Casablanca (US, 1942)

Doing the right thing

It’s over 25 years since I’ve seen this classic Classical Hollywood film and I revisited it spurred by my viewing of Curtiz. ‘Timeless classics’ is a meaningless phrase that seeks to legitimise bourgeois values through their supposed universality. However, the test of time is a good one as texts that are distinctly of their time can seem dated later. In addition, as we age are views change so movies that last seen years ago can be understood very differently despite the fact they haven’t changed at all. Casablanca still delivered for me as a marvellous mash-up of romanticism and idealism. It’s also striking that many countries, USA in particular, could do with a dose of anti-isolationism that the film delivers; currently it’s being reported that America is ‘hijacking’ medical supplies purchased by other countries for Covid-19.

Why is Casablanca so good? The script, by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, is superb in its narrative economy and has some great lines. It has the odd clunker too: at least Ingrid Bergman has the decency to look away when she says, “Is that the sound of cannons or my heart beating?”. Curtiz’s direction is efficient (not meant to be faint praise); Arthur Edeson’s cinematography is sublime, particularly the glamourising of the leads; Herman Hupfeld’s ‘As Time Goes By’, superbly performed by Dooley Wilson, is perfect for the wistful emotions of displacement; the supporting cast is brilliant – apparently only three of the principals (Bogart, Wilson and Joy Page) were American. Character actors Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are, as ever, fabulous in the few scenes they get. In many ways it’s a typical Hollywood factory production, a melange of many talents (Claude Rains needs a nod too), notwithstanding the interference from the OWI noted in the Curtiz post. Mention also should be given to Conrad Veidt playing a role a long way from that of the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr CaligariIn Curtiz he’s shown telling the director of his pain at playing a Nazi and asking for the character to be shot. Whilst Veidt wasn’t Jewish, his wife was and Wikipedia tells me on filling in the Nazi’s ‘racial questionnaire’ he put ‘Jew’. In a close-up, we see him taking his Nazi cap off to reveal a skullcap underneath; an adroit way of showing his sympathies.

I’ve saved Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman until last as they are probably key ingredients to the film’s greatness. Bogart’s casting as a romantic lead, in his 43rd year, was inspired as he was known as a ‘hard man’. Initially he came to fame as a gangster but had starred in the seminal film noir The Maltese Falcon the year before where, at least, he played the good guy. To see the tough guy with tears in his eyes is a striking representation of the painful emotions he feels that are still bottled up in his careworn, gravestone face. I recently saw Bergman in her last film for cinema Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten , Sweden, 1978), directed by Ingmar Bergman, where she shows what a marvellous actor she was. Of course she’s good in Casablanca too but here it’s her dreamy appearance that is key, demonstrating why the men fall for her (sexist I know but that was – and is – the time).

Selfless sacrifice for the greater good is with us now during the Covid-19 pandemic. Casablanca is a film for our time.

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