personable, and all-around spectacular.  I just find that in this role she’s nothing but a pawn, albeit a well-written pawn.  Her relationship with Rick isn’t written to make her malicious; she believes Laszlo, her husband, is dead and thus takes up with Rick out of grief.  The complexity of the script forces you question, throughout, whether Ilsa is playing on Rick’s affections to garner an exit visa for her and Laszlo, or whether she truly loves him.  My issue, though, is her sense of agency.  Compare Bergman’s character to her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (one of my favorite Hitchcock films).  There, Bergman’s character is forced to use her sexual wiles but is ingrained into every scene by being the lead character.  By the end of Notorious, her life is literally in danger through her sacrificing herself for the cause.  In Casablanca, Ilsa is never in direct danger.  Whether she’s leaving with Victor or Rick, she’s leaving with no fear for her life; this doesn’t make the character bad, just not as empowering and perfect as the film wants you to believe she is.

In a roundabout way I’ve believe I’ve hit the crux of my issue with Casablanca: it’s a great movie, but I feel it gets the title “perfect” because of its representation as the ideal “Hollywood” film.  It’s akin to Citizen Kane with for its pure depiction of what Hollywood filmmaking was all about: A-list stars, a romance that transcends the horrors of war, quotable one-liners.  Again, none of this damns Casablanca, but it diminishes its luster as cinematic perfection.  In the end, I enjoy Casablanca and praise it as a must-see Hollywood movie, but when people go on about how the movie is sheer perfection I have to disagree.