I recently re-watched the 1942 classic, Casablanca. Then just last night I watched it again, this time with the audio commentary by Roger Ebert. Now I feel like I have to talk about this cinematic masterpiece. This is also the first time I’ve watched it on blu-ray as part of the 70th anniversary edition so I’ll talk about that too.
After watching Casablanca again and not having seen it very many times, I always find something to appreciate that I didn’t realize before that solidifies my love for it and why it truly is a classic. Just noticing some little detail in the foreground or a piece of dialogue that catches my attention is such a pleasure. When I think of my favorite movies, the biggest factor for deciding them is how often I am able to watch one and get sucked up into the story, even though I know exactly what happens and how. When you can forget that you know who Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) leaves with on that plane, and still become so involved in the love story and conflict between her and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), that is when a movie becomes a favorite of mine. Living in the moment, being a part of the film, and always being surprised by something new are qualities that all of my favorite movies share. I don’t know where I would rank Casablanca on my favorite movies of all time because one, I’m way too indecisive to actually make a list, and two, it’s so different and unique to my other favorites. I just know when I’m watching it, there’s nothing else I want to be doing.
The story of Casablanca takes place primarily in the city of Casablanca. A city where refugees from Europe come to in order to escape Nazi control and hope to make it to America. Bogart’s Rick Blaine owns a saloon there, is well known and respected among the patrons and even the Nazi officer, Renault, played by Claude Rains. Out of all the gin joints, Rick’s old flame from Paris comes to his and that is where the bulk of the movie will concentrate. This is a simple enough plot, filled with complex characters in tough situations. They are so well developed that the moment Ilsa enters Rick’s saloon, we know that there is some conflict between them. The piano player, Sam, immediately recognizes her and we see how worried he is. That whole scene, from when she first enters, to when they first see each other is possibly my favorite of the whole film.
However, we find out that she is married to, or has always been married to an underground leader against the Nazis, Victor Laszlo. The triangle that these three characters are involved in is such an interesting and controversial dynamic which is a large reason this movie has not been forgotten. This movie is not relevant in terms of Nazi occupation anymore, but we still talk about who Ilsa truly loved and should have gotten onto the plane with. The theme of the whether love or fighting for a bigger cause should triumph is an important, universal question just as much today as it was in 1942. The answer, of course, will never be known. Nor should it. The appeal and greatness of Casablanca is that no one will ever know what the right decision was. What makes the ending so powerful is the tragedy that Rick and Ilsa may never meet again. If Rick ever does return to America, he can’t just call her on her cell phone. Because the story doesn’t end when the movie does, we’ll never stop thinking about it, and therefore will never get tired of watching it. It was a perfect ending to a remarkable film.
Listening to Roger Ebert’s commentary of Casablanca made me love this movie even more, and have so much admiration for it. What I ultimately took away from it was how a large team collaboration was able to make a movie so focused and beautifully written. Historically, a film made under one person’s vision is how to create a great film. As Ebert pointed out, this is the one major exception to that rule. The director, Michael Curtiz, the producer, Hal Wallis, screenwriters, Warner Bros. producer, Jack Warner, and even the cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, all had large contributions to the film, somehow making it one cohesive, 100 minute collaboration. They didn’t know they were making a masterpiece. They had to use extras from other films because so many people were being drafted, and made it under a small budget. Special effects, especially by today’s standards, are laughable but who really cares?
My ultimate goal as a film fan is to watch a movie like Roger Ebert does. He notices all the little things that make a scene work, makes the performances shine, and makes a film great. I know there are probably hundreds of critics who can also pick up on those same nuances, but I don’t believe any of them get so much enjoyment out of them as Ebert did. He doesn’t talk about how, objectively one scene is structured well, but rather how that scene makes him so emotional and why he enjoys it so much. A critic, yes. A critic that truly loved the movies. If you can, I highly suggest that you watch Casablanca with his commentary to see what I mean. He also knew so much about the film, from behind the scenes facts, to lighting, and how every shot was set up and executed.
I mentioned how I bought the 70th anniversary edition of this movie. It also came with a small book about the film, a mini french poster, Casablanca coasters, and a two disc blu-ray pack. This is a great set to have for any fan of Casablanca. I haven’t watched any of the special features yet but I definitely will soon. And if you haven’t seen Casablanca, go see it and tell me what you think. Here’s looking at you, kid.