Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where Casablanca (1942) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] Casablanca is about people who do the right thing.”
What Ebert had to say in his review: “If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.
One of the more challenging aspects of looking back to these titans of cinematic prestige in projects like this is trying to put yourself in the mindset of the people watching them when they were first released. That was a very rewarding experience for me when I recently watched Citizen Kane for the first time, which felt like returning to the birth place of modern cinema. Orson Welles’s classic was not immediately appreciated as a game-changer, however. It took years of reappraisal and televised re-runs for that film to earn its rightful place among the all-time greats. The equally lauded Casablanca, often touted to be the greatest film of all time, had a much easier path to success. In the film’s own advertising it was reported to be, “As big and timely a picture as you’ve ever seen! You can tell by the cast it’s important! Gripping! Big!” With names like Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, and Claude Raines among its ranks it’s difficult to dispute that claim. That’s especially true once you consider that Casablanca is about the ineffectiveness of remaining neutral in the face of Nazi fascism and that it was made just a few years after America had been pressured into joining the war in spite of its Isolationist philosophies. Unlike with Citizen Kane, however, time has only faded what initially must have felt special about Casablanca. It might entirely be a question of over-familiarity. The stars of the poster no longer shine as brightly as they did in the 1940s. The film’s iconic dialogue has been echoed, referenced, and parodied to dust. I’ve seen more films about Nazis & World War II than I’ve ever wanted to sit through in my entire life. What’s left, then, is a well-shot, well-acted drama that’s undeniably good, but difficult to contextualize as the best cinema has to offer.
Bogart stars as an American who prides himself in remaining Neutral in all things, especially politics. He’s warned early & often that “Isolationism is no longer a practical policy,” a truth that becomes increasingly apparent as the nightclub/gambling den he runs in North Africa begins to see a clash of new Nazi faces with his traditionally French clientele. Sometimes this clash is literalized by both sides fervently singing their national anthems over each other’s in proud defiance and drunken bravado. More often, it’s a backroom political game where enemies to the Nazis seek secretive travel to the still-neutral USA while the Nazis attempt to keep them still in Casablanca until it’s their time to be dealt with. Bogart’s leading man finds it impossible to stay out of this conflict once a familiar face from a past Parisian romance, played by Bergman, shows up at his nightclub seeking asylum & safe passage for herself & her political refugee husband. A song that represents their past romantic fling, “As Time Goes By,” repeats endlessly on the soundtrack, both diagetically and otherwise, as Bogart stresses over what to do with the only woman who’s ever broken his heart. In the meantime, the dialogue is peppered with repetition of the film’s own greatest hits of line deliveries: “Play it again, Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine . . .” etc. The ending of Casablanca, set at an airport, is just as much part of the public consciousness as any one of those lines, but I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself if, like me, you’ve somehow avoided seeing the film until now. I will say, though, that it will not likely have the impact on those uninitiated now the same way it did in 1942, which is actually fairly indicative on how the movie plays in the 2010s as a whole.
I have a strange relationship with Casablanca’s formal aspects, especially its pacing. On the one hand, I appreciate its brevity in keeping its runtime at only 100min, where I feel like most Big! Important! movies from the studio era are about twice that length, complete with overture & intermission. The movie has an absurdly fast-talking, no-nonsense energy to it that makes for a very easy watch in a modern context, but I’m not sure it’s a pace that fits the material well. In a lot of ways Casablanca intentionally traps its characters in a transitive state, a sort of real life Limbo. From the French officer who prides himself on being free from Nazi control in his own North African safe haven to the nightclub owner who foolishly believes he can make it through the war without ever choosing sides, no character is leading a life that can last forever. They’re all effectively stuck in a rut, but the movie’s rapid pace does little to match or accentuate their stasis. In particular, the sweeping, drunken montage of Bergman & Bogart’s Parisian tryst has little time to make any impact for me outside the historical revelation that disco balls have existed since at least the 40s. The performances in the film are top notch and the cinematograpy & attention to lighting match them in pure elegance. Some of the most gorgeous shots I’ve seen on film in a long while are just the glimmering tears Casablanca captures as they well up in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes. I just didn’t feel as much of a personal impact from the film as a complete product despite those images. Some of it might be my boredom with war narratives and my over-familiarity with the film’s greatest hits dialogue. A lot of it has something to do with its breakneck pace that never slows down to allow a moment to truly linger. Casablanca continues to shine as a well-made film, a quality assessment I can easily see in its basic sense of craft. What I’m failing to see as a modern audience is why it remains an important one, which is a huge distinction to make. Maybe my feeble 2010s mind, with its Twitter notifications and Instant Steaming options, was too slow to keep up with its virtues as a cinematic feat, but I was unable to feel the awe for it I might have expected from a film that’s been hyped as The Greatest of All Time for the past seven decades, as unfair as that expectation might be.
Roger Ebert concludes his Great Movies review of Casablanca by saying “Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it.” Maybe I’ll be able to catch up with all of the love that’s been heaped on the film over the decades once I also become overly-familiar with the film on its own terms instead of being overly-familiar with the references it’s inspired elsewhere in pop culture. All I can report for now is that I liked it, but I was far from in love, even though I feel like I already know every piece that makes up its basic structure. It’ll be a while before I ask Sam to play it again, but I’m not opposed to the idea.
Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)
Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)
Next Lesson: The Third Man (1949)