Friday, December 28, 2007

Here's Lookin' at you, kid: Casablanca, Analysis and Review

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy
Casablanca, the 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid,(Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Louis Renault), Peter Lorre (Ugarte).
Casablanca is a classic, a one of a kind gem, a happy collection of talent and circumstance that happens once in a life time and not often enough in filmdom. Casablanca is the inspiration for spinoffs and wannabes. Some are themselves inspired. Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam (1972) was a "reverential homage" of great humor and merit. Lesser movies are likewise a nod to the original. They include Cabo Blanco of 1981, Barb Wire 1996 and a Bugs Bunny short, Carrotblanca of 1995.
The Hollywood fairy-tale was actually filmed during a time of US ties with Vichy France when President Roosevelt equivocated and vacillated between pro-Vichy or pro-Gaullist support. And it was rushed into general release almost three weeks after the Allied landing at the Axis-occupied, North African city of Casablanca, when Eisenhower's forces marched into the African city. Due to the military action, Warner Bros. Studios was able to capitalize on the free publicity and the nation's familiarity with the city's name when the film opened.

It played first as a pre-release engagement on Thanksgiving Day, 1942 at the Hollywood Theater in New York. [On the last day of 1942, Roosevelt actually screened the film at the White House.] Its strategic timing was further enhanced at the time of its general release in early 1943 by the January 14-24, 1943 Casablanca Conference (a summit meeting in which Roosevelt broke US-Vichy relations) in the Moroccan city with Churchill, Roosevelt, and two French leaders - DeGaulle (the charismatic Free French leader) and General Henri Giraud (supportive of Marshal Petain). [Note: Stalin declined the invitation to attend the so-called 'Big Three' Conference.]

-- Casablanca (1942)

While all movies use language to reveal character, Casablanca is especially artful. Early in the film, we are treated to a linguistic portrait of Rick himself. Rick tells Renault that he came to Casablanca for the waters. Renault objects. Casablanca, he says, is in the desert. "I was misinformed", Rick replies. A single phrase sums up Rick's enigmatic character: "I stick my neck out for nobody". Later, Renault ticks off Rick's war time resume to include the running of guns to Ethiopia. He did it "for a price", Rick tells Renault. The inspector's reply pierces Rick's tough, defensive wall. "But the other side", he reminded Rick, "would have paid you twice as much!"

Much of the dialog has either become a part of the language or it has helped shape the way we speak it. It also sets up the film's most tragic character --Ugarte, a desparate, smarmy little man willing to sell "letters of transit" but, as Rick disdainfully replies: "...for a price, Ugarte. For a price!
Ugarte: You despise me, don't you?

Rick: Well, if I gave you any thought, I probably would.

Ugarte: But why? Oh, you object to the kind of business I do, huh? But think of all those poor refugees who must rot in this place if I didn't help them. Well that's not so bad, through ways of my own, I provide them with exit visas.

Rick: For a price, Ugarte, for a price.

Ugarte: But think of all the poor devils who can't meet Renault's price. I get it for them for half. Is that so parasitic?

Rick: I don't mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.

Ugarte: Well, Rick, after tonight, I'll be through with the whole business, and I'm leaving finally, this Casablanca.

Rick: (quipping) Who'd you bribe for your visa, Renault or yourself?
Casblanca revolves about Rick's Cafe Americain. The most famous quote of all --"Play it again, Sam"--was never voiced in Casablanca. The actual exchange is associated with the film's first major plot point, the arrival of Ilsa, Rick's old flame of happier days in Paris before the Nazi occupation:
SAM: Leave him alone, Miss Ilsa. You're bad luck to him.

ILSA: (softly) Play it once, Sam, for old time's sake.

SAM: I don't know what you mean, Miss Ilsa.

ILSA: Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By."

Casablanca - As Time Goes By

The music --as much as the improbable cosmopolitan atmosphere, the smart white jackets and bow ties, the Nazi threat --conjures up our nostalgia for a past we wouldn't want to live in were it not a movie. As Time Goes By is not the only standard made timeless by its use in Casablanca. Sam is playing and singing It Had to be You as we enter Rick's Cafe Americain for the first time.

Everyone in Casablanca, it seems, is trying to escape the Third Reich. Those that are not have made a Faustian bargain with it. At every turn, compromises are offered, intrigues are entered into, allies are betrayed, integrity is bought and sold. No stranger to compromise, Inspector Renault seems most comfortable with his Vichy responsibilities. He closed Rick's upon a gambling pretext but not before taking his own winnings. A beautiful, young Bulgarian bride is willing to sleep with Rick for letters of transit. So too, Ilsa, now married to Victor Lazlo, a resistance fighter, an intellectual of some renown, a man of unshakable integrity. Everything that Rick is not.

Critics, most notably Humberto Eco, will often tell you that Casablanca is a mediocre movie.
It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects. And we know the reason for this: The film was made up as the shooting went along, and it was not until the last moment that the director and script writer knew whether Ilse would leave with Victor or with Rick. So all those moments of inspired direction that wring bursts of applause for their unexpected boldness actually represent decisions taken out of desperation.

--Umberto Eco, Casablanca, or The Clichés are Having a Ball

So far, Eco is wrong. There is no evidence in the final draft of its having been made up as it was shot. Even if it had been --who cares? There is evidence that some of Shakespeare's plays went through last minute, desparate revisions. I've analyzed a few motion picture scripts. Few are as finely crafted as Casablanca. [See: The Existentialist Cowboy, Analysis and Review: Elizabeth (The Movie)] But, as Rick is redeemed in the end, likewise Humberto Eco by his more thoughtful conclusions. Having told us that Casablanca is a mediocre film, Eco goes on to tell us why it is great.
It opens in a place already magical in itself -- Morocco, the Exotic -- and begins with a hint of Arab music that fades into La Marseillaise. Then as we enter Rick's Place we hear Gershwin. Africa, France, America. At once a tangle of Eternal Archetypes comes into play. These are situations that have presided over stories throughout the ages. But usually to make a good story a single archetypal situation is enough. More than enough. Unhappy Love, for example, or Flight. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that: It uses them all. The city is the setting for a Passage.... The passage from the waiting room to the Promised Land requires a Magic Key, the visa. ...But eventually we discover that the Key can be obtained only through a Gift -- the gift of the visa, but also the gift Rick makes of his Desire by sacrificing himself For this is also the story of a round of Desires, only two of which are satisfied: that of Victor Laszlo, the purest of heroes, and that of the Bulgarian couple. All those whose passions are impure fail.

--Umberto Eco, Casablanca, or The Clichés are Having a Ball

Eco's language is familiar to anyone who's read Joseph Campbell or Christopher Vogler. These ideas influenced a generation of film makers --most notably George Lucas and Steven Speilberg. Quite simply, Casablanca speaks to us with the same force and with the same authority as the Arthurian legends about which Winston Churchill wrote: "If they are not true, they ought to be."

My own reasons for loving Casablanca are simpler but sufficient at least for me. Casablanca does what every movie should do. It invites you to become one of its characters. I will leave it to readers to decide for themselves which character they wish to be. That's the essence of movies, the secret of their magic. It's why we loved them as children. It's why we still seek them out as adults. For about one hundred, twenty minutes we get out of our skins. In about one hundred, twenty minutes, we, like Rick, muster up whatever it takes to do the right thing. In some one hundred, twenty minutes, we survive an inhuman tyranny and eventually triumph over it. What more do you want from mere celluloid? Here's looking at you, kid.
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