What makes a film a classic? In a nutshell it’s a film that you don’t mind seeing again and again; you can probably hum music featured in the movie, albeit most likely out of tune, and you can at least quote several of the lines. Casablanca fits easily into this classification. Even people who haven’t seen the movie, can probably quote (or more accurately in this case perhaps misquote) lines from it – surely the ultimate accolade.
Despite its then pressing contemporary message to both encourage and explain to Americans why American lives should be expended in what was primarily then seen as a European war, the film doesn’t seem out-dated. This is despite the fact you can see Bogart’s character, Rick, symbolising America, as Americans may have liked to have seen themselves in the 40s – on the outside cynical and worldly wise but deep down sentimental, always standing up for the underdog and in the end always doing the right thing. And when Rick, the American, finally throws in his lot with the resistance movement, the resistance leader par excellence, Victor Laszlo notes: “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win”. Films such as Casablanca showed Americans that there were some things worth fighting for, but these filmmakers were wise enough to know that the best way to get your message across was to wrap it up in a good story, along with a cornucopia of interesting characters, a dollop of wit and in this case the tried and tested formula of star-crossed lovers.
The studios were then run in the main by Jewish émigrés from Europe and by the time Casablanca was made many a German and Austrian Jewish writer and director had fled the Nazi regime to work in Hollywood. With their first-hand knowledge of Nazi dictatorship, it’s no surprise then that some of the films at this time made reference to the importance of fighting and standing up to tyranny. Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and also directed by Michael Curitz is a case in point. These men were acutely aware (to quote a line from the film) that people were “asleep in New York, asleep all over America”. And films such as Casablanca not only entertained but helped the average American Joe have some concept of what it meant to live under a regime where human life was cheap.
The great thing about Casablanca is you have characters you care about. I watched a 50 year anniversary edition of Casablanca about a week before I watched Basic Instinct. Despite not being blessed with sixth sense, I feel safe in asserting there will be no 50th edition of Basic instinct. Why? Firstly, despite the fat detective sidekick, you don’t care about any of the characters and you certainly don’t believe in the love and passion between the two leads. Due to the rigid censorship of the 40s all Ingrid Bergman does in her and Bogey’s love scenes is be hatless and you see them kiss. That’s it, but their love story is by far the more believable one.
Bogey’s character is a cynic and has some great comic lines which he throws away with true comic timing and panache. No more so then in the scene where Rick replies “Are my eyes really brown?” while being interrogated by the no nonsense and humourless Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt). (He is a Nazi after all).
Rick may be nobody’s fool but he’s clearly not heartless – whether it’s preventing a young female Bulgarian refugee from a fate worse than death at the hands of Captain Renault (Claude Rains’ character) to his ultimate selfless and redemptive act of allowing the woman he loves to fly away with his rival.
Ingrid Bergman is translucent as Isla and manages to hide the fact that through filming she had apparently no idea who she was meant to be in love with. However, the richness of the film is also down to the myriad number of character actors which were a feature of films in the 30s and 40s and who punters probably looked forward to seeing again and again as much as some of the bigger stars. The usual suspects have indeed been rounded up for this movie, Peter Lorre as Ugarte (my only gripe, I would have loved to have seen more of him), Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari, Dooley Wilson as Rick’s best friend and piano player, Sam, S. Z. Sakall who plays the Austrian waiter Carl and Leonid Kinskey as the Russian barmen. All give their small roles life and are integral to the rich tapestry of the film.
Not forgetting of course Conrad Veidt and Paul Heinreid as Captain Strasser and the resistance leader, Victor Laszlo respectively and last but by no means least Claude Rains as the Chief of Police, Renault. Rains has that amazing ability that only truly fine actors can pull off – making characters you should hate likeable. Peter Lorre pulled off a similar trick in ‘M’ where he has you end up feeling sorry for a child murderer.
Renault’s character is a collaborator; he forces women to have sex with him for visas; has no qualms in killing prisoners in his custody and seems to have no moral compass at all with a totally laissez faire attitude to taking bribes and making money wherever and however he can. Yet, somehow we still like him. It seems it’s hard not to like someone who is so blatant such as when he claims to be closing down Rick’s bar for illegal gambling, while at the same time collecting his winnings. He’s helped by the fact he too has some great comedic lines, he clearly doesn’t take himself that seriously and is evidently only working with the Germans as far as it is to his advantage to do so. At the end he redeems himself too when he sides with Bogey and they walk into the distance at the “start of a beautiful friendship”.
There are also snippets of other characters from around the world, the rather naïve, ludicrous British couple, the pompous Italian officer and the French officer who won’t shut up. Not surprisingly jokes are made at the Germans expense. Suggesting giving the German officers the best table in the café, the reply is that this has already been done as “knowing he’s German, he would have taken it anyway” or when Rich chastises Renault for his men tearing his café apart, Renault reminds him that they were especially destructive as he knows how much that pleases the Germans. The Vichy Government is treated with disdain right at the start of the movie when a Free French resistance fighter is shot in front of a poster of Petain ironically declaring “I keep my promises even those of others” to the closing scenes where Renault, the arch conspirator until now, throws away the bottle of Vichy water in disgust.
In fact the start of the movie is a masterclass in how to set the scene: the queues of refugees, the plane flying to freedom, and the desperation and longing of the refugees as the plane flies over Rick’s Café Americain and the aforementioned shooting of the free French resistance fighter in front of the Vichy poster featuring Petain. We immediately know where we are; we sense how desperate the situation is for all involved, the heady mix of nationalities and above all we are left in no doubt as to how dangerous resistance can be.
Rick may be neutral like America had been but he is inherently siding with the right side. Just as Roosevelt unofficially helped support the UK’s war effort before formally declaring war on Germany, Rick too is doing his bit, ripping up a German cheque and refusing to allow entry to the representative of the Deutsche Bank. He may not yet have fully admitted it but again to quote a line from the film “Isolationism isn’t a practical policy”.
Of course the love story, like many a well-known and well- treasured love story in literature and film has an unhappy ending – at least for Rick. These seem to be the love stories we like to hear and read about, maybe to console ourselves over our own failed relationships. The love story here is made more interesting because both the contenders for Ilsa’s love are decent men. They are clearly worthy of Ilsa’s love and though Rick is the hero of the film, it’s hard to begrudge a freedom fighter who has survived with his spirit intact both concentration camps and Nazi interrogation techniques. In this the film refuses go for an easy option. We clearly see how brave and what a great leader Victor Laszlo is in the bar scene when he instigates the singing of La Marseille to put the Germans who are singing Wach an dem Rhein well and truly in their place. And it’s exactly because both Rick and Victor are at heart decent men and clearly both truly love Ilsa, the audience finds itself in the same quandary as Ilsa and that’s what makes the story so gripping.
So if you fancy watching a film featuring Bogart and Bergman in their prime alongside some of the 1940s best character actors as well as a tale of redemption, true love and seeing the Nazis getting their just deserts, not to mention some great one liners and scenes which have now become some of cinema’s most iconic, then this is the film for you!