Grade: A (SEE IT)
HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID.
Yet 1942’s “Casablanca” (winner of three Academy Awards, including Best Picture) isn’t a kid anymore. Tonight, to celebrate the film’s 70th anniversary, Turner Classic Movies will screen, for one night only, a digitally re-mastered edition of the classic World War II romantic drama and mainstay of Top 10 Classic Films lists. “Casablanca” isn’t just the perfect film; it’s an iconic collection of top-shelf actors (Bogie, Bergman, Rains, Henreid, Lorre), a superb script, perfect pacing, music, melodrama, comedy…say when!
If you can’t visit Rick’s Café Américain tonight, be sure to rent a copy, which is just as well: TCM’s screening includes an introduction by Robert Osborne and commentary by that senile satyr otherwise known as Hugh Hefner (hardly worth the price of admission). The observations of Osborne are surely worth taking in, but at this point, “Casablanca” and its basket of quotable sayings have already worked their way into popular culture: the misquoted “Play it again, Sam,” “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” (which cleverly comes at the film’s ending), and of course, “We’ll always have, Paris.” Fortunately for film buffs, we’ll always have “Casablanca” for five, fine reasons on which you can rely:
- SPANNING THE GLOBE. There are arguably thirty-five nationalities represented in “Casablanca,” the most cosmopolitan classic of all time. At a surprisingly modern pace, it moves from Vichy-occupied Morocco to Paris with talk of America, Germany, and Bulgaria in between. Not only are Rick and Ilsa different nationalities, united by their hatred for the Gestapo, the interracial closeness between the couple and their portable musician, Sam (played by drummer Dooley Wilson) is also forward-thinking for its time. “Casablanca” transcends most, if not all, geopolitical borders.
- MAX STEINER’S MUSIC. Described by Louis as the “most beautiful woman to ever visit Casablanca,” the luminous Bergman plays Ilsa Lund, a Norwegian ex-lover of club-owner Rick Blaine. It’s the music that transports her and the house pianist Sam whose take on the 1930s song “As Time Goes By” sends her into a forlorn dream-state. Enter an enraged Rick, saying “Sam! I thought I told you never to play that –” From there, the score by Max Steiner moves to melodramatic orchestration but incorporates bits and pieces of “As Times Goes By.” Still, that wasn’t enough to win Steiner an Oscar for Best Original Score that year. But that’s okay, Steiner also lost after writing the music for that little picture called “Gone with the Wind” (1939). Heard of it?
- LOVE AMONG THE RUINS. One of the many charms of “Casablanca” is that intelligently intertwines wartime politics and romance. When the film went into general release in January of 1943, Americans already knew the city’s name because of the Casablanca conference, a meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill; the Office of War Information kept the film from troops stationed in North Africa, worried that it would stir up resentment toward Vichy supporters. “Your business is politics,” Rick tells Captain Louis Renault and his cohorts, leaving the table. “My business is running a saloon.” The irony, however, is that as hard as he tries, Rick just can’t keep politics at bay since a war-time, international romance is inherently political. During the France flashback sequence, Bergman tells Bogie: “With the whole world crumbling, we picked this time to fall in love.” “Yeah,” Bogie mumbles, “it’s pretty bad timing.”
- FOR LOVE OR VIRTUE? The major conflict of “Casablanca” resides in Rick’s last-minute decision: in the famous and final plane hangar scene, gauzed in fog and especially beautiful in black-and-white, the boozy club-owner in a white tuxedo must hang onto the woman he loves or help her and her husband, a Czech resistance leader, escape Morocco (with the Nazi noose tightening) in order to continue the collective fight against Hitler? Alongside another World War II dilemma, “Sophie’s Choice” (1982), there’s forty years before, Rick’s choice in “Casablanca.”
- LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION! Directed by Hungarian-American Michael Curtiz (“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “White Christmas”), “Casablanca” is that rare film in which production , plot, and performance are all perfectly matched. Amazingly, Warner Brothers, in the early 1940s, pumped out a picture nearly once a week and Curtiz’s classic was just one on the assembly line. And yet “Casablanca” is the exception; like fine wine, it just gets better with age. Naturally, this film has a phrase for that, too. As Sam sings, it’s “You must remember this/as times goes by…”