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Friday, January 22, 2016

CASABLANCA -- Movie Review by Porfle

CASABLANCA (1942) is one of those films which we can now look back on as an undisputed classic in which everything seems to come together perfectly.  At the time, however, it was regarded by the studio as just another production, whose script, based on the unproduced play "Everyone Comes to Rick's", was being written on the fly and didn't even have a proper ending worked out until shortly before it was shot.

 The story takes place in 1942 in the Vichy-controlled Moroccan city of Casablanca, which overflows with refugees desperately struggling to gain passage to America and elsewhere in the free world to escape Nazi encroachment in Europe .  Exiled American (and ex-freedom fighter) Rick Blaine, played to perfection by Bogart , runs a nightclub called "Rick's Café Américain" in which many of these people meet to buy and sell the hope for freedom. 

 Also on hand is Rick's friend, Captain Louis Renault (THE INVISIBLE MAN's Claude Rains in one of his best performances), the head of the local police and an opportunist of the first order whose greatest pleasure is accepting bribes both monetary and sexual.  Renault openly admires Rick's similarly self-serving qualities and even displays a platonic crush on him ("If I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick," he admits). 

We wonder how Renault would react if Rick started reverting back to his old, noble self, especially in the presence of the vile German officer Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI,  THE MAN WHO LAUGHS), newly-arrived and on the trail of famed Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried). 

 While Rick starts out as an anti-hero, he gradually and without really meaning to becomes more heroic as the story progresses.  Early on, Peter Lorre's oily Ugarte--who recently killed some German soldiers to attain two letters of transit to sell in Casablanca--begs Rick for help before he's captured ("Hide me, Rick!  Hide me!").  Rick's terse response: "I stick my neck out for nobody." 

And indeed, Rick seems grudgingly content to sit out the current world war as manager of his bustling nightclub until one night, when an old flame named Ilsa (the utterly radiant Ingrid Bergman) comes through the front door with her husband, none other than Victor Laszlo.  Rick, once an idealistic crusader himself but now cynical and disillusioned, has never forgiven Ilsa for inexplicably running out on him during the fall of Paris, at the height of their love affair--not knowing that Laszlo, whom they both thought dead, had turned up alive.

 When Rick obtains the two letters of transit from Ugarte, he has the means of whisking Ilsa back to America with him and resuming their love affair while leaving Laszlo behind to carry on alone and devastated.  But will he do something so selfish and immoral?  Or regain his soul and commit the supreme act of sacrifice for the sake not only of Ilsa and her husband but of the free world itself?

 This is the dilemma which gives CASABLANCA much of its power to effect us emotionally while simmering with a growing suspense.  As a film, everything clicks-- Michael Curtiz' sharp direction, the gorgeous black-and-white photography, great performances by a stellar cast, a powerful musical score by Max Steiner, and a story that's always totally engaging. 

 Action and romance are perfectly balanced and compliment each other, while comedic touches abound, especially from the delightfully corruptible Renault,  the antics of Rick's eccentric staff (including S.Z. Sakall), and a fez-topped Sydney Greenstreet (again) as a competing club owner who wants to acquire Rick's place along with his loyal piano-playing band leader Sam (Dooley Wilson, who croons the classic "As Time Goes By").

But when Laszlo exhorts Sam and his band to strike up a stirring rendition of "La Marseillaise" in response to Strasser and his fellow German officers belting out "Die Wacht am Rhein", the move (which Rick okays with a subtle nod of his head) not only stirs the patriotic fervor of everyone else in the club but may bring the viewer to tears as well.  (Steiner uses this same anthem as a fanfare for his own musical credit during the main titles.)

The climax of the film takes place at the airport, a focal point for dreams of freedom throughout the story.  Rick now literally holds the ticket to a new life with Ilsa, who will join him if he asks her to.  Yet his newly reawakened sense of duty to humanity now fights for precedence.  Meanwhile Renault, his own duty to Strasser  putting him at odds with his friend, awaits Rick's decision. 

 When the plane fires up its engines, Steiner's music swells, and there comes a stunning, perfectly-edited series of  closeups of Bogart,  Bergman, and Henried which generate a dramatic tension few films could ever attain.  It's pure, undiluted Hollywood magic at its most sublime, and the resolution which follows couldn't be more perfect.  CASABLANCA is an intricate jigsaw puzzle of seemingly disparate pieces which fit together to form a beautiful picture.



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