By David Nilsen
When someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I feel a little sheepish admitting it’s probably Casablanca. It feels like a cliché to pick perhaps the most beloved classic movie of all-time. It won the Best Picture Oscar, you can buy a poster of the film (and probably an obnoxious 500 piece jigsaw puzzle of that poster while you’re at it) at any mall, and even non-cinephiles love it. It isn’t obscure, or difficult, or long, or foreign. If you ask me to make a list of, say, my 25 favorite films, then we’ll find ourselves in much more eclectic cinematic scenery, but at the top it’s pretty conventional–Casablanca is my favorite movie. Not the best, I should clarify, but my favorite.
Casablanca achieves a marriage of style and artistry most popular films strive for and few really pull off. The film is simple but has heart. Its dialogue is incredibly clever but never feels false. Nearly everyone is beautiful and stylish but that somehow makes sense in Rick’s Cafe, a place somewhat outside of normal space and time. People do bad things and yet never forfeit our empathy. So much of the movie is sentimental and even melodramatic and yet never feels manipulative or cheesy. It’s a remarkable achievement that somehow hits the perfect harmony between real human feeling and escapist entertainment.
The story is simple. Rick (Humphrey Bogart), an American ex-pat, owns a bar in German-occupied Casablanca, Morocco. Most of the denizens of his bar are Europeans fleeing the war and hoping to book passage to America via neutral Portugal. Ugarte (Peter Lorre) illegally comes into possession of two letters of transit guaranteeing their carriers safe passage. Everyone is scheming to get the letters. Rick sticks his neck out for no one, but his involvement in the plot deepens when his old flame, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), shows up at his café one night with her husband, one of the leaders of the French resistance movement, a man wanted by the Germans.
Casablanca is sometimes called a perfect film, which is manifestly untrue, though none of its flaws threaten its charm. Materials were in short supply at the onset of World War II, and studios had to get creative with sets and props (nails, for example, were rationed). This shows in places in Casablanca, as in the laughably fake airplane landing at the film’s beginning, and the obviously painted backdrop of the city just before. The back projection in the film is as uniformly bad as it was in most Hollywood pictures of this era (I will never understand why this relatively simple technique could never be made more convincing). In the scene at the train station in Paris Rick’s coat is soaking wet in one shot and dry in the next.
In other areas, the film is unexpectedly authentic, most notably in the casting of extras and stars. Only four of the credited actors are actually American, with the majority being European ex-pats who had left Europe before the war. So too were the extras and bit players mostly foreign-born. This gives the setting of European refugees fleeing the war for the melting pot of Casablanca a surprising level of realism on screen.
The most obvious flaw in the film is, of course, the issue of the letters of transit everyone is seeking in order to fly to Portugal. Two letters of transit signed by Free French leader Charles de Gaulle have been stolen, and anyone possessing them can legally travel to neutral Portugal and leave purgatorial Casablanca behind. This is absurd. Why would the occupying Germans care about letters signed by the leader of the Free French? If they’re intent on keeping a wanted individual in Casablanca, why do these letters suddenly make them powerless? They expend a great deal of energy keeping Victor Laszlo from getting these papers, but if he’s an escaped fugitive, why don’t they just arrest him in the first place? We’re not supposed to care about these details, and we don’t, really. But the letters are an obvious MacGuffin and the entire hullabaloo surrounding them is only in the script to drive the plot onward.
One way in which the film’s lack of realism is actually its greatest charm is one of the major factors in why viewers connect with it so well: every character in the film who isn’t a Nazi is basically good. They are decent and charming and we recognize they are all deep down pretty good human beings. If we were to take the set-up of the film as real, we would have a hard time buying a corrupt local police chief like Renault (Claude Rains) as a charming and light-humored rascal, or a weaselly, murderous thief like Ugarte (Peter Lorre) as grateful and gentle, or the alcoholic employees of a gambling joint full of thieves and spies as jovial and affectionate. These characters are written into the same witty and largely painless world as those of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001), in which even the thugs, thieves, and con-men are basically good. It’s unrealistic, but it works beautifully in Casablanca, because it allows us to be seduced by the wickedly clever dialogue and genuinely care about all of these otherwise insignificant chess pieces that must arrange perfectly to get us to the fantastic ending for our leads.
Casablanca isn’t perfect but none of its imperfections matter. It isn’t complicated but none of its simplicity makes it trivial. It isn’t realistic but none of its stylistic flourishes cheapen it. No matter how many times I watch it it always feels fresh, clever, sophisticated, fun, heartfelt. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it is my favorite.
As part of GPL’s Third Floor Film Series, I’ll be leading a screening of Casablanca on Thursday, January 21, at 7:00 p.m. Free popcorn, candy, coffee and soft drinks will be provided, and I’ll be leading a short discussion following the film. This will be our first event of the 2016 Third Floor Film Series season, so I hope you’re able to make it. You won’t want to miss watching this wonderful film with other movie lovers.