Today I get to write about what is, hands down, one of the greatest movies of all time. A love story, full of mystery, suspense, intrigue, sacrifice. This movie is proof that alchemy does exist, that when everyone is at the top of his game and the stars are aligned something special and lasting can be created. Forgive my gushing, but I don’t think I can say enough about Casablanca.
Meet the imperturbable Rick…
We are in the throes of World War II. The Third Reich is gobbling up Europe and eking its way into Africa. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), cynical, hard-bitten, owner of Rick’s Café Américain, a Casablanca hotspot, has carved a comfortable little niche for himself. An expatriate in a city of refugees, he has found a way to be among people and remain isolated at the same time. As he is fond of saying, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” He is a recluse from his emotions.
And the love of his life
Until, that is, a woman–the woman–comes back into his life. The pain and anger he felt on the day she left him return with a vengeance. We begin to see who Rick is and how he came to this place in his life. We also begin to witness the melting of the ice packed around his heart when he learns the reason behind the woman’s (Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa) last minute desertion. In fact, even before that revelation, Rick has started to allow the world back in. By the film’s denouement he makes the ultimate sacrifice and is ready to become engaged in the world again.
Let me count the ways
Here is a film that appeals to people on so many levels, I don’t think any one can be singled out as the reason it’s become the beloved classic that it is. For those who have never seen the movie, the story is a great yarn that keeps you guessing to the very end.
Then there is the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman. The anger and love they display burns a hole through the screen. There’s Bergman’s performance. The way emotions cross her face–happy, frightened, angry, confused–is riveting. And she is luminous. Bogart’s face, rugged and battered, is softened by the vulnerability that shows through his eyes.
The power of the cut
There’s the editing that heightens certain moments through the juxtaposition of shots. It’s not the shots alone, of course. It is the timing and rhythm created by the cuts between the shots. Toward the end of the movie, during the unforgettable airport scene, tension mounts through a series of simple head turns. The plane’s engines rev up. Everyone turns toward the plane. Then, in close-up: Rick turns toward Ilsa; Ilsa turns toward Rick; Rick and Ilsa turn toward Victor (Paul Henreid). Each cut adds weight to the scene, all leading up to Victor’s question: “Are you ready, Ilsa?” It is the moment we have all been waiting for and dreading because it is time to say goodbye. Rick and Ilsa will never see each other again.
One for the road
There are countless other elements that contribute to the appeal of Casablanca, but I will close on one that I haven’t heard mentioned before. The ambience created by all those minor characters, refugees sharing a common goal, a single dream, a need, a desire, desperate to get to some place, to achieve some thing–not just freedom, but something even more basic than that.
Near the beginning of the film there’s a moment when the camera pans over throngs of people, all of them looking up at a plane flying overhead. That plane is taking someone away to a world that will fulfill his dreams and bring completeness to his life; and all those people on the ground are hoping that soon they too will have a chance to find what they are looking for, not unlike a similar desire, shared by so many, sitting in a dark auditorium, staring up at those shadows on the screen.
Casablanca will screen tonight on Turner Classic Movies.
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