DVD Review Of Casablanca
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/25/08
About three years ago I finally gave in to watch It’s A Wonderful Life 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 that film is a truly great film, and arguably the best Frank Capra ever made. It also is a good example of the auteur theory of filmmaking, in that the film fits very well within the Capra canon. From the first five minutes the viewer knows that no one but Frank Capra could have directed that film. With that in mind, I decide to finally give in and watch Casablanca from start to finish. Like It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s a film, from the 1940s (1942 vs. Capra’s film’s being from 1946), that has a hold on audiences that has not abated. However, unlike It’s A Wonderful Life, Casablanca often turns up in the Top Ten of Greatest Films Of All Time lists, and this is wrong, for, while Casablanca is, overall, a good film (I’d give it a 75-80 out of a 100), it is nowhere near greatness, for reasons technical, aesthetic, and artistic. I will detail these reasons in this essay, and demonstrate that, while the film is eminently likeable, likeability and greatness are wholly different qualities that a thing possesses- be that thing a work of art, an idea, or just the execution of a plan.
Before I summarize the well known plot of the film, let me detail some of its strengths and weaknesses, which I will expound upon later, and offer reasons why many critics have missed the boat on many aspects of this film. First off, the film’s director, Michael Curtiz (who also directed the Jimmy Cagney classic Angels With Dirty Faces, as well as well known films like White Christmas, and Yankee Doodle Dandy), while a good studio man, was in no way an auteur. Compare this film to It’s A Wonderful Life, or The Third Man, and one can see no stylistic continuity from those films to the other films in the auteur’s canon. This includes dialogue, visuals, character development, editing, scoring, etc. Watch scenes from any earlier Capra film, and one can easily see that the Jimmy Stewart character, George Bailey, in It’s A Wonderful Life would be perfectly at home in those earlier films. The same is true with the visual motivs in The Third Man (and for these purposes I regard the true auteur of that film as Orson Welles), not Carol Reed- the beard Welles used to get the film distributed in America, after he was blackballed by Hollywood- a journeyman filmmaker with an anomic style and canon akin to Curtiz’s. Next, there is the lack of ‘vision’ that Casablanca reveals. In short, it is not in the least bit poetic, the way the films of true film masters, like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Theo Angelopoulos, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stanley Kubrick, or others of that ilk, are. It is a good, solid prose film, but there is no higher meaning to it. This flaw, if you will, is revealed by the fact that virtually all the characters in Casablanca are, to be generous, archetypes (if not full blown stereotypes), and this one dimensionality makes much of what occurs in the film predictable. This is not to say that this predictability is not well handled, but from the moment Bogart’s and 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 anti-heroes, 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 the relationship, as portrayed by Bogart and Bergman, 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, the great films of Michelangelo Antonioni, from the 1960s. Yes, Casablanca is a war film (well….more later), and it is a 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. With a bit better writing, a few more moments to flesh out some complexities, a few offhanded moments of ‘accidental’ poesy or philosophy, and the loss of some of the dramatically and emotionally absurd moments in the film (such as the phony scene where Bergman threatens Bogart with a gun, or the cringe-inducing jingoism of the forced, and too stagey, scene where the German soldiers and French refuges battle with patriotic songs), the screenplay would be more bearable. This is not to say that the screenplay lacks charm; the comic scenes in the film- those involving the pickpocket, say- are good, but compare them with the deeper and blacker humor of some of the scenes in a far superior film like Paths Of Glory (as example, the scene 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) and the contrast in screenwriting quality is stark.
But, these flaws, in the film’s character development, and the subsequent narrative that flows from it, are not all alone the fault of the screenplay, melodramatically-leaning as it is. No, it is also the flaw of acting that ranges from mediocre to bad. First, let’s go with the performances of some of the leading characters, and let me start by stating that most of the characterizations of the acting abilities of the actors in this film, by critics, are often quite wrongheaded. Let us start 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. But, from a purely technical standpoint, Henreid gives, by far, the best acting performance of the trio (and, it’s not even close). Because it is the most restrained and understated, however, it usually gets dismissed as stiff acting, rather than good acting of an intentionally stiff character. Well, the character of Victor is certainly restrained, and a bit stiff, but the performance of Henreid is not. In many ways, his performance reminds me of the performance of Masayuki Mori, as the murdered samurai husband in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, 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. He (the character) is a concentration camp escapee, and a guerilla fighter, who has to not draw attention to himself, and must repress his emotions. He is not demonstrative in his overt feelings toward Ilsa, but one need only look at Henreid’s eyes, and the physical postures of his constant 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 stark positive contrast to the more cartoonish and caveman-like refusal to utter such words by Bogart’s Rick. Furthermore, Victor shows his love for Ilsa throughout the film, while Rick’s love is displayed only in the final scene, but even Rick’s final gesture is not something that emanates from within. Why? Because he ends up doing the very thing that Victor initially suggests to Rick that he is willing to do- allow Rick to leave Casablanca and take his wife with him, for her own safety! Why? 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 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 the film, heroically, maturely (in contrast to the more puerile Rick and Ilsa), romantically, and dramatically, 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 critically 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 regurge the same talking points, supplemented with their own biased and emotion-bases yeas or nays on the film. But, getting back to Henreid’s characterization, one need only look at the cheesy scene in the bar, where Victor hears the Nazis singing their song, Die Wacht Am Rhein, and dares to get the band to play La Marseillaise, then look in Victor’s eyes, to see that, far from what critics claim, Victor is a man of great passion and principles from the get go, and 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 in the film, and then feels he is having his face rubbed in it. While the political implications of the scene have lost their resonance (as do most blatantly political gestures in art), Henreid’s volcanically restrained performance in that scene has not. And, as an asides, compare that scene with a similar scene toward the ends 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 Henreid’s performance, it is always more difficult to perform a character that is the ‘good guy’ and does not undergo some sort of transformation, however slight, but a good critic does not let himself be swayed by theatrical pyrotechnics immanent in a role, rather what the actor does with the written material given his character. Thus, Henreid’s character is not only the best portrayed, and most subtly nuanced- does anyone for a moment, as example, not believe that he knows full well what went on between Ilsa and Rick in Paris, and between them in 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, and not the famed ‘hill of beans’ problems of three little people. In short, his character, despite less screen time than Bergman’s and Bogart’s characters, is the center and lynchpin of the film. Simply stated, without the character (in his physical being and internal composition) of Victor Laszlo, Casablanca does not even reach being a good prose melodrama.
Now, contrast Henreid’s Victor with Bogart’s Rick. Rick is rather one dimensional, despite the film’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, he is wholly selfish, through and through. This is not a flaw of Bogart’s nor the character development, and Rick does show some growth, by film’s end. Bogart’s character is also a far showier role than Henreid’s Laszlo. But, does Bogart do anything more with it? Despite some wittier lines, repartee, 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 The Maltese Falcon, or any of the rather stolid thugs he played throughout the 1930s? No. 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), add nothing to the character of the film. 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 even Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. And, 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’ nor ‘Blaine.’ They’ll rhapsodize on when Bogey does this or that, not when the character does this or that precisely because the lead character of the film is not ‘Rick Blaine,’ but ‘Bogey.’ Why? Bogart simply was not that good of an actor, and could not differentiate his characters the way Jimmy 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), Jimmy Stewart (compare his roles in It’s A Wonderful Life, Rope, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), or latterday Robert De Niro (contrast his roles in Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and The King Of Comedy) could. But, it’s also a testament to Bogart’s star power, as well. This is not to say that the film does not take advantage of Bogart’s limits as an actor; it certainly does, especially in the 100 minute long film’s last fifteen minutes. But, even there, Bogart (or Rick) only slightly breaks the pellicle of his star persona to ‘realize,’ a bit, as a character of some depth. And that’s a symptom of the film’s problem. Since all the characters are archetypes, they need to fully ‘realize’ in order for claims of greatness to be made, yet, as with Rick, while some characters ‘almost’ realize, the others do not, and even those who ‘almost’ realize manifest the lack of the character development in the film that helps it miss true greatness. Now, compare scenes where Bogart tries to act with his eyes, alone, the way Henreid does, as example, and one notices the utter limitations Bogart had- he could do cynicism well, and pain ok (aided by a drink in hand), but that’s about it. And this is not because Rick is immanently limited and constricted emotionally, as a character, the way Victor is. The limits are Bogart’s, not Rick’s, and these limits give the parameters for objectively measuring Bogart’s success at transcending his star persona and breaking into a new level of characterization. And, to his credit, Bogart does break a few bonds, as mentioned. He is not an early and forever typecast version of the characters a Joe Pesci plays, from film to film. But, his performance is also not in a league with Henreid’s, much less 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. First, it’s not a bad performance, but it’s nowhere near great. One need only look at contemporaneous performances by a Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, or even Judy Garland, to see how much Bergman pales in contrast. Ilsa is a pawn, a toy, a heroine whose life 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 depth to her character’s psyche). She has zero control of her destiny, and zero ability to will herself any power- emotionally, spiritually, sexually, or personally. And, it’s rather apparent that Ilsa really loves Victor, not Rick, because anyone who’s ever really been in love knows that she would have stayed with Rick, no matter. But, 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, but may have been too weak to voice in the moment. And, 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 (in the present and Paris flashback) and ask what exactly does she share with Rick? Not temperament, not vision, not ethics, not spiritual. All that we are left with, then, is a physical and superficial bond. This is called lust, in the real world. She lusted for Rick, but loved Victor. The screenplay shows it, and her choice (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 this film. I pointed out how nuanced Paul Henreid’s acting was, with eyes alone, and how limited Humphrey Boagart’s was. Well, Bergman does something different- she utterly 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 lady in distress, prone to hyper-emotionalism, and in no real way a ‘mature’ woman. Yes, Ilsa (and her portrayer) is a beautiful woman, but she is no more beautiful than many of the other female characters that inhabit Rick’s bar, and she is far more emotionally needy. Even by film’s end, she wholly thrusts her life’s future in to Rick’s hands, and, despite the fame of Rick’s last advice to her about regretting not getting on the plane with Victor, it’s also 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 portrayed in this film. That leaves three reasons for this rather muddled and uninspiring performance: 1) the character is not well written and lacks depth, 2) Bergman was too young and callow as an actress to pull off the role, even if better written, and 3) 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 the character of Captain Louis ‘Louie’ Renault (Claude Rains). While there are certainly some great moments for the character (mostly comic, such as when he closes Rick’s after the dueling anthems, for being ‘shocked’ at gambling going on, and then a valet brings him his winnings and he says ‘Thanks’), the character is not a great one, nor does Rains exhibit great acting chops. And, much as in the dialogue afforded to Bogart’s Rick Blaine, there is a flippancy, preciousness and wittiness that the two men 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 converse is so scripted, precious, and artificial sounding, however quotable. And, yes, the ending, where Louie and Rick talk of leaving Casablanca, after Louie covers for Rick’s killing of the Nazi, Major Strasser, is good, there is nothing either actor does that lifts the scene above its own well-written end. Then there is Strasser’s portrayer, Conrad Veidt (best known for his role in 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 marketeer, Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet)? No. This isn’t to say that his character 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, the other black marketeer, 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 role, a decade earlier, in Fritz Lang’s M, even considering the bit too precious end soliloquy in that film. In short, Casablanca is not a film one looks to for an acting clinic. No, it’s not a piece of schlock, but it is certainly far from the masterpiece its defenders claim. It’s simply a rather predictable yet enjoyable melodrama that has some logical flaws, and has not dated that well.
Now, a brief synopsis of the tale that I’ve limned a significant portion of so far. The film opens with a recap of the early part of the European theater of the Second World War, set just before America entered it (at one point Bogart’s Rick Blaine mention’s it’s December of 1941, so the film must be set just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor). The setting is the Vichy French colony of Morocco, its capital city, Casablanca, right near the airport, in a bar called Rick's Café Américain. People from all walks of life- Free and Vichy French, Nazis and Americans, locals and European refugees, are holed up in the city. Rick Blaine (Bogart) is a cynical and emotionally stunted man with a past that includes gunrunning to Ethiopia, and support of the Leftist Loyalist Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. This lends Rick an air of mystery, considering he is a New Yorker, by birth. But, embittered, he sticks his neck out for no one, including a crook name Ugarte (Lorre), who comes to him to hide two ‘letters of transit’ (this film’s Hitchcockian Macguffin) he got from murdered Nazi couriers. Now, here comes one of the logical problems that requires a suspension of disbelief. Casablanca is controlled by the Petain led Vichy puppet government of the Nazis, so why would these letters (signed by French leader in exile, General Charles de Gaulle), have any weight or legal authority in enemy territory? Yet, all the characters act as if these letters are gold-plated tickets to Lisbon, then America. Thus, Ugarte hopes to sell them for a great profit, and entrusts them only to Rick, who hides them under a doily on Sam (Dooley Wilson) the piano player’s piano. But, Ugarte is soon arrested and killed by the local constabulary. Enter Victor Laszlo and his wife Ilsa Lund (Henreid and Bergman), the fugitives from the Third Reich. Waiting for them is Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) who plays cat and mouse games with Rick, Louie (Rains), and Victor. Above mentioned scenes between Rick and Ferrari (Greenstreet), Victor and Strasser, Rick and Ilsa, all transpire, and the club is closed after the weak scene of battling nationalistic anthems.
Ilsa tries to cajole and threaten Rick for the letters of transit, but breaks down, unable to do it, and confesses she still loves Rick, and that their affair in Paris (earlier seen in flashback) occurred because she thought Victor was dead. This was why she did not meet him and Sam at the train, to leave Paris once the Nazis invaded: Victor was alive and ill, after his escape from a concentration camp. Victor, meanwhile, attends a Resistance meeting that is stormed. He escapes, and Rick plans to get him and Ilsa out of the country, with the letters of transit, but a series of double-crossings takes place. First, Rick convinces Louie that he and Ilsa are going to leave Casablanca on the plane, and leave Victor to the Nazis. Thus, he convinces Louie to arrest Victor at his club. This occurs, but Rick then pulls a gun on Louie, and has Louie call ahead to the airport to clear their escape. But, Louie surreptitiously calls Strasser, who races to the airport. At the airport, Rick explains to Ilsa that she will be going with Victor. He makes Victor believe that Ilsa only tried to use him to get the papers, and he let her use him. One senses Victor gets that there was more, but goes off. Ilsa goes with him, and Louie says he’ll have to arrest Rick. Strasser arrives and tries to stop the plane. Rick pulls his gun and warns Strasser to stop. He does not stop, pulls a gun, and Rick shoots him, presumably dead. Louie then covers for Rick, telling his policemen to round up the usual suspects in Strasser’s shooting. Rick, surprised at Louie’s decency, says this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and they walk off into the night fog of the airport.
The film is part of a 2 disk DVD package, put out by Warner Brothers. Disk one has the film, itself, and the transfer is stunningly free of blemishes. It looks like it could have been filmed this year, and is in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The disk also has two theatrical trailers- the original and re-release trailers, an introduction by Lauren Bacall- Bogart’s wife, 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 Brothers interoffice memos about the film, and few of the facts are scene specific. Behlmer’s monotone is also rather offputting, and he rarely ventures an idea or opinion of his own about the film. By contrast, the other commentary, by film critic Roger Ebert, is his usual quality commentary. What makes it good is not that Ebert has such insights, for he repeats much of what Behlmer imparts, but he has a love for the film, and scene specific comments that illuminate things a casual viewer might miss. As I’ve stated before, Ebert has serious limitations as a serious critic of film, but he is eminently qualified as a film historian.
The reason for this is because Ebert is too emotionally dependent in his critiques; of the thousands of reviews he’s written, you can certainly point to a few dozen, maybe a hundred or two, that are gems- well written (and, let’s face it, the man won his Pulitzer for his wordsmithing, not his critical skills) and insightful about the film and its aspects. But, the truth is that that is an example of dart tossing. Toss enough darts, even backward, and over your shoulder, and a few bull’s-eyes will emerge. And dart tossing is just randomness, it’s not an intellectual critical facility that’s replicable. When he is detached and objective, Ebert will make a good technical comment about the left to right movement of a scene following Louie and Rick into Rick’s office, when he needs to get money from the safe, and the camera’s eliding a wall that reappears just moments later, even though, in reality, this would be impossible. But, much too often Ebert lets his emotions get the better of him, such as in some inanely embarrassing burblings about Ingrid Bergman, where he focuses on Bergman’s lips, as if they had any bearing on her acting in certain scenes. The worst (or best) example of Ebert’s emotionalism actually comes from his own mouth, near the end of the commentary, when he discourses on Casablanca’s place in film history. He compares it to Citizen Kane, and concludes that the Welles film is the superior work of art, but that Casablanca is the superior entertainment (a view which, despite all the disagreements I have with Ebert on this and other films, I share). As a corollary, he attempts to define what a classic film is, and concludes that a classic is a film one could not bear never seeing again. Note, that his definition is a wholly emotional and subjective one. Compare that with the definition of a great film (or any work of art) as something that successfully engages and enriches the mind and aesthetics through the excellence of its construction and/or performance. Note, that while there is some subjectivity in how well such a thing will affect different individuals, there is an objectivity in the ways the construction and/or performance can be measured. But, Ebert’s biggest sin, in this commentary, aside from his near fetishism over Bergman’s bodily parts, is his constant denigration and misassessment of the acting of Paul Henreid. More than once, Ebert states how he does not ‘like’ the character of Victor Laszlo, and how he ‘likes’ Rick Blaine, despite Victor’s superior resume as a man. These emotionally biased likes and dislikes then lead into Ebert’s assigning character traits and flaws to the two that are simply not in the film, but merely Ebert’s justifications for his biases. Even worse, Ebert admits to not particularly liking the actor, Paul Henreid, although he gives no reasons (although one suspects that he is simply not Humphrey Bogart). This dislike, in turn, leads to equating the stiffness of the character of Victor with the acting performance of Henreid, which, as I have argued and shown, is a false equation. Despite these flaws, though, Ebert’s commentary is significantly better than Behlmer’s.
The second disk has many of the goodies that DVD fans love. There’s a long documentary, hosted by Bacall, that covers Humphrey Bogart’s career. Called Bacall On Bogart, it’s a quality film. You Must Remember This: A Tribute To Casablanca, is a good piece on the film, as are a few other featurettes. There are deleted and alternate scenes, a 1943 radio adaptation of the film, replete with the film’s stars, as well as a 1955 tv adaptation, as well as a 1995 Looney Tunes spoof, Carrotblanca, and a few other minor features. All in all, it’s a good package.
The film’s screenplay was based upon an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, called Everybody Comes To Rick’s. Among a team of screenwriters who adapted the play were Julius and Philp Epstein, who added some mediocre comedic touches, Howard Koch, who added melodrama, and Casey Robinson. While a good, solid, prose tale, the lack of poesy, and a bit too much predictable melodrama, weigh the film down. Other things that date the film rather poorly are some poorly produced backscreen projections, and a ridiculously bad model airplane. As stated, there is also not a single memorable shot in the film (at least not shot for the film, although there are newsreels of genuine invasion footage of France in the flashback sequence of Rick and Ilsa), nothing that defines cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s images the way, say, an Ingmar Bergman film is noteworthy for the images of a Sven Nylvist. All the shots are rather pedestrian, as is Curtiz’s direction. Having stated that, does it surprise you in the least that Curtiz garnered one of the three Oscars the film won (out of eight nominations), for Best Director? The other two won were for Best Picture and, no surprise, Best Screenplay. As for the cinematography’s lackluster nature, it’s not that Edeson lacked talent, for he helped create film noir with his work on The Maltese Falcon, and defined 1930s horror films with his work on James Whale’s Frankenstein. Perhaps the worst technical aspect of the film, though, is its music. Most of the music is not formal scoring, but diegetic music. Max Steiner, however, shows an inept handling of music in the formal scoring, for the As Time Goes By piece (used as the love theme for Rick and Ilsa) too often gives away coming dramatic elements, while at other times the scoring is heavyhanded and mawkish, often intruding on scenes better left unscored, or giving away plot elements before they arise, or trying to emotionally lead the audience in ways the actual narrative does not.
But the biggest thing that prevents the film from greatness is that it simply plumbs no depths, it simply has no great themes. There is nothing in the film that is so overwhelmingly great, technically or performance-wise, that can put it in a class with many of the other highly praised great films 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 philosophic 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 mindblowing 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, of critics who should know better, that is the most silly. I’ve mentioned some of Roger Ebert’s missteps in his audio commentary on the DVD, but he, too makes some absurd claims about the film, such as stating: ‘Rains as the subtly homosexual police chief.’ Huh? If anything, Rains’ character is portrayed as an opportunistic womanizer. He also repeats fallacies about the film- ‘In her closeups during this scene, Bergman's face reflects confusing emotions. And well she might have been confused, since neither she nor anyone else on the film knew for sure until the final day who would get on the plane. Bergman played the whole movie without knowing how it would end, and this had the subtle effect of making all of her scenes more emotionally convincing; she could not tilt in the direction she knew the wind was blowing’- that he actually recants in the film commentary, and flatly rejects any objective stance on the film, stating: ‘the more I know it, the more I like it.’ Well, great for you; but that little helps the uninitiated would be viewer, and points out almost all of what is wrong with film criticism (and criticism, in general) today.
In his film commentary, Ebert claims that he’s never read a negative review of the film, but he obviously never got around to reading novelist/philosopher Umberto Eco’s takes on the film, from his essay titled Casablanca, or, The Cliches Are Having A Ball. Eco states, of the film’s inexplicable (to him) popularity: ‘….aesthetically speaking (or by any strict critical standards) Casablanca is a very mediocre film. It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects. And we know the reason for this: The film was made up as the shooting went along, and it was not until the last moment that the director and script writer knew whether Ilse (sic) would leave with Victor or with Rick.’ Now, I disagree that the film is mediocre. It’s good entertainment, but not great art. Such a claim is better suited for tripe like Gone With The Wind, not Casablanca. Yet, even in his own criticism, Eco repeats the same fallacy Ebert and others have, re: the film’s indecisive scripting. Thus, based upon a factual error, Eco takes this line of reasoning: ‘Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed in a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire of the tried and true. When the choice of the tried and true is limited, the result is a trite or mass-produced film, or simply kitsch. But when the tried and true repertoire is used wholesale, the result is an architecture like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. There is a sense of dizziness, a stroke of brilliance.’ In short, Eco is stating an artistic version of the old Stalinist claim that, ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.’ In Eco’s reworking, one cliché is bad, a few are damning, but a non-stop string of them is audaciously bold and innovative. Of course, this is wholly wrong, even were Eco’s factual basis for the screenplay’s provenance correct. Yes, I have read poems that were loaded with seeming clichés, but they were arranged to juxtapose each other in novel ways so that the phrases actually were not trite, in that specific context. As I stated, this is not true in Casablanca. Not only do the characters utter trite sayings, and far too witty bon mots, but their actions are utterly predictable, and telegraphed scenes and minutes before they occur. Eco ends, claiming, ‘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 cliches 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, in his summation of a critique that the film is bad, Eco 1) makes absurd claims about the film’s ‘intertextuality’ (a classic weasel word that bad critics toss around to cover up the fact they are saying nothing of real import) arising from its use of clichés, which, as I have shown, does not add up in a synergistic way to anything better, 2) throws in a throwaway and nonsensical word like ‘telluric,’ as if it had deeper meaning (it only means terrestrial), and 3) 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 masturbatory 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, to some, film is utterly dependent upon narrative. This is why it is called ‘motion pictures,’ not ‘pictured motions.’ The emphasis on the movement in the term ‘motion pictures’ is not literally on merely the images, but on the narrative aspect. And, as I’ve shown, there are many flaws in Casablanca’s narrative; among them the fact that it is melodrama- driven by plot, not by character development. All the characters react to what the plot dictates to them; 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, and all of them are character driven, not plot driven, films. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory has its dramatic tension not because of the trench warfare, but because of the force of Kirk Douglas’s character, Colonel Dax, and the reactions of the doomed men he commanded, who will now all be shot for cowardice. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is even more driven by the conflicting wills of the wholly scrutinized Martin Sheen character, and the ghost-like persona of the little seen Marlon Brando character. It could have been set in any war, been a spy film, a gangster film, or any other genre, because it’s conflict is man vs. man, or more specifically, one man vs. one man. And, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line also is 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 a modern film, 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, and this is part of the reason why the film sucks you in to its vortex, and gets better, subjectively, as it goes on, even if, objectively, it’s a fairly static film, in terms of plotting. Yet, the film has not dated well. The two most obvious aspects of this are the not so special effects (at the level of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930s British films) and the handling of the black character, Sam. Yes, the film reflects its time fine enough, in that sense, but there still is 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 nor interior life of his own, as if he exists merely as an extension of his white friend and employer. The worst scene in the film, though, in this aspect, is when Bergman’s Ilsa offhandedly refers to same as the ‘boy’ who plays piano, even though he’s clearly fortysomething years old, and a decade and a half or more older than Ilsa. The moment is teeth-grinding to a modern sensibility because, unlike the black characters in Gone With The Wind, with this film set in France’s colony (as well as Africa), there was no reason to not reflect the more modern and accepting French attitude toward blacks. Naturally, this aspect dates the film, cementing it to a bygone era (in the worst sense), as the lack of other contravening social or aesthetic pluses means this flaw is unmitigated. This, and many of the other flaws I’ve enumerated, certainly makes Casablanca far from the great or ‘perfect film’ its champions claim. The truth is, the more one cogitates on the film, the more flaws one finds with it, and the lower it sinks in estimation. Yet, this serves to point out the power and correctness of objectively critically evaluating art, because it does not allow personal biases to cloud judgment, pro or con; for, criticism is analysis, and analysis is always about evaluation, for analysis without evaluation is merely recapitulation and description, and what is the point of merely describing a work of art? The art should always be its own best description.
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 Curtiz. Thus, having shown the film is clearly not great, it’s not an exception to auteur theory because it’s outside the scope of auteur theory for not being great. Secondly, 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’s very 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, while Casablanca is a good (if vastly overrated) film- mainly on the strength of its pacing (there’s not a dull nor ‘wasted’ moment in the film), wit, and the acting of Paul Henreid, it’s not even what I would term a ‘genre great’ film, whether one considers its genre melodrama, love film, war film, action film, etc., even were it to fall into the purview of an auteur film. Eco is correct (if equivocal); the film lacks vision, and is a stylistic and narrative hodgepodge. Still, it does entertain, and is an interesting piece of Americana. Also, the lower the expectations you have of the film, the more entertaining it seems. Ah, the flicker of illusion!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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