About three years ago, I finally gave in to watch Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) for the first time. I had hesitated because of the five- and ten-minute snippets of the film I had seen, and for its reputation as a hokey Christmas story "chestnut." Well, was I wrong, for It's a Wonderful Life is a great film – arguably the best Capra ever made. It is also a good example of the auteur theory of filmmaking, in that the film fits remarkably well within the Capra canon. From the first five minutes, the viewer knows that no one but Frank Capra could have directed it.
With that in mind, I decided to finally give in and watch Michael Curtiz's Casablanca from start to finish. Like It's a Wonderful Life, it's a film from the 1940s (1942 to be exact) whose hold on audiences has not abated. However, unlike It's a Wonderful Life, Casablanca often turns up on the Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time lists – and this is wrong.
After all, while Casablanca is a good film (I'd give it a 75-80 score out of 100), it is nowhere near greatness for a variety of technical, aesthetic, and artistic reasons. I will explain them in this essay in order to demonstrate that while the film itself is likable, "likability" and "greatness" are wholly different qualities – be they applied to a work of art, an idea, or just the execution of a plan.
Before I summarize the well-known plot of Casablanca, let me detail some of its strengths and weaknesses, which I will expound upon later, and offer reasons why critics in general have missed the boat on many aspects of the film.
First off, director Michael Curtiz (who also directed the James Cagney vehicles Angels with Dirty Faces and Yankee Doodle Dandy), while a good studio man, was in no way an auteur. Take It's a Wonderful Life or The Third Man, and one can clearly see stylistic continuity from those films to others in the auteur's canon. (For these purposes, I regard Orson Welles, not Carol Reed – a journeyman filmmaker with a style and canon akin to Curtiz's – as the true auteur of The Third Man.)
The aforementioned continuity includes the use of dialogue, visuals, character development, editing, scoring, etc. Watch scenes from any earlier Capra film and one can easily see that George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character in It's a Wonderful Life would be perfectly at home in them. The same is true with the visual motifs in The Third Man. As for Casablanca, there's no continuity when compared to Curtiz's other efforts.
Next, there is the film's lack of "vision." In short, it is not in the least bit poetic like the works of true masters such as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Theo Angelopoulos, Michelangelo Antonioni, or Stanley Kubrick. Casablanca is a solid-prose movie, but there is no higher meaning to it. This flaw, if you will, is revealed by the fact that virtually all the characters in it are, to be generous, archetypes (if not full-blown stereotypes), and this one-dimensionality makes much of what occurs in the story predictable.
That is not to say that this predictability is poorly handled, but from the moment Humphrey Bogart's and Ingrid Bergman's eyes first meet, you know that theirs is destined to be a doomed romance. Why? Because that's the way Hollywood formula works with dark, brooding antiheroes, and angelic, almost Madonna-like heroines. The hows and wherefores are minor in comparison to the knowledge that these two characters will not end up together.
Now, compare Bogart and Bergman's relationship to that of other romantic film couples – from schlock like Love Story (which also uses the doomed-love trope) to deeper investigations of human relationships as portrayed in, say, Michelangelo Antonioni's great films of the '60s. True, Casablanca is both propaganda and melodrama, and these are all fine and dandy reasons to explain why there is not a good deal of depth in the characterizations and resultant relationships, but ... an explanation is not an excuse for a flaw.
The Casablanca screenplay, which according to historical reports was written haphazardly, would have been more bearable with a bit better writing, a few more moments to flesh out some complexities, a few off-handed bits of "accidental" poesy or philosophy, and the loss of some of the film's dramatically absurd moments, e.g., the scene where Bergman threatens Bogart with a gun, or the cringe-inducing jingoism of the much too stagy bit when German soldiers and French refugees do battle with patriotic songs.
Once again, this is not to say that the Casablanca screenplay – credited to Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch – lacks charm; the comic scenes in the film, such as those involving the pickpocket, are good, but compare them with the deeper and blacker humor of some of the scenes in Stanley Kubrick's far superior Paths of Glory; for instance, the sequence where one of the condemned men moans of the unfairness that a fly buzzing about him will be alive the next day and he won't, so another of the prisoners kills the fly and remarks that the prisoner now has it over the fly. The contrast in screenwriting quality is stark.
But the flaws in terms of character development and the subsequent narrative that flows from it do not all stem from the screenplay. It is also the result of acting that mostly ranges from mediocre to downright bad. First, let's go with the performances of some of the leading characters, and let me start by stating that most of the critical assessment of the acting abilities of the Casablanca cast is often quite wrongheaded.
Beginning with the three top-billed actors: Humphrey Bogart as club owner Rick Blaine, Ingrid Bergman as his ex-lover Ilsa Lund, and Paul Henreid as Ilsa's husband, the Czechoslovakian Nazi Resistance outlaw Victor Laszlo. Virtually all critiques of this trio leave Henreid as the odd man out, mainly because the film focuses on the love angle between Rick and Ilsa.
Yet, from a purely technical standpoint Henreid gives, by far, the best performance of the trio. But because it is the most understated, it usually gets dismissed as stiff acting rather than good acting of an intentionally stiff character. In many ways, Henreid's performance reminds me of Masayuki Mori as the murdered samurai husband in Akira Kurosawa's 1950 drama Rashomon. Like Mori, Henreid conveys emotional depth and complexity with his eyes alone, or even the slight lift of a brow. He is restrained, but this is because his character is über-disciplined.
Victor is a concentration camp escapee and a guerilla fighter who must not draw attention to himself and who must repress his emotions. He is not demonstrative about his feelings for Ilsa, but one need only look at Henreid's eyes and his physical posture – he's constantly leaning in toward Ilsa – to see how Victor truly adores his wife. And despite what some critics say, his two-time overt declaration of love for Ilsa stands in starkly positive contrast to Rick's cartoonish, caveman-like refusal to utter such declarations. Furthermore, Victor shows his love for Ilsa throughout the film, while Rick's love is displayed only in the final scene; even then, Rick's final gesture is not something that emanates from within.
Because he ends up doing the very thing that Victor initially suggests to Rick that he is willing to do: to allow Rick to leave Casablanca and take his wife with him, for her own safety!
Because we never get a moment that we doubt Victor's love for Ilsa, whereas there is the sneaking suspicion that Rick merely had the hots for Ilsa even if he blew it up into more than what it was.
That not a single critic, to my knowledge, in the nearly seven decades since the film's release has ever commented on Rick's final "grand and altruistic gesture" merely being the inverse of Victor's earlier suggestion, and that this places Victor at the center of Casablanca – heroically, romantically, and dramatically (especially in contrast to the puerile Rick and Ilsa) – is further proof that:
a) most critics simply are not good enough at their jobs to break down more complex aspects of a work of art, and
b) they too often rely on cribbing others in their profession.
This means that a few "talking points" per film are disseminated by the most widely known and read critics, and all the ancillary second- and third-tier critics merely regurgitate the same talking points, supplemented with their own biased, emotion-based yeas or nays on any particular film.
But getting back to Paul Henreid's characterization, one need only watch the cheesy scene in the bar, where Victor hears the Nazis singing "Die Wacht am Rhein," and dares to get the band to play "La Marseillaise." Look at his eyes to see that, far from what critics claim, Victor is a man of great passion and principles from the get-go; this break from his usual restraint gains in power precisely because it is a break, but one that seems wholly natural for a man who has been frustrated for the bulk of his scenes and then feels he is having his face rubbed in it. While the political implications of the bar scene have lost their resonance (as do most blatantly political gestures in art), Henreid's volcanically restrained performance has not.
Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart in Michael Curtiz's Casablanca
As an aside, compare that moment with a similar bit toward the end of the aforementioned Paths of Glory, where a captured German girl is put on stage in front of drunken French soldiers seemingly willing to ravage her, until she starts singing a plaintive German tune of a soldier and his lost love. The drunk soldiers quiet down, and eventually start humming along with the "enemy," and slowly show that they have not been totally inured by carnage. A comparison of these two scenes (their structure and placement) neatly and clearly shows why Casablanca is mere entertainment while Paths of Glory is great art.
As for Paul Henreid's performance, it is always more difficult to play a character that is the "good guy" and does not undergo some sort of however slight transformation. A good critic, however, does not let himself be swayed by a role's theatrical pyrotechnics. Instead, he focuses on what the actor does with the written material handed him. Thus, Henreid's character is not only the best portrayed, but it's also the most nuanced.
Really, does anyone for a moment not believe that Victor knows full well what went on between Ilsa and Rick both in Paris and Casablanca? Of course not, but the character has to pretend not to be affected even if he is – because he has his eyes on the greater prize, the overthrow of the Nazi regime, not the famed "hill of beans" problems of three little people. In short, Henreid's character, despite having less screen time than Ingrid Bergman's and Humphrey Bogart's, is the film's center and lynchpin. Simply stated, without the character of Victor Laszlo, in his physical being and internal composition, Casablanca would not have even reached the level of good melodrama.
Now, contrast Henreid's Victor with Bogart's Rick. Rick is rather one-dimensional despite the character's early evocations of depth. His attraction to Ilsa seems quite superficial; after all, in the flashback scenes in Paris and even those in Casablanca, does he ever speak of higher purpose? No, Rick is wholly selfish, through and through.
Bogart's Rick is also a far showier role than Henreid's Laszlo. But does Bogart do anything more with it? Despite some wittier lines and the nice scene where Rick lets a Romanian refugee couple win at roulette to pay for their visas out of Casablanca, is Rick Blaine sufficiently different from the Sam Spade Bogart essayed in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, or any of the rather stolid thugs he played throughout the 1930s? No.
That's because there is the same reliance on trite body mannerisms that, while they define the Bogart "star persona" (as did John Wayne's personal foibles define his), they add nothing to the film's character. In short, Rick Blaine is the generic Bogart character from past films, little different from the above mentioned "John Wayne" characters in dozens of Westerns, or, for that matter, Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.
Now, don't take my word for it. Ask fans of Casablanca, for they will almost always refer to the character Bogart plays in the film as "Bogey" or "Bogart," not "Rick" or "Blaine." They'll rhapsodize on and on when Bogey does this or that, not when Rick does this or that, precisely because the lead character in Casablanca is not "Rick Blaine," but "Bogey."
Bogart simply was not that good of an actor, and could not differentiate his characters, unlike, say James Cagney (compare his roles in White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy), or Gary Cooper (compare his roles in Sergeant York, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and High Noon), James Stewart(compare his roles in It's a Wonderful Life, Rope and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), or, more recently, Robert De Niro (contrast his roles in Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and The King of Comedy).
I'm not saying that Casablanca does not take advantage of Bogart's limitations as an actor; it certainly does, especially in the last fifteen minutes. Even then, however, Bogart (or Rick) only slightly breaks the pellicle of his star persona to "realize," a bit, a character of some depth. And that's a symptom of the film's problem.
Since all the characters are archetypes, they need to be fully realized in order for claims of greatness to be made. Yet, while some characters are almost fully realized, others are not; and even those who almost get there display a lack of character development that prevents Casablanca from reaching true greatness.
Now, compare scenes where Humphrey Bogart tries to act with his eyes the way Paul Henreid does, and one notices Bogart's utter limitations – he could do cynicism well, and pain ok (aided by a drink in hand), but that's about it. This is not because Rick is constricted emotionally the way Victor is. The limits are Bogart's, not Rick's, and these limits provide the parameters for objectively measuring Bogart's success at transcending his star persona and breaking into a new level of characterization.
To his credit, Bogart does break a few bonds, as mentioned. He is not an early-and-forever typecast version of the characters someone like Joe Pesci plays from film to film. That said, Bogart's performance is not in a league with Henreid's, much less on the same level as some of the truly great performances in film history.
That brings me to the last and least of the trio of star performances: Ingrid Bergman's rather mediocre portrayal of Ilsa Lund.
This Casablanca commentary continues on the next post. See link below.