Director: Michael Curtiz
MPAA Rating: PG for mild violence
Although the night is clear and quiet, it still wears a cloak of melancholy. Casablanca, Morocco is asleep. Rick sits alone at his own bar, serving up a drink for himself. As he downs another glass of strong drink, Sam, the pianist, slowly paces in with a look of worry in his eyes.
“Boss,” Sam begins after a while. “Let’s get outta here.”
“No, Sam. I’m waiting for a lady,” Rick sighs, a tinge of heartbreak in his voice.
“Please, boss. Let’s go. Ain’t nothing but trouble for you here.”
“She’s coming back,” Rick continues, ignoring Sam’s comment. “I know she’s coming back.”
“We’ll take the car and drive all night. We’ll get drunk. We’ll get drunk till she—”
“Shut up and go home, will ya?” Tears are forming in the corner of Rick’s eyes.
“No sir,” states Sam loyally. “I’m staying right here.”
Rick ignores him and downs another glass. “They grab Ugarte, and she comes in,” he says, more to himself than to Sam who has begun to improvise quietly on the keys. “It’s the way it goes. One in, one out. Sam, it’s December 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?”
Sam, confused by the sudden question, stammers, “I-my watch stopped.”
“I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.”
He slams a fist into the table as a painful pinch makes its way to his heart, a lump forming in his throat. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
“Show, not tell.” That’s what they all tell you. What exactly is so wrong with telling and not showing? It can come across as campy, or ruin a moment that could’ve been portrayed better with visual imagery. Telling is the bane of film, books and everything-art. I’ll concede that telling more than showing a movie walks a fine line of making or breaking the flow of the story, but if done properly, I think telling can lift the life of a movie to new heights. I rest my case in the classic Casablanca. The masters of the screen during the Golden Age of film grasped dialogue in ways we cannot comprehend or reach nowadays. What they did so well then is now considered the cardinal sin of movies now.
In 1982, the journalist Chuck Ross, in an experiment for Film Comment, mailed the script of Casablanca to 217 agencies under a different title and under a different authorship name. Although many rejected it for external reasons, eighty-one agencies read it and of those, fifty-three did not recognize it as the classic. But here’s the cherry on top: forty-one agencies criticized the iconic, Oscar-winning script with harsh words. One wrote, “Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action.” Another memorably displeased reader went the lengths to add extravagant punctuation marks to his critique, “To bridge the gap between ‘talented writer’, which you now are, and ‘professional writer’, which is yet to come, you need professional help. I could recommend a ‘literary surgeon’ who would help you, but are you ready to accept professional help????” What is so sad isn’t that people don’t recognize greats anymore, but instead the fact that they don’t create movies like the old greats anymore.
At the heart of Casablanca is the human dilemma of sacrifice for a cause larger than one person. That’s what makes Casablanca ring so true with audiences both then and now. In one of the most renowned endings in film, the main character, Rick (Humphrey Bogart), makes a decision that would unquestionably break the hearts of even the most pitiless monsters, but in their philosophical and rational mind, they would agree with Rick’s choice. If you discovered that your love for someone would cause destruction and pain for hundreds or thousands of others, would you be willing to give up the one you loved? Would you dare relieve others of pain, even if it meant a terrible heartbreak?
Bogart’s Rick could provide a whole semester of material of character study. He is handsome (like how no other forty year old can be), selfish, secretive and a scoundrel—for lack of a better description, he’s a quieter Han Solo but sporting much more unpredictable elements. You know that his love with Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa is forbidden, yet you root for them. Their chemistry as both enemies and lovers whose past goes back for years feels so real and unique, probably due to their lack of interaction on set. But while Bogart and Bergman obviously control the screen, it is the memorable “As Time Goes By” song that makes the film. When the song is introduced as the once-lovers’ theme, Curtiz chooses to focus on Bergman’s bittersweet gaze, and that’s more than enough to make it feel like it is our song as well.
Unlike most other classic romances, Casablanca tackles a topic larger than life and larger than itself, especially considering that it was produced at the height of World War II. When the film climaxes to the famous finale, it becomes a conflict not between the members of the love triangle, but between the wants of the lovers and the needs of the struggle of a nation and the world. Now we know the outcome of the war, but the crew behind the film at the time retained a small taste of worry that they would not come out of the war under the same national flag. What is so wonderful is that even though they didn’t know the outcome of the war, the ending serves up so much hope and surety in their country that it seems like that, somehow, they did know.
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