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Casablanca (1942)

by on 2010/11/06

Writing about Casablanca is like writing about The Beatles. What can I say that hasn’t been said already? Most film fans have seen it, and already have an opinion. I wouldn’t think there was much wiggle room left and yet . . . Casablanca as a war story? That idea didn’t sink in until I noticed the title reappear on several “best of” lists. I felt oddly blindsided. I’d already seen it many times in my life. Wasn’t it a romance?

The cynic in me thought, “Uh-huh, it’s about war like Die Hard is about Christmas.” But that knee-jerk reaction doesn’t bear out for — while Die Hard is celebrated by many geeks as legitimate holiday entertainment — it hardly embodies the “good will, peace, and charity” values of its backdrop. On the other hand, Casablanca has more to do with war than just its setting.

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a blacklisted American freedom fighter, has a price on his head, and a bar in Casablanca. Once a champion of underdogs, he now profits from a liberty uncommon in the region. Has being a big fish in a small pond made him cruel and decadent? Nothing so extreme. If anything he seems more aloof than impassioned. Does this intense cynicism stem from a simple broken heart, or the failure of his ideals? Not until the movie’s final moments do we know where his values lie. His ultimate confrontation shows he need not choose between love and war.

It’s worth remembering that Casablanca was released in 1942, years before the end of the very war in its orbit. The cast and crew could not have been sure how events would unfold or end, if anytime soon. Unsurprisingly (for a Hollywood production) the filmmakers favour the Allies. Time and again the Nazis are foiled and frustrated, but not for their bumbling as the usual foolish cartoons. Their minor role is menacing all the same.

The central issue is one of control, less a fight for territory than a struggle for personal freedoms. Our champions are a diverse group of American, Austrian, Bulgarian, Czechoslovakian, French, Hungarian, Italian, and Russian citizens. They would congregate at will, sing songs of their choosing, and live unpersecuted. The Allies seek permissions the Nazis would prevent: movement, passage, and residence.

In a piece rife with memorable moments and eminently quotable dialogue, one scene stood out for me in encapsulating the contradictions and possible dangers of freedom made absolute. A local pickpocket (Curt Bois), ironically warning of “Vultures, vultures everywhere!” bumps into Rick’s waiter, Carl (S. K. Sakall), who checks to ensure his wallet is safe, but does nothing to stop the man’s flight. As almost any geek will know, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Here we can see that with great freedom comes great risk, an inversion of the standard risk-for-reward relationship. It’s an unusual causal ambiguity in a tale told without the perspective of hindsight.

Perhaps oddly enough, I thought of diets and self-help systems by Casablanca’s end. I once remarked that a lot of “secrets to success” seem plausible enough (though rarely more profound than simple common sense), provided you follow through with them. Similarly with arts and entertainment, you can reveal substance and support in almost any effort if you’re motivated to find it. This classic makes me love it enough to look again, and in it I see a lot of what’s fair in love and, now, war.

* * * * *

Rated PG for mild violence

103 minutes

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