The Beauty of the System

A film essay by: Witney Seibold

            I’m going to have the same problems writing about “Casablanca” that I did writing about “Citizen Kane” and “The Wizard of Oz;” How does one approach a film that has been endlessly talked about, analyzed, admired, and reviewed since its inception in 1942? It’s easily one of the most popular movies, ever. How can I talk about the strange cynical appeal of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, or the smoky resolute sultriness of Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, without sounding like I’m merely repeating the great film writers that have come before me?


            Casablanca” is regularly listed on top-100 lists, usually right near the top. Critics always site it as one of the best. On the American Film Institute’s famous poll, it was listed as number 2 right behind “Citizen Kane.” It’s even listed as #9 among the nerdy-fanboy-heavy voters of the Internet Move Database (where “Citizen Kane” is #25, and “The Empire Strikes Back” is #8). Of course, to write this essay, I had to go back and view it to make sure it was as good as people always have said. Is “Casablanca” as good as its constant hype?


            I asked a film-expert friend of mine (Hi, Marc!) about “Casablanca,” and he was able to sum it up the best and the most succinctly: “It still works.”


            Casablanca” does not whither with age. The characters do not become overly familiar; the situations do not become parodies of themselves. Of course, many lines of dialogue have been repeated endlessly through the vast film zeitgeist to follow “Casablanca:”


            “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine.”


            “Here’s looking at you, kid.”


            “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”


            “You despise me, don’t you?”


            “Round up the usual suspects.”


            “This could be the start of the beautiful friendship.”


            And pretty much anything from Rick’s final speech to Ilsa.


            But when taken in context, they don’t sound tired. To digress for a moment, I saw “Beverly Hills Cop” for the first time a few nights ago. It is a film that started a lot of cop-movie clichés, and was the first of a certain brand of action-comedy that is still being flogged to this day. “Beverly Hills Cop” feels typical, though. It may have been the start of a lot of current moviemaking trends, but it doesn’t quite feel as revolutionary today as it likely did back in 1984. “Casablanca” has spawned numerous imitations and remakes, and is very, very familiar to any lover of fine movies, but has not fallen to the destructive clutches of its imitators, and has not weakened with familiarity. It’s just as golden and as fun as ever. The politics are just as tense, the cynical characters are just as unexpectedly warm, the sacrifices are just as understandable, but just as heartbreaking.


            And, when you look at the film’s history, it becomes astonishing that ythe film still works to the degree it does. By all accounts, no one involved thought they were making anything special.


            Casablanca” was made by Warner Bros. back in a time when The Hollywood Studio System was even more rigidly constructed (and, as many have said, much more efficient) than it is today. When legendary studio heads like David O. Selznik, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, and Carl Laemmle all had immense control over the films they were putting together. When actors were career-contracted to certain studios. When the right star, the right story, the right screenwriter, and a careful imitation of a previous success was enough to hastily put a flick into production. And said flick was often rushed, often tightly-budgeted, and usually forgotten about in the wake of whatever new project the studio had already moved on to.


            (Well, perhaps this sounds like modern day Hollywood, but try to forget the advertising bloat that we associate with nationwide blockbusters today. The numbers are much bigger today, the egos seem more fragile, the Game too overrun with greedy amateurs. The structure is less, well, structured)


            So, thanks to this factory mentality of making movies, “Casablanca” was just another modest production, made on a tight budget, with loosely and hastily-assembled elements, not necessarily intended to be the classic it was to become. In fact it was even intended to be a bare-faced imitation of a 1930 Josef von Sternberg film called “Morocco” with Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich. The film’s story was bought on the cheap from playwrights Joan Alison and Murray Burnett, based on their play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” and then punched up by studio employees Howard Koch and the Epstien brothers, Julius and Philip. The stars were swapped about from studio to studio until Bogart, Bergman, Paul Henried, the indispensable Claude Rains, and the rest fell into place. At the time, the director, Michael Curtiz (né Mihály Kertész), seemed like a bad person to connect to a wartime romance picture, as he was only known in America for bubbly action films like “The Sea Hawk” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Before that, Curtiz was responsible for a long series of low-low-budget genre pictures like “Doctor X.” (although he was a veteran of the Silent Era in his native Hungary, having directed some 130 films before “Casablanca”).


            The film was put into production in a hurry, negotiations were a little shaky over securing Henried, and the script was often rewritten right on set. In short “Casablanca” was not the crystallized vision of a single enterprising auteur. It was another group of cogs off of a capable assembly line.


            And yet, “Casablanca” is an enduring classic. The elements this time were so well-put-together that it transcended its origins. The studio did not just squeeze out a modest thriller that made back its overhead. No. It made a great film. Warner Bros. made a film that has become a giant amongst Hollywood lore. What caused its classicism? Many other have written about this before, so why no throw my own hat into the ring?


            1) The story is compelling in any era: Bogart plays Rick, a bitter cynic who owns the most relaxed bar in the Nazi-occupied world. It is full of refugees, ex-pats fleeing the war, gamblers, drinkers, patriots, con-men, and a large colorful cross-section of some of the wartime’s more colorful castoffs. Rick spends his time making sure his bar runs smoothly by paying off the local law (represented by the funny and dandyish Claude Rains). That George Lucas modeled his famous alien barroom in “Star Wars” on “Casablanca” is without question. Rick’s tavern is also where resistance fighters occasionally meet to do deals, where busts occur, and the occasional war criminal is shot by Nazi soldiers or French police. Rick doesn’t seem to encourage or condone any of the political brouhaha that goes on in his place; as he famously repeats “I stick my neck out for nobody.”


            Into this world comes a dashing and efficient resistance fighter named Victor Laszlo (Henried). Laszlo desperately needs exit visas to flee to the Americas with his wife. Laszlo’s wife, it turns out, is Ilsa (Bergman), a beautiful young lady who is fiercely devoted to her husband’s cause, and, more than incidentally, is Rick’s former lover.


            Rick, usually bitter and aloof, must now directly wrestle with his feelings over being mysteriously dumped years before. Ilsa must convince Rick to relinquish exit Visas to her, even though she’ll just use them to leave again, all the while try to seem like she’s not manipulating him. Laszlo must continue to fight and spread hope throughout the region, and they all must do this under the ever–closing gaze of the local police.


            Yes, there are hundreds of ways to do this story wrong, but there is one way to do it perfectly.


            2) The characters are interesting, and played by probably the perfect cast. Enough has been said about Bogart’s Rick. Bogart was the kind of natural actor that allowed a bitter cynic like Rick to flow naturally through him, but was still able to show the soft and emotional side of such a man without making him seem unreal, less sarcastic, or sentimental. It is one of the great performances of cinema.


            Ilsa is terrified, completely in love, torn between two men, and capable of being hysterical, but is never shrewish, deceitful in her manipulations, and, ultimately, wants to stay as much in Casablanca as the audience does. As we all know, she does get on that plane, all thanks to Rick’s famous ending dialogue. The problems of those three people really don’t, she realizes, amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Ingrid Bergman infuses Ilsa with a quiet grace that even a capable actress, like, say Bette Davis, would have tossed aside. We can see her ambivalence in stark relief. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Bergman is beautiful.


            I’ve always had a soft spot for British character actor Claude Rains, and he is in very fine form as Capt. Renault. Renault is witty, cynical, happy, savvy, possibly gay, and has some of the best dialogue in the film. To see Rains snap, with a wicked smirk, lines like “The general’s been shot. Round up the usual suspects,” is one of the great pleasures of “Casablanca.” It’s comforting to have a funny cynic to stand alongside Rick. If it were just Rick in the center, the film would eventually be dragged down by his disbelief in anything decent or human. Renault is there to not only give Rick a foil, and to provide comic relief, but to give Rick a net into which he can fall. Rick needs someone who can understand him; someone who has his number. Of course, they end up forming a beautiful friendship.


            Paul Henried is often listed fourth in discussions of “Casablanca’s” actors, and I apologize to do it to him again. It is Henried who lets us really understand Ilsa, and hence, the central relationship of the film. He deserves more credit than he gets.


            Henried is a hero. He is resolute, pure, clear-headed. Seeing him talk, one really can have faith that this man is capable of subverting Nazis and bringing down the Reich. He is brave. He is an undimmed patriot. And none of this in a boring way. He is not an indestructible heroic caricature like so many movie heroes are. Laszlo is the kind of hero we feel we need in the world, and would be blessed to have in our lives. His role is, to be sure, relegated to supporting status, but if he were weak, unreal, unconvincing, then we wouldn’t understand why Ilsa wants to be with him, and we wouldn’t be convinced by the film’s ending, or ay of the rest of the story for that matter.


            Laszlo stands up in a bar full of Nazis, and leads the people in a rousing chorus of La Marseilles. Good God, the moxie of that man. The scene still makes me misty when I watch it.


            Oh, and a few words on some of the supporting cast: Major Strasser was played by silent film character actor Conrad Veidt. Veidt is given little to do in “Casablanca,” but when you see him in the 1929 surreal fantasy epic “The Man Who Laughs,” you can later see a hidden depth in his Strasser. Sydney Greenstreet is the slimy rival club owner, and, once again, was an inspiration for George Lucas, this time for the character of Jabba the Hut. Dooley Wilson infuses Sam with more personality than the screenplay called for, I think (yes, the black character was largely there just to serve the white folk). And… is that…? Yes, I think… That’s Peter Lorre. Can’t go wrong with the gloriously snively Peter Lorre.


            3) The dialogue is still quick, funny, and smart. As I have said, not a bit of “Casablanca’s” dialogue has gone un-cannibalized by countless imitators and parodists. There is a good reason for this. The screenplay is still great. Although it was altered countless times by several screenwriters and, likely, studio heads, somehow it came out on top. Rick’s wry jokes, and Renault ribald ones. Ilsa’s confused platitudes, and Laszlo’s confidence. That the screenplay survived the Hollywood factory churn is probably the biggest miracle. Especially in a time when Happy Endings were commonplace, and people were indeed fighting to have Rick and Ilsa end up together.


            I’ve seen “Casablanca” several times, and I’m still looking for holes in the plot. I haven’t found any yet. Surely someone will write me pointing out a few, but even if they are there, why let a few tiny details get in the way of one’s enjoyment of one of the great American films?


            4) The direction is amazing. As I mentioned, Michael Curtiz was known for directing action pictures. His 1939 version of “Robin Hood” remains one of the greatest action films of all time. Why was he selected for a wartime romance? Histories have been written on details of how he was chosen by whom, and why they chose him for the job, and that’s all as may be. That fact remains that he brought his action sensibilities into “Casablanca” is just the right way. The film’s pace and editing and dialogue are, if you look at it the right way, identical to an action spectacular. Things chug along, atmosphere is set without dragging, and romantic interludes are never so long that they slow down the story or the action. It’s rare that a film gets its own sense of pace so on-the-nose. If you’re studying editing, directing, or anything technical about the filmmaking process, watch “Casablance” more often than you watch “Citizen Kane.” “Kane” may have all the tricks and gimmicks done right, with all the zooms and edits and angles creatively exploited, but “Casablanca” is a master in hiding its gimmicks in plain sight. As editors and film music writers are fond of saying: if you do your job right, no one has noticed you’ve done anything at all.


            Casablanca” was a hit in its time, won three Academy Awards (for Picture, Director, and Screenplay), and was immediately hoisted up in the Hollywood canon. It inspired just as many imitators as films it was imitating, including a sequel, a few remakes, and even a lackluster television series. None of these came close to matching the fame, the success, or the skill of the original.


            Despite how familiar it is, like many great classics, “Casablanca” rarely gets old. You can rent a video of it and watch it today, and it’ll still have its impact. Even “Kane,” while being constantly bracing and impressive, can sometimes seem a little tedious on repeat viewings. “Casablanca” has endured, and will endure. It will never be forgotten. It’s that good.

P.S. A note on “As Time Goes By,” the song that binds Rick and Ilsa together. Despite how it is used today, and how it sounds in the film, it is not an old standard. It was written specifically for the film to sound like a standard. That it is now used as a standard only proves the strength of Dooley Wilson’s performance of it, and the songwriters’ skill in writing it. I have, myself, requested it for some of my girlfriends on romantic evenings. It’s still romantic.



Published in: on April 21, 2008 at 10:22 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Casablanca fascinates still. I would have one question about the dialogue represented in Casablanca. Did Sam (Dooley Wilson) say something like this: “I’m not the smartest man, but I know what love is…”. Later used a little bit modified in Forrest Gump. …But my question. Is the original from Casablanca or am I wrong?

    Kind Regars,

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