Jan 3, 2014

[Movies] Casablanca (1942)

Since my partner had to be with his family during New Year's Eve, I found myself loading movie after movie to help kill the time. And one thing led to another and I found myself watching the timeless classic Casablanca well before it was time for fireworks.

This wasn't my first time to watch the movie, but it has been quite a while since I had last seen it in its entirety. I still almost random memories of different parts of the movie but no coherent flow for the whole story. So I was definitely due for a refresher in order to make sure I had the story straight in terms of my memory.

A lot of folks list this as one of the greatest movies of all time, and I can totally respect that. The movie is certainly a great piece of work - one that nicely uses the rich setting of World War II in order to craft a story of romance, drama and intrigue that stands the test of time.

I could be so lucky to craft a story with this sort of narrative strength and cohesion.

Synopsis: Casablanca is a 1942 romantic drama movie based on the unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Brunett and Joan Alison. The movie was directed by Michael Curtiz with a screenplay written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, and Casey Robinson. The movie was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won three including Best Picture and Best Director.

It is 1940 Vichy French controlled Casablanca is also home to Rick's Café Américain - a night club and gambling den that caters to the many people trying to secure passage to the United States, which remains neutral in the war at this point. The cafe is indeed owned by a Rick (Humphrey Bogart), an American who proclaims to be completely neutral in all matters. One of the cafe's patrons is Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who tells Rick of letters of transit that he had secured from two German couriers.

Around the same time, Ilsa (Ingrid Berman), Rick's former lover, arrives in Casablanca and shows up at Rick's cafe. She is traveling with a somewhat infamous Czech resistance leader, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who turns out to be Ilsa's husband as well. They need the letters of transit to help Victor escape Nazi hands, but unfortunately Ugarte had been arrested before they arrived at the club. Now they two are stuck in Casablanca and it only seems to be a matter of time before Germans decide he's worth more dead than alive or something along those lines.

The story has one of the most interesting settings I've encountered in a film. I'll have to admit. As much as you could tag this as a World War II movie, at the end of the day it's set in a city that's removed from the primary theater of operations and yet retains some strategic value. Thus the movie captures an interesting part of the war where you have people of various nationalities trying to escape Nazi atrocities or just hope to find a neutral place to hide out from the war.

Humphrey Bogart is hardly the sort of actor you'd expect to be the lead in what is essentially a romance story. However there he was being the rather sour, bitter and jaded Sam and doing so in a rather impressive manner. And the story seemed almost designed specifically for Bogart's personality, and I wouldn't be too surprised if this had in fact been the case. It was a role that was different from a lot of the other leading male roles in romances at the time. Despite his sometimes stoic demeanor, he still comes on as rather dashing and charming in his own unique way.

I was a little underwhelmed by Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa. She wasn't bad - just not all that distinct or notable in her role. I'm not quite decided it that was because of how the character was written, how women were expected to perform in movies at the time or just Bergman's acting. Given all that Ilsa had gone through, I sort of expected her to be a little stronger, but again that may just be me basing my assessment off more modern  sensibilities.

The cast as a whole was wonderfully diverse featuring talents of different nationalities. It was a nice way to really make sure Casablanca felt like this little island of humanity for refugees escaping the horrors of the war. And so it really felt like a bit of a spy caper with practically everyone looking for those missing letters of transit that represented freedom for anyone who could find them.

Casablanca is indeed a timeless classic that marries a complex situation like the war with a fundamentally key story like a romance. It still rates a solid 5 underground rebels hoping for French independence out of a possible 5.

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