Casablanca (review)

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The Ultimate Movie

Now, this is a movie.

No, no — wait.

This is a religious experience.

I’d never seen Casablanca before — sure, bits and pieces here and there while channel surfing, but not as much as I thought I’d seen. And watching it at last was like a revelation. This is the ultimate movie. This is the purpose for which Hollywood invented itself. This is how good a film can be.

It’s December 1941, and the Nazis are rolling across Europe. Casablanca, in still-unoccupied French Morocco, is nominally free, but the Nazis are swarming all over the city. Rick’s Café Américain, run by American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), is the last refuge of a scoundrel (or maybe even the first), and one of those scoundrels leaves in Rick’s care a pair of stolen exit visas. And then a leader of the resistance, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), recently escaped from a German concentration camp and desperate to escape Europe, comes into Rick’s — and on his arm is Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Rick and Ilsa were lovers in Paris, but when the Germans invaded, she abandoned him without explanation, leaving him to escape on his own. Rick, still in love with Ilsa, now faces a dilemma: Will he use the two visas to spirit her away from Casablanca with him, or will he give them to Ilsa and Victor?

Casablanca is wonderful not just because it captures a place and time with a tight, smart script, fabulous performances, and brilliant direction. Rick and Ilsa and Victor transcend their medium — they cease to be fictional characters and become real. They seem like the first modern people to be captured on film. There are so few actual grownups in movies (and in the real world), but they are adults with complicated lives and tough choices to make, and they live their lives and make their choices without complaining or whining about how awful the world is. Rick and Ilsa’s relationship is truly romantic — there’s not a drop of sap involved. The palpable chemistry between them is part of why they’re so believable. Rick’s the kind of man who’s crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside — he’s a mush under his tough exterior, even if he doesn’t like to show it. But there’s one scene, during an extended flashback of his memories of Paris, when he gazes at Ilsa — she’s turned away from him — with such adoration that there’s no question that he’s deeply in love with her.

Watching Casablanca for the first time now is kinda like seeing Shakespeare for the first time: It’s full of clichés. And it’s not just the dialogue that everyone knows — “of all the gin joints” and “play it again” and so on. Casablanca had such a powerful impact on film that its visuals — the exotic marketplace, the crowded saloons, the final foggy airport sequence — keep cropping up in contemporary movies, everything from the Indiana Jones films to The English Patient. Rick waiting heartbroken for Ilsa on a rainy train platform in Paris is so clichéd that it turns up now in margarine commercials.

I haven’t stopped thinking about Casablanca. It’s like being in love.

Oscars Outstanding Motion Picture 1943
AFI 100 (1998 list): #3

unforgettable movie moment:
Oh, how to pick just one moment in an unforgettable film? But I think I’ll go with the scene when I fell madly in love with Rick: Late one night, in his darkened café, his guard totally down, Rick nurses his newly rebroken heart with a bottle and Sam’s rendition of “As Time Goes By.”

previous Best Picture:
1942: Mrs. Miniver
next Best Picture:
1944: Going My Way

previous AFI 100 film:
2: The Godfather
next AFI 100 film:
4: Raging Bull

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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