Friday, August 07, 2015


I watched Casablanca (1942; dir. Michael Curtiz) Thursday evening at the local arts cinema, Athens Ciné.  It was the final film in the summer film series.  The showing was a sell out—every seat was filled, and almost everyone in the audience had seen the film multiple times.  As famous scenes and lines came along, you could feel—sense, hear, see—ripples of emotion and reaction run through the audience.  Some people mouthed famous lines of dialogue as they were spoken.  Sustained applause accompanied the closing credits.  This is the way to see a famous film.

Of the many reasons for the success of this film, the screenplay, based on an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” has to rank foremost among them.  Peppered with humor and irony and sarcasm, moments of repartee and romance, the script animates the film.  So too does the setting—Casablanca, a Hollywood set, of course.  Casablanca is where desperate people go hoping to buy passage out of Northern Africa and Europe, where corruption is so rife that everyone openly jokes about it.  The lead actors Bogart and Bergman are perfect—for the roles they play and the words they say.  Bogart plays to type here, the embittered and wounded lover, supporter of lost causes, pretending to care only for his own welfare.  Bergman is wonderful and beautiful.  The secondary characters, played by Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Dooley Wilson, and others, are fully alive.  (I had forgotten that Lorre’s character disappeared so early in the film). Rains and Greenstreet play charmingly corrupt figures in this film.

The Telegraph, 
As is the case with many great films, each time I see this one I find something different in it. This time I noticed the lack of agency in Bergman’s character Ilse Lund.  (I should have noticed this before—it’s fairly striking). She’s basically a beautiful wife and lover—an object rather than an agent.  She’s the puppet not only of the socially defined roles available to a young woman in 1942, but also of the political situation of the times—World War II—men and situations make decisions for her, or force them on her—she’s married to the leader of the Resistance movement, Victor Laszlo, on whom the survival of Europe and America may depend. She can’t choose to abandon him; she can’t make decisions that might imperil the Resistance effort.  When she is about to leave Paris with Rick as the Germans approach, she learns that Victor is alive (she had thought him dead), and she abandons Rick to be with him.  She has to be the dutiful wife.  In Casablanca, reunited briefly with Rick, she is overpowered by her love for him to the point that she tells him she “can’t think.” Rick says that he’ll do the thinking for her—and then he too succumbs to the force of history.  Not surprisingly, it’s Rick—the strong male, swayed by a higher cause—who has to make the difficult decision, not Ilse, afflicted with love and passion, who “can’t think.”  But if all we can do is deconstruct this film on the basis of gender stereotypes and our contemporary instant in time, we deny ourselves the experience of the film.  Casablanca is what it is—we have to give ourselves up to it, see it as a product of the historical moment, enjoy its dramatic force.

Everything is at issue here—the survival of individuals, the outcome of the war, the battle of good and evil.  In Casablanca, the war is writ large.  In a romance we want lovers to remain together, to find happiness and satisfaction.  This film reminds us that love doesn’t conquer all and that sometimes other factors are more important.  As Rick tells Ilse, “it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.”

The “La Marseilles” scene is one of my favorite moments in film.

No comments: