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.
Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca
First of all, I should clarify that Bergman’s is not a “bad” performance; however, it’s nowhere near great, either. One need only look at contemporaneous performances by, say, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, or even Judy Garland, to see how much Bergman pales in contrast. Her Ilsa is a pawn, a toy, a heroine who is the plaything of the two men in her life – and, incidentally, isn’t it interesting how similar in facial construction both Henreid and Bogart are? A fortuitous development that adds some much-needed depth to Ilsa’s psyche.
Ilsa has zero control of her destiny and zero ability to will herself any power – emotionally, spiritually, or sexually. It’s rather apparent that Ilsa really loves Victor, not Rick, because anyone who’s ever been in love knows that she would have stayed with Rick, no matter. The truth is she likely just lusted for Rick and realized that, but lucked out in having him make a decision she knew was right while being too weak to voice it.
Before objections are raised, think of all the scenes where we get a sense of the spiritual, political, humanitarian, and ethical consonance she has with her husband, and compare them to all the scenes she shares with Rick – both in the present and the Paris flashbacks – and then ask: What exactly does she share with Rick? Not temperament, not vision, not ethics, not spirituality. All that we are left with, then, is a physical and superficial bond. In the real world, this is called lust. She lusted for Rick, but loved Victor. The screenplay shows it, and her choice, while assenting to Rick’s “choice,” proves it.
As for the actress? The raving over Bergman’s performance is likely the worst aspect of most critical assessments of Casablanca. I’ve pointed out how nuanced Paul Henreid’s acting was, being able to convey emotions with his eyes alone; well, Bergman does something different – she totally overacts with her eyes. Many a critic fulminates rapture over her terminally tear-filled gaze (including Roger Ebert in the DVD’s film commentary), but from the get-go Ilsa is a stereotypical damsel in distress, prone to hyper-emotionalism, and in no believable way a “mature” woman.
True, Ilsa is beautiful, but she is no more beautiful than many of the other female characters that inhabit Rick’s bar, while being far more emotionally needy. Even by film’s end, she wholly thrusts her life’s future into Rick’s hands. Despite the fame of Rick’s last advice to her about regretting not getting on the plane with Victor, that bit comes across as incredibly paternalistic and belittling advice when seen from an objective perspective.
Now, having seen Bergman in other films, I know she is a better actress than what can be attested in Casablanca. That leaves three reasons for this rather muddled and uninspiring performance:
- The character is not well written and lacks depth,
- Bergman was too young and callow as an actress to pull off the role, even if better written, and
- Reasons 1 and 2.
I opt for number 3.
Let us now look at some of the other minor roles. In the second tier there is Captain Louis “Louie” Renault (Claude Rains). While there are certainly some great moments for Louie, the character is not a great one nor does Rains exhibit great acting chops. Louie’s best moments are mostly comic, such as when he closes Rick’s bar after the dueling anthems for being “shocked” at gambling going on, and then a valet brings him his winnings and he says “Thanks.”
Much as in the dialogue afforded to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, there is a flippancy and preciousness that Louie and Rick have within their own repartee and with others that’s simply not believable. One would think both of them were the reincarnations of Oscar Wilde, for their conversation, however quotable, feels scripted.
Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca
The ending is good – Louie and Rick talk of leaving Casablanca after Louie covers for Rick’s killing the Nazi Major Strasser – but there is nothing either actor does that lifts the scene above its own well-written basis.
Then there is Strasser’s portrayer, Conrad Veidt, an actor perhaps best known for his role in Robert Wiene’s 1919 silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Simply put, is there anything that lifts Strasser above the generic Nazi archetype in thousands of films? No. How about the black marketer, Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet)? No. This isn’t to say that Ferrari does not get off a few good lines, but again, most critics mistake a few good lines – or tear-filled eyes – for good acting, and utterly overlook detailed and restrained performances like Paul Henreid’s.
Finally, there’s a thinner-than-usual Peter Lorre as Ugarte, another black marketer; one who ends up getting killed. Just look at his last scene – “Rick, Rick, you must help me!” – and one can see what a steep decline that role was from his killer in Fritz Lang’s M a decade earlier, even considering the too-precious soliloquy at the end of that film. In short, Casablanca is not a film to which one looks for an acting clinic.
Casablanca is part of a two-disc DVD package, put out by Warner Bros. Disc one has the film in a transfer stunningly free of blemishes. The disc also has two theatrical trailers (the original and rerelease trailers); an introduction by Bogart’s widow, Lauren Bacall; and two commentaries. The lesser one is by film historian Rudy Behlmer. It’s loaded with information on the making of the film, but Behlmer is just reading from a script of Warner Bros. inter-office memos about the film, and few of the facts are scene-specific. Behlmer’s monotone is also rather off-putting, and he rarely ventures an idea or opinion of his own about the film.
By contrast, film critic Roger Ebert provides his usual quality commentary. What makes it good is not that Ebert has such profound insights, for he repeats much of what Behlmer imparts, but he has a love for the film while offering scene-specific comments that illuminate things a casual viewer might miss. As I’ve stated before, Ebert has serious limitations as a critic of film, but he is thoroughly qualified as a film historian. (Admittedly, much too often Ebert lets his emotions get the better of him, such as in some embarrassing burblings about Ingrid Bergman’s lips, as if they had any bearing on her acting. Compounding matters, Ebert offers a constant denigration and misassessment of Paul Henreid’s acting.)
The second disc has many of the goodies that DVD fans love. Those include the documentary Bacall on Bogart, hosted by Bacall and covering Bogart’s career. It’s a quality film. Also, “You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca” is a good piece, as are a few other featurettes. There are deleted and alternate scenes, a 1943 radio adaptation, as well as a 1955 TV adaptation, and a “Looney Tunes” spoof, Carrotblanca. All in all, it’s a good package.
The Casablanca screenplay was based upon an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” Screenwriters Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein added some mediocre comedy touches, whereas Howard Koch added melodrama. (Casey Robinson also contributed to the mix.)
Among the things that date Casablanca are some poorly produced backscreen projections, and a ridiculously bad model airplane. As stated, the film lacks a single memorable shot – nothing that defines cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s images the way, say, an Ingmar Bergman film is noteworthy for the images of a Sven Nykvist. I should add that I’m not saying Edeson lacked talent; after all, he helped to create film noir with his work on The Maltese Falcon and helped to define 1930s horror films with his work on James Whale’s Frankenstein.
As for Michael Curtiz’s direction, it’s rather pedestrian. Having stated that, does it surprise you in the least that Curtiz garnered one of the three Oscars Casablanca won (out of eight nominations)? The other two won were for Best Picture of 1943, the year the film opened in Los Angeles, and, no surprise, Best Screenplay.
The worst technical aspect of the film, however, is its music, most of which is diegetic. In the formal scoring field, Max Steiner shows an inept handling of music, for the “As Time Goes By” piece, used as the love theme for Rick and Ilsa, too often gives away upcoming dramatic elements. At other times, the scoring is mawkish, often intruding on scenes better left unscored, giving away plot elements before they arise, or trying to emotionally lead the audience in ways the actual narrative does not.
Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca
Now, the biggest mistake that prevents Casablanca from reaching greatness is its lack of great themes. There is nothing in the film that is so overwhelmingly majestic, technically or performance-wise, that can put it in a class with many of the other highly praised motion pictures of the past. Seen next to Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai, La Dolce Vita, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, Casablanca comes up short, way short.
It lacks Citizen Kane‘s innovations, acting, and screenplay; it lacks Tokyo Story‘s characterizations and philosophical depth; it lacks the action, acting, and universal appeal of Seven Samurai; it lacks the acting, humor, and biting social commentary of La Dolce Vita; and it lacks the intellectual probing, audacious screenplay, and mind-blowing presence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Naturally, most film critics were utterly clueless. Some yahoos have read homosexual and Oedipal subtexts into the film. But it is the unstinting (and often unthinking and uncritical) praise by those who should know better, that is the most silly. I’ve mentioned a couple of Roger Ebert’s missteps in his audio commentary on the DVD, but he, too makes some absurd claims about the film, such as: “Rains as the subtly homosexual police chief.” Huh? If anything, Rains’ character is portrayed as an opportunistic womanizer.
In his essay “Casablanca, or, The Cliches Are Having a Ball” writer-philosopher Umberto Eco states:
Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it. And so we can accept it when characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, when conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation if a spy is approaching, when whores weep at the sound of “La Marseillaise.” When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.”
Note that in his summation of a critique that Casablanca is mediocre, Eco:
- makes absurd claims about the film’s “intertextuality” (a weasel approach that bad critics toss around to cover up the fact they are saying nothing of real import) arising from its use of clichés, something that does not add up in a synergistic way to anything better,
- throws in a throwaway word like “telluric” as if it had deeper meaning (it only means terrestrial), and
- repeats the quasi-Stalinist dictum on clichés, only to end his review praising the film – a touch of creeping Political Correctness that utterly reveals his essay as bunkum of the highest order.
Let me bring this all back down to earth with a realistic assessment of the film, as opposed to the emotionally whitewashed views of Ebert and other “pop” critics, and the intellectually pretentious views of Eco and a few other “academic” critics.
Casablanca, like any other film, rises and falls on its screenplay. To co-opt a metaphor, a screenplay is to a film what a good ground game is to an army. The visuals are merely the “shock and awe” that bombing and high-tech assaults bring. That never wins a war; the ground game does; going house to house to clear a street does.
Film, despite being thought of as a visual medium, is really a narrative form that merely uses images to enhance the narrative. Heresy that it may be, film is utterly dependent upon narrative. This is why the medium is called “motion pictures,” not “pictured motions.” The emphasis on the movement in the term “motion pictures” is not literally on the images, but on the narrative aspect.
Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca
As I’ve shown, there are many flaws in Casablanca‘s narrative; among them the fact that it is melodrama – driven by plot, not character development. All the characters react to what the plot dictates; the plot does not organically flow from their personae. Now, before you claim, “But it’s a war film,” let me state: It’s not, it’s a romance set in war, but even were it a war film, just look at the greatest of war films; all of them are driven by characters, not plots.
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory has its dramatic tension not because of the trench warfare, but because of the force of Kirk Douglas’ colonel and the reactions of the doomed men he commanded. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is driven by the conflicting wills of the wholly scrutinized Martin Sheen character, and the ghost-like persona of the little-seen Marlon Brando character. Apocalypse Now could have been set in any war; it could have been a spy film, a gangster film, or any other genre because its conflict is man vs. man, or more specifically, one man vs. one man. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is also wholly structured on the subjective views of a few characters as parallaxed by one character (the narrator) during the Pacific Theater of World War Two. In it, the war is a subservient element to the personal growth of the characters fighting it. So, there are no excuses for Casablanca‘s trite plot, period.
On the plus side, Casablanca is quite modern in terms of pacing and in some aspects of editing, for within the first ten or twelve minutes you feel as if you know these archetypal characters (for good or ill), as if you’d already had a full movie’s worth of them under your belt. This is part of the reason why the film sucks you into its vortex, and gets subjectively better as it goes on, even if, objectively, it’s fairly static in terms of plot.
On the downside, Casablanca has not dated well because of its poor special effects (at the level of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930s British films) and its handling of the black character, Sam. The film may reflect its time fine enough, but there is still a cringe-inducing quality to Dooley Wilson’s slightly above coonish attitude of deference to Rick.
Despite many critics’ claims that the film portrays the two men as equals, this is clearly not so. Sam’s deference is typical of black depictions of the time, as if he had no personal or interior life of his own; it’s as if he exists merely as an extension of his white friend and employer.
In that regard, the worst scene in Casablanca takes place when Bergman’s Ilsa offhandedly refers to Sam as the “boy” who plays piano, even though he’s clearly forty-something years old – a decade and a half or more older than Ilsa herself. The moment is teeth-grinding because, unlike the black characters in Gone with the Wind, there was no reason for Casablanca, which is set in a French colony in Africa, not to reflect the more accepting French attitude toward blacks. Naturally, this aspect dates the film, cementing it to a bygone era in the worst sense, while the lack of other contravening social or aesthetic pluses means this flaw goes unmitigated.
The truth is, the more one cogitates on Casablanca, the more flaws one finds with it, and the lower it sinks in estimation. This serves to point out the power and correctness of being objective when critically evaluating art, because it does not allow personal biases to cloud judgment, pro or con; criticism is analysis, and analysis is always about evaluation, for analysis without evaluation is merely recapitulation and description. What is the point of merely describing a work of art? The art should always be its own best description.
Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman on the poster of Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca
Film critic Andrew Sarris claimed that Casablanca was, “the most decisive exception to the auteur theory,” but he was wrong – and wrong for several reasons. First, auteur theory generally applies toward films or filmmakers that are great, and while Casablanca has been claimed as great, no one has ever made that claim for Michael Curtiz. Thus, it’s not an exception to the auteur theory because it’s outside the scope of greatness. Second, greatness is part and parcel of a vision, and vision is, almost by definition, a property only a singular person can have, not a group; thus Sarris’ admission that Casablanca had more than one “auteur” makes it also outside the scope of auteur theory, by definition, not an exception to the theory. In order for something to be an exception it has to fall within the purview of the claim.
In conclusion, Casablanca is a good – if vastly overrated – film mainly on the strength of its wit, pacing (there’s not a dull or “wasted” moment in it), and the acting of Paul Henreid. Yet, it’s not even what I would term a “genre-great” film, whether one considers its genre melodrama, romance, war, or thriller – even were it to fall into the purview of an auteur film. That’s because Casablanca lacks vision, in addition to being a stylistic and narrative hodgepodge. But it does entertain. In fact, the lower your expectations, the more entertaining it seems. Ah, the flicker of illusion!
© Dan Schneider
CASABLANCA (1942). Dir.: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, S. Z. Sakall, Dooley Wilson, Joy Page. Scr.: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch; from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.