When one has the chance to take another look at Casablanca (1942), it brings to mind a sense of anticipation beyond the usual one of reviewing a film classic. It is that of looking straight into the face of an American myth. It is perhaps the contemporary nature of this particular myth that makes the film – a “Hollywood” melodrama – one of the real enigmas of American pop culture.
Even today there is considerable lack of unanimity from critics as to the film’s ultimate importance. It’s overall popularity with its audiences is undeniable, however. Made in 1942 and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains, Casablanca has been one of the most popular and widely seen films ever made – achieving almost cult-like proportions with college students. Besides making Ingrid Bergman an American star and winning three US Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the film provided the ultimate vehicle for the Bogart legend. Indeed, one measure of the film’s success is that some of its lines, like “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “Play it, Sam” are still part of the American scene.
The behaviour of the critics then is interesting. Although most of them admit liking the film, they seldom pin-point the reason, (e.g. Richard Shickel, of Time, called it “delicious”). For one thing, Casablanca stubbornly resists analysis on the basis of film aesthetics’ meager categories, in particular, the auteur theory. The auteur theory asserts, to put it loosely, that a work of cinematic art is achieved as a result of a personal statement by the film’s creator – the director. Casablanca’s director, Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, was more famous for his mauling of the English language than for his acts of creativity (e.g. “This scene will make your blood curl”). Curtiz, once a circus strong man, directed three films in 1942, and usually turned out gross blockbusters rather than personal statements. Curtiz did, however, have an excellent sense of camera rhythm and lighting, both essential ingredients to the film’s success.
However, the nature of the film’s greatness is more closely identified with the portrayal of Humphrey Bogart, as Rick, the classic movie example of the alienated antihero redeemed by love. Romanticism in the American film frequently takes its form in the cynical tough guy’s independence. Sentimentality lies traditionally in the finish, when the antihero turns hero. Casablanca is no exception. Rather, it is a near perfect representation of this genre.
Since sentimentality exists more in the imagination than in the real world, an expressionistic, subjective environment is crucial to the theme. Hence Casablanca itself, a city of intrigue and mystery, where chaos rules and only the toughest survive, plays a role. The atmospheric settings and the super-real performances of Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet are thus crucial to the effect; more “realistic” acting would fail to achieve the emotional power. Furthermore, Bogart’s acting style is perfectly geared to the role. His restraint and cool always suggest an inner turmoil that internalizes the action for the audience.
The viewer always understands that Rick knows the score and that his mind is always churning, despite the forcedly calm exterior. (Imagine the film with Rick played by Ronald Reagan, the man Bogart beat out for the role!)
All of these expressionistic effects (some of which may have been partly indigenous to films of the forties) combine for an emotional impact which is still as powerful today as it was seven decades ago and which, except for scattered exceptions such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or occasional works by the Coen brothers, were not the usual fare of modern American cinema. The outrageously melodramatic plot, lack of special effects, and standard studio shooting notwithstanding, Casablanca is still a brilliant example of how stirring good movies can be.