[1943] Casablanca

I’ve already covered the iconoclasm of a famous quotes when writing about In The Heat of The Night, but it is patently obvious that Casablanca more thoroughly explains this point.

Casablanca is a golden film because in its case the parts far outweigh the sum. As a package, the film is more of a medium for acting, screenwriting, directing, cinematography, set design, costume design, sound editing and sound mixing, which together make a film, but separately craft a legend.

We are almost 75 years from Casablanca‘s initial theatrical run and its lore runs through film history as a standard, a candle that can cast no shadow too far upon any film that wishes itself iconic. But the film itself is a heist half-noir whose myopia falls comically short of leaving a lasting impact thematically, but more than makes up for it in its acting – specifically Humphrey Bogart. Bogart, besides having a memorable name (second only to Englebert Humperdink), pre-memorializes himself in Casablanca, perhaps changing the course of cinema down his path for the better part of two decades. He personified the damaged, irascible man as a likable character perhaps most convincingly throughout Casablanca, but certainly throughout the next 15 years. He was the damaged, lovesick, homesick man represented by so many living and fighting abroad during World War II.

The film also continues to hold allure as a film to semi-fictionalize its reality without dehumanizing it. It is a film about humanity during a time of inhumanity; personal triumph and failure over anti-Reich propaganda. Set far enough away from the European theatre, but with enough connection to it through its characters and mood that the sensation of urgency delivered through dialogue seems authentic. But we must not forget that the entirety of the film’s “plot” hinges on two pieces of paper. We would do best to forget that this entire film isn’t a character study or a masterclass in thematic pacing. 

We must also not forget that Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, too, should together be credited for “standard against which on-screen chemistry should be judged.” Why do we believe that Ilsa and Rick love each other when we know that the dialogue is, at its core, a proxy for an author and director’s vision of love? Because the acting isn’t really acting, the man really is that irascible and we must believe that for a woman to tolerate tortoisinal behavior – a man shelled and walled to avoid hurt – they must have found an unspoken and non-transitory connection that so many of us look for. This reason is why we don’t believe that Ilsa and Victor are truly in love and in a stroke of what must be unconsidered brilliance seeing as both men’s love should have lifted Bergman up equally to j’adore status, but instead she tumbles down, Euclidean, to one of the most bittersweet dénouements in film history.

In truth, attempting to memorialize Casablanca through the written medium is mostly pointless. It suffers from an unfortunate position of being overrated because no one thing is devoid of criticism and the more recognition a thing has the more streams of wordy, academic treatises exist to criticize it from every angle. It’s a movie about World War II in the same way that Patton is; or the way Schindler’s List is. We take time, sometimes daily, to slice a romantic edge from World War II, part because of the elusive connection between history and time and part because we all, in some way, want to be the irascible man whose love can never actually leave Casablanca.

Nineteen forty-three marked the last year (until 2009) that a seemingly unlimited amount of films, both too many and too few, drew nominations for Best Picture. This year, too, proved maybe one of the most obvious winners in Oscar’s 87-year history. If we are to believe that, according to lore, The Academy bases its decisions on temporal presence rather than on agnostic film quality, then 1943 almost certainly set precedent for a five nominee system. Fittingly most, if not all of the films released during World War II in some way focused on World War II – with varying levels of seriousness and propensity for affect. Full disclosure: I’ve only seen this one (so far!) from 1943, but I can’t hardly believe that any on the following list stand within flames’ reach of Casablanca, though some formidable in their own right: 

  • A rework of Hemigway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls
  • Not-Warren-Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait
  • The Human Comedy, which looks great, actually
  • […] In Which We Serve, with dramatic ellipses added for not-so-thinly-veiled effect
  • Madame Curie, which seems unseeingly dull; can be substituted with a quick Wikipedia walk-through (I hope I’m wrong!)
  • Slap yourself on the back, folks, The More The Merrier, does not pass the test of epoch-specific, Hays-humor
  • The Ox-Bow Incident, which is probably also fantastic. I also like Westerns (including Bogart’s – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
  • Religious apocrypha: The Song of Bernadette
  • Watch of the Rhine, don’t hit snooze.


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