I saw Casablanca tonight at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto (a beautiful theater for classic Hollywood films, with a lovely organ playing in-between showings, even showing classic cartoon shorts before screenings – truly a unique and memorable experience). 75 years after its release, a packed house laughed at every joke, held their breath at every tense moment, and enjoyed the timeless experience that Casablanca has become. To say that Casablanca is an absolute classic, a masterpiece, one that shows little sign of losing its relevance, is almost an understatement.
Plenty of ink has been spilled lauding the mastery of Casablanca, and there’s little I could say that would add to a discourse that has been well-represented over the intervening 75 years since its original release. In watching Casablanca on a big screen, in a crowd of hundreds, it’s impossible not to be reminded at every turn of the impact, the relevance, the craft, and every way in which this film has remained compelling.
First and foremost, I was once again struck by how influential Casablanca has been on the visual language of film, the ways in which it’s referenced in 75 years of filmmaking, the countless directors and writers and actors who quote from and borrow from Casablanca. Without question, Casablanca has to be one of the most widely imitated and referenced films in the history of the medium. Even small visual flairs – the opening map traversal, for instance – instantly define this movie for its importance to the medium.
On a craft level, almost every element of Casablanca is sheer perfection. Visually, this has to be one of the most stunning movies ever filmed in black-and-white; it’s full of shadows, vibrantly lit, and cinematographer Arthur Edeson knows how to take full advantage of every moment, making the frame hazy in some moments and crystal clear in others. Max Steiner’s music, fills the silence brilliantly, along with the beautiful diegetic piano playing of Rick’s Cafe.
Story-wise, this film is so perfect, so deliberate, so instantly convincing. At a mere 102 minutes, this is a short film, and yet so much information is communicated in the course of this film. The small touches, early on in the film, effectively and efficiently communicate the sense of place of Casablanca (the city); we see the desperation of a young woman trying to sell her diamond necklace and instantly understand what kind of city this is. The way that Rick turns away a customer, the way that the patrons of Rick’s cafe talk about him, it tells us so much about him, about what his club represents within the city. There isn’t an ounce of fat in this film, every moment serving to convey important information about the characters, or about the city, or about the cause of the film.
This economy is helped by the fact that the actors who appear here are so perfect from top-to-bottom. Peter Lorre, for instance, as the odious Ugarte, is such a complete weasel, everything communicated instantly through his bulging eyes. Sydney Greenstreet, as the loathsome, yet charismatic, Signor Ferrari, has such a magnetic visual presence, simply using his size to instantly feel like the center of any room he’s in, absolutely brilliant. Conrad Veidt instantly feels villainous both thanks to earlier film roles as well as the Nazi outfit he wears (and of course, there may be no better cinematic villains than Nazis for instantly conveying villainy), but also because this is an actor who knows how to seem odious and leering.
Dooley Wilson here lends his voice to the role of Sam the piano player; Wilson conveys such a warmth, with his eyes, with the way that he raises his eyebrows; it’s an underappreciated performance.
Also underappreciated is Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault, who runs the city; little happens that he doesn’t know about, and he plays his loyalty close to his chest. In some senses, Renault’s arc is the same as Rick’s, in miniature, as he rediscovers his sense of pride, is reminded of where his loyalties really lie. Through it all, Rains plays this role perfectly – the ways in which he sees himself in Rick, the way he tries to look out for his own neck first and foremost, hiding his underlying sentimentality – this is, simply put an acting masterclass.
By way of comparison, Paul Henreid, one of the top-billed actors, as Victor Laszlo, has relatively little to do. That’s not to say that Henreid is bad – he does a good job in this role, but it’s something of a thankless role – here is the man who we see as a morally upright hero, the man who represents all that is good, and just. Henreid does a good job with what he’s given.
On the other hand, Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart get a lot to do here, and boy are they both fantastic. Bergman, as Ilsa Lund, could feel too much like a cliche femme fatale, a woman who loses her mind when her love is conflicted; instead, she feels like a truly tragic figure; she feels believable as the one woman who could steal the hearts of these two men, both admirable in their own ways; there’s a quiet dignity to this performance, and her chemistry with Bogart is electric.
Bogart, of course, makes this film. With a lesser actor, this probably wouldn’t be a bad film by any means, but Bogart is simply magnetic. He’s so compelling to watch, so layered. At first we see Rick the sophisticate, a man who everyone admires, who carries himself above everyone else; then, we see Rick, the man with a dark history, a questionable criminal past, a man who is capable of violence; then, we see Rick, a broken man, an alcoholic, a man with a broken heart; and finally, at the conclusion of the film, we see the reinvigorated Rick, the re-inspired romantic who once again has a cause to fight for. At every turn, Bogart is so convincing, so devastatingly funny and believable.
Casablanca is a sentimental film, but not a maudlin one. Casablanca believes that, when called upon, good people will do the right thing; but never does it feel aggressively forced; everything is natural. There are moments of sarcasm, of darkness. When the story seems to be veering in a certain direction, the writing self-corrects. The dialogue feels fresh and brisk, not unlike a film from a more modern era. The moment when the cafe patrons break out into La Marsailles, drowning out a group of Nazi officers, feels entirely earned, and the emotion of the moment feels entirely justified. Casablanca is filled with timeless moments as iconic as the singing of La Marsailles, and it earns them all.
At this point, I’ve written over a thousand words praising Casablanca, and I feel like I haven’t even dipped my toe into the waters of this film. Casablanca is not a perfect film – no film is – but it’s about as close to perfection as you can get. In watching Casablanca, I’m reminded of the unassailable power that a great film can have on its audience.