Edited June 2016
What exactly does it mean to bear the weight of “America’s most beloved film”, as Casablanca does? This raises flags on all fronts, naturally. Many movies remain loved even as their luster fades, and others were never really very good to begin with, merely totems of false-positive memories. With any film of this monumentally mythic level of attention and historical repute, there are many questions, but the most important is actually rather simple: but is it any good?
Who doesn’t know the narrative? Set in the mystical imagination-space of World War II, after Germany has occupied France, a Czech freedom fighter Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) venture to Rick’s Café in the Moroccan City of Casablanca in hopes of lying low from the Nazis, headed by Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), chasing them. This plays like its own potential narrative, but things rise to loftier heights when Ilsa discovers Rick is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a past love, her only love, and the two begin to rekindle their past affair.
But chances are, you’re probably thinking Bogart and Bergman. They are the cinema’s most eternal couple, largely because they are the most damaged. The two have unspeakable chemistry together, but it’s a crestfallen, forlorn variety ingrained, almost chiseled, into the crags and lines of their expressive faces. Their faces convey transcendent togetherness tempered by weary cynicism, conflict, and loneliness. Even when one is alone, mentally we can’t but think of the overhanging effect of the other person, and watching the two hurt for one another is like glimpsing a study of silent conflagration burrowed beneath the visage of flesh tempting that which every film aspires to but precious few dare encroach upon: a genuine flicker of the subterranean human soul. The film boasts numerous capable supporters: Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains. But these two hang over the screen like Spanish moss.
They also clue us into something about the true identity of Casablanca as a film. In their lush and lustful theatricality, Bogart and Bergman essay hyper-saturated, heaving melodrama at its most unabated, and they hurt and bruise their words with stunted, stilted pain straight out of the nether regions of film noir. In fact, Casablanca rather vocally boasts significant elements of unashamed, unabashed film noir, a genre which played the nightmare to the Western’s dream in the 1940s for an America wounded by the Great Depression. Light and shadow play key roles in defining the internal dialectics of the characters and the personal clashes that define their broken, battered identities. Fog and mist are replete, and characters are bathed in unnatural light and eternal darkness that is obviously stagey but signals something about the world as a stage, the stage that Rick has walked away from but not escaped.
It’s fitting then that Casablanca was released in 1942, immediately after the definitive proto-noir The Maltese Falcon set the world on fire and defined the trappings of the form. But if Casablanca has the trappings, it plays with the form. Seeing the two films together reveals much of the difference, primarily in the treatment of character. The disturbed humanity of the noir inscribed flutters of human heart amidst the craven, brackish backwater of perpetual limbo where care and concern were at a premium. Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is the ultimate hard-boiled no-nonsense detective of the form, a man – perhaps the only human left in the world – searching for something, anything to alight his soul.
In Casablanca, the central drama is inverted. Rick has put up an internal wall to hide himself from the world, manifested externally in Rick’s Café itself. The fact is he does care, deeply, but doesn’t want to admit it for fear of what it would mean for his self-structured identity. The film plays, as such, like a self-conscious noir peeling back the lens of itself and intimating the facades it presents as superficial images masquerading something more untold and surreptitious. In turn, it posits that the noir image, the artifice and theatricality of the characters, was in fact a deeply human lie people would erect for the safety of their own souls, a prison that Curtiz turns prism for the refracting psychologies of human emptiness. The Cafe is Rick’s noir, his dream land, his film land identity where he can hide away his reality and resolve himself to drowning away other people’s nightmares.
The dialogue, too, bears this same mutinous nihilism scraped-down until the desperate, wanting human need for connection underneath reveals itself like an ever-dimming pulse. What’s more surprising is just how fake all of it sounds on paper, and how potent and necessary this artifice is for the film’s identity as a self-hating noir that still understands the essential utilitarian purpose of the Hollywood myth to the human soul. For, while the dialogue is steeped in artifice, it has the undying primal power of the great artificial plays of Shakespeare. Like them, it moves beyond the superficial moorings of reality and toward the more confrontational, implacable, unclassifiable regions of identity beleaguered by hopes and dreams and desires that do not, in all their insatiable cravings, conform to the reality principle so neatly and sycophantically. The ever-weary Casablanca, where resplendent myth and iridescent enervation collide, suggests the dreams of humanity at its loneliest excavating any and all outlooks for something to live by.
That Rick’s internal thoughts, given to us via a hyper-stylized narration, bear the same artifice of the ostensibly outward-leaning dialogue is the scariest fact of all: his falsities are now part of his internal identity and they may have engulfed him forever, leaving nothing resembling honest humanity in their wake. Except, of course, the honest humanity we all share in our lies, in the fact that we are united in presenting ourselves artificially to reinvent ourselves not necessarily against our true selves, but as outlets for creating new selves, for searching for new humanities in an ever-changing pandemic of a world. Rick’s Cafe, then, isn’t merely Rick’s haven, but a place for people – including the audience – who are running away from reality, from the past, a perpetual limbo where people go to wait because they have nowhere else to mend their wounds.
It can allow, for instance, from an escape from love. But it can allow for an attempt to escape much more: the eternal conflicts of the world, undoubtedly prescient and revealing for an ever-tangling world ensnared in tumultuous, capricious modern conflict, a conflict that would go on to define the wealth of nations and reshape the world. Amidst this raging standstill of perpetual decay, it’s easy to see why people would crave a place out of time, and why one would fall in love with a film about escape. But, as with the real world, you can never truly escape; reality always comes poking and prodding, and eventually, crashing back. When we see a shadow on the wall around Rick or Ilsa, it’s the impression of the nightmare that is the world encroaching and bending their self-contained reality and trying to break back in. That’s because Rick and Ilsa, and the world, need this social nightmare, need to confront it, but are afraid they need it, and they all remain befuddled by an eternal dialectic between the two.
The film’s narrative of human war and human loneliness is crystallized in the hallowed halls of the film’s transcendent ending. The final scene is virtually the only one, pointedly, which doesn’t take place in or near Rick’s Cafe, and it’s tellingly dressed up in a foggy netherworld as one character prepares to leave and go back into the world that Rick is still best by indifference. The film visualizes his mental distance quite literally by dousing the scene in mist, leaving the details of reality largely obscured and the world still lost to us, as it is to Rick. If others can leave, he’s still stuck in his self-imposed noir fantasy, his isolation from the world, and we’re invaded, violated by the isolation of the film world we’ve been imbibing in.
But, in this way, the film is as much a story for a wounded world as a story about two people. For all Rick’s asocial tendencies and his desire to remain “neutral” in the war, the tragedy of the film is that such self-imposed neutrality may be what leads him to lose the most. He’s constructed Rick’s Cafe as a dream precipiced on the edge of the world, perched betwixt the external, physical surface and the morbid internal conscious. At the very end though, some hope remains. Rick is precariously placed, literally, outside Casblanca and pushing up against the fog which entraps it – stuck between his isolation and the opposing world, the very thing he vilified as the obliteration of his inner-self now repossessed as his potential savior. The world got to Rick, and now, perhaps, he may have a chance once again to get to the World.
Curtiz’s style, often misleadingly labeled anonymous by those who aren’t really looking, is out and about intimating these surfaces of beauty, this outside world Rick denies himself, from the very beginning. In a way that may have influenced seemingly unrelated talents – De Sica most notably – Curtiz’ overgrown style flickers with the minutiae of human momentum packed tightly in the frames, tempting a Rick – an inner soul – who wishes to look the other way. But our eyes glisten with the possibilities of connectedness, of the exterior world, in the flickers of human existence suggested brilliantly by a screenplay and a visual style that pass by scores of humans, suggesting their problems and possibilities without insisting upon them. The world, despite its ostensibly closed-down demeanor in most Western cinema that thrives on the volition of the individual self-capitalist, is always present, always bustling in Casablanca – possibility always exists outside of the inward, insular self.
As always, though, the legion of copycats and shuck-and-jive parodies beleaguering Casblanca nearly 75 years later indicates something more than critique and reflects not only a love or homage but, I suspect, something more undying. Casablanca is mocked, usually for its artifice and what has become cliché, but as much for its undeniable effect – the way it burrows into the soul through its very artifice to invoke more subcutaneous truths about the tensions between the interior and exterior realms. The film isn’t realistic – it’s mythic and dreamlike, a tonic for a world on the edge of itself and a nightmare about people who hide from nightmares by putting up the fictional walls of film. And it’s clear, at the end, that although Rick and Ilsa can never be together, their problems mean much more to the world than the two of them can ever know.