Take 9: Casablanca

In July of 2015, the BBC released a list of the top 100 American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. Inspired by post movie talks with JoeBear and Scott, I’ve decided to explore these movies one by one and write up some thoughts on each one. I’ll be posting where to catch the film screenings in the Boston area, and I hope that someone (anyone??) will join me in watching and reading and thinking about what makes these movies the pillars of American cinematic achievement. Each essay will run rampant with spoilers, and is best enjoyed after watching the film.

Next up, #9 Casablanca (1943), dir. by Michael Curtiz. Available to rent on iTunes, Google, and Amazon.

Of all the movies I’ve watched so far for this series, Casablanca (#9) is the only one not set primarily in the U.S., yet it feels the most American. I’ve watched this movie every couple of years since I was a teenager, and I don’t know if it’s my age or the current political climate, but I felt a resonating relevance to our time and era after this viewing. The prologue of the movie outlines a World War II refugee trail through Europe for those who could not gain passage out of Lisbon that eventually lands them in Casablanca, where they must attempt to scrounge in search of a way to the U.S. or another protective country. Our protagonist, Rick Blaine, is as much a depressive, reluctant, hero as any other rogue cowboy, in addition to serving as the proprietor of a cafe called “Rick’s Café Américain” — which itself contains within it so many variables of American triumphs and tragedies, heroes and villains.

The timing of this film is tantamount to its legacy — it was released in 1943, less than a year after Pearl Harbor was attacked and Congress declared war against Germany, and two years before the Battle of the Bulge or the Invasion of Normandy. When this movie was being written and filmed, the U.S. was largely a bystander in the war, unwilling to stick its neck out for anyone at first, just like Rick himself. By the time the film was released, the effect of the war was reverberating through the country as rationing began sapping typically common resources from those at home and the casualty rate was rising in the West. At that point in history, the film’s love story in the face of defeat and sacrifice must have felt like the soft song of a canary singing in the mine, the glimmering prospect of hope and purpose the masses would be begging for a reminder of. This predicament, the tightrope dance of heeding the call for moral intervention and a cautiousness against overreaching, mirrors the rhythm of our own international crises at the moment; thus allowing Casablanca to bypass the quaint irrelevance of other films of its era and retain a salty pertinence to our own experiences.

Casablanca illustrates the persistent struggle between desperation and sanctuary that a citizen affected by war is forced to feel. The city of Casablanca is a tense, torrid, neutral territory where it’s difficult to tell who’s really in charge amid the gangster style backroom wheeling and dealing, but it appears that Captain Renault is the highest in command, as well as deep in the pocket of the Germans. Rick’s Café Américain serves as a trading post in the wide landscape where weary travelers from all sides of the political lines can barter and gamble on their fates, while law enforcement simultaneously participates and turns a blind eye to the activity. Both Casablanca and Rick’s serve as oases for the refugees fighting for their lives in the face of Nazi Germany. Casablanca itself, at least in the beginning of the film, allows for those who would otherwise be compromised by their personal or political situations to relax in temporary reprieve from persecution, while Rick’s Cafe allows for a deeper level of freedom thanks to the owner’s willingness to grease the palms of those in charge. This lends the cafe a celebratory quality, but also a despondent one. For every ecstatic couple celebrating their imminent departure for America, we witness another individual pleading for enough money to pay off the lecherous gatekeeper, Captain Renault. That last resort, naive, faith touted by the patrons of Rick’s endow the setting with a pitiful scrappiness that seeps into the atmosphere of the cafe, giving it the same ambiance of a dark dive bar on a Tuesday afternoon that caters to a jovial band of drunks playing Keno.

Nobody embodies great American sadness, the burden of the American dream that most will fail to realize, like Humphrey Bogart playing Rick Blaine. Again, the timeline of Casablanca’s release is relevant as many of the original viewers of this film would still be recovering from the one-two punch of World War I (1914–1918) and the Great Depression (1929–1939) and were now forced to grapple with the sad reality of another major conflict with the Germans, including the addition of an evil leader who particularly despises American ideals of liberty. Of course, those platitudes describing the great Yankee love of freedom could and can not be applied unilaterally to everyone in the country, and thus the importance of Sam the piano player is doubly magnified. He channels Louis Armstrong belting It’s a Wonderful World when he croons songs to distract those exiled in the desert from their uncertain fates.

I love how each pivotal sequence of the movie includes an accompanying musical number to elevate the emotion — from the tragic hopefulness in the lyrics of As “Time Goes By” to the National Anthem-off between the German “Watch on the Rhine” and the French “La Marseillaise”. That scene is crucial in both escalating the tension and exposing Rick’s inherent sentimentalism, creating a poignant reflection of the nation’s need to grieve ahead of another incoming storm. Michael Curtiz rightly understood the opportunity he had an opportunity to stoke the flames of patriotism, so much so that when German Strasser writes off Rick as a “blundering American” and he is defended in turn by the French Capt. Renault, it uses one of our most enduring national inferiority complexes to highlight the dogged ingenuity of the leading man and the country at large.

The star crossed lovers, the grudging respect between Victor and Rick, the pull between friendship and love, resentment and loyalty, sacrifice and self preservation, are all timeless elements braided together to create the solid backbone of this untoppable classic. When Rick sacrifices his own happiness on behalf of Isla and Victor (a notable addition to the all time best nominal symbolism list) and waxes poetic about a once lost then regained Paris, it reminds the viewer not only of Rick’s reluctant selflessness, but also the American obligation to support Europe’s effort to reclaim their lost cities from Nazi control.Casablanca is a key scripture in the development of American romanticism, a reminder of our inherent responsibility to the huddled masses who still dream of political asylum in the United States, and a call to appreciate our beautiful friendships no matter what form they take.

Coming soon to a Cinemyth blog near you:

2.23.16: 2001: A Space Odyssey (#4) screening at the MFA’s Kubrick Retrospective in Boston, also available to rent and stream via Google Play, iTunes, and others.

3.1.16: Dr. Strangelove(#42) screening at the MFA’s Kubrick Retrospective in Boston, also available to rent and stream via iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu

3.9.16: Barry Lyndon (#27) screening at the MFA’s Kubrick Retrospective in Boston, also available to rent and stream via iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu

3.15.16: Eyes Wide Shut (#61) screening at the MFA’s Kubrick Retrospective in Boston, also available to stream on Netflix (disregard the two star rating). Available to rent and stream via iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.

Originally published at cinemyth.com.

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