Top Ten Fool's Gold: The Overrated Part 3 Casablanca
In this series I would like to provide my readers with a more critical perspective to consider, one that hopefully will not detract from a person's appreciation for the films under review. At the same time, I'd question whether these motion pictures really deserve the high accolades bestowed upon them by the critical community in general. Perhaps it's like this: Instead of "The emperor has no clothes," I'm saying "He's just not that well dressed." (For a further introduction on this subject please see: Top Ten Fool's Gold: The Overrated Part 1.)
These notices are meant for viewers familiar with the following motion pictures.
(They will be addressed in alphabetical order.)
Casablanca (1942, U.S.A.)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Unlike the previous motion pictures on this list whose reputations were built after a cult following, Casablanca has, for a much longer time and by a vastly greater audience, been embraced as a classic. Many consider it to be one of the finest American films of all time. Though I'm a little nervous about placing it on this list, the lofty high status Casablanca enjoys makes this film, at the very least, worthy of a closer look.
The title refers to the Moroccan city which during the Second World War before the U.S. became involved, is mainly overseen by the German-controlled Vichy Government of France. Casablanca provides a gateway for those fleeing the Nazi encroachment but at a price. These individuals and those who prey on them, all seem to wind up at "Rick's Café Américain." The film’s opening explains this by way of a brilliant montage sequence directed by none other than Don 'Dirty Harry' Siegel. Then it’s on to the various inhabitants of the city (dozens of speaking parts with hundreds of extras) who comprise an assortment of thieves, refugees, employees of Rick's, French, German and Italian Government officials. Some of these roles are cast with distinguished supporting actors but all of them unfortunately act as stereotypes. The filmmakers abandon some of these secondary characters soon after we observe their desperate attempts to leave Morocco, like Peter Lorre's Ugarte killed early on or the couple Rick helps buy their way out of the country in his gambling parlour. Others are marginalised such as Madeleine Lebeau's Yvonne, Rick's discarded lover whose role was significantly whittled down to insignificance after numerous script re-writes or Sydney Greenstreet’s competing club owner who’s given so little to do that anyone could have played his part. Even Claude Rains’ Captain Renault despite some suggestively ostentatious words of admiration for Rick, repeatedly behaves like an unscrupulous corrupt opportunist, nothing more. Since these mini-dramas are played out at the cafe, the various calamities that ensue are dealt with assuredly by proprietor Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart).... that is until she walks in.
"She" is Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman who here expresses more heartfelt emotion with her eyes than most other actresses do using their whole body. Ilsa was Rick's former lover who reluctantly left him in Paris after she found out that her husband Victor Lazlo, a Czech resistance leader, was not killed by the Nazis as she had believed. Ilsa benefits most from Bergman's skilfully emotive performance since on closer inspection this character's most formidable and lasting impression is one of simple confusion.* Victor Lazlo represents one of the most virtuous and noble archetypes ever seen on celluloid, always ready to personally sacrifice for a cause or another, without a speck of grey within and is portrayed by a suitably dignified Paul Henreid.
The dramatic thrust of the story will rest almost entirely on the former romance between Rick and Ilsa in Paris before the Nazi takeover. Their emotional bond will substantiate Rick's constant fretting and bitterness over his once having been abandoned, and give cause for his decision on how to use the valuable letters of transit (given to him by Ugarte) that allow two people totally unobstructed safe passage out of the country.** This past love will additionally account for Ilsa’s conflicted feelings for Rick and her realisation over how deeply he was hurt, versus the loyalty to her husband and his freedom fighting cause. The other principal players are, dramatically speaking, reduced to either obstructing or abetting Rick's decision, depending on whether he resumes his relationship with Ilsa or lets go of his one true love for "the greater good." In order to give the prerequisite emotional impact to his final sacrifice at the airport, the filmmakers wisely provide a flashback to the couple’s happier times in Paris. The question is, are they enough to give the big finale’ the emotional gravitas it deserves? I don’t think so.
The flashback scenes in Paris, which were not part of the unproduced stage play on which most of the film is based, were reportedly added for romantic enhancement by uncredited writer Casey Robinson and they look perfunctory. They are not narrated, nor do they have an engagingly clever way of being introduced like the flashbacks in Citizen Kane, Laura or Double Indemnity. Rick and Ilsa are already together. Their relationship seems rather casual and calm except for the impending Nazi invasion. Even Rick’s unfulfilled wait at the train station for Ilsa is foreshadowed and predictable.
Then there’s the famous last scene at the airport where Rick makes a very poetic speech to Ilsa, curiously devoid of emotion*** and at a rapid clip making it sound rehearsed. As heroic a gesture as his act is meant to be, the actor's delivery, along with what we actually saw in Paris, sucks the life-blood out of the moment surer than a starving vampire. After Ilsa and her husband leave, Rick, after having pulled a gun on Captain Renault, does so again on Major Strasser (played by Conrad Veidt as your typical cardboard cinematic Nazi) before fatally shooting him. The final moments include more iconic words**** spoken by Rick to Captain Renault further suggesting an oddly apathetic response to losing Ilsa for a second time. Besides, considering what we've previously observed between these former adversaries (Rick and Louis), they seem out of character and don’t hold much weight either.
The narrative's episodic effect is probably due to the numerous writers and revisions which occurred well into its production. This is partly offset, however, by an array of consummate performances especially from Bergman, the dynamic Curtiz direction, occasional sharp dialogue, patriotic fervour,***** nostalgic ‘suspension of time’ moments especially those with Dooley Wilson as Sam, extraordinary photography and rousing music. Casablanca is brilliantly polished to a reflective shine but in that reflection do we really see as much as promised? I’ll let you answer that.
* Bergman notably asked during filming which character she was supposed to be in love with, an indication her part was underwritten.
** This was a totally fictitious and most useful invention by one of the play’s authors Joan Alison.
*** A clue as to Bogart’s rather static delivery may have to do with the actor’s extremely jealous, highly volatile wife at the time, Mayo Methot, who reportedly accused him of having an affair with co-star Ingrid Bergman. Methot additionally visited the set often causing Bogart noticeable distress.
**** Reportedly authored and added by Producer Hal Wallis after filming ended so Bogart had to be brought back to dub his famous last words.
***** The movie’s box office was significantly boosted by the Allied invasion of North Africa.
Casablanca can be best appreciated on on this 70th Anniversary Blu-ray purchasable here:
It is also available on DVD here:
Next up, a completely different part of the cinematic map, Top Ten Fool's Gold #4: Chinatown