Casablanca is one of those movies that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. It’s full of intrigue, romance, Nazi’s, and liquor – really, all the elements you need to make a stellar film. Humphrey Bogart plays Rick, the infamous and tortured Hemingway hero who operates a local American “gin joint” in Casablanca, a refuge for refugees during World War 2. A woman from the past shakes up his world when she returns with her fugitive, activist husband, Victor Laszlo, in search of exit papers to escape to America. Soon Rick finds himself involved in a love triangle with the beautiful Isla Lund and Laszlo. The police prefect in Casablanca, Captain Renault, is working closely with the Gestapo to detain Laszlo, who has been a fugitive from the Third Reich ever since he escaped from a concentration camp. The two storylines eventually collide at the end of the film, when Rick’s ruse to whisk Isla off to American unfolds and Laszlo ends up on the plane as Rick watches from the tarmac with Renault. Although Casablanca is over seventy years old, it is just as entertaining as any modern drama. The inciting incident comes for Rick when Isla shows up in his “gin joint, out of all the gin joints anywhere in the world.”
The film follows Freytag’s pyramid loosely. There are a series of events that set off the storyline, starting with the announcement of a murderer on the loose in Casablanca and the scene where individuals are being rounded up in the street. That sets up the background neatly, and lays out a few plot points to be developed. Everything is connected, which helps make the story more intriguing. Few people, especially in 2016, can relate to an alcoholic ex-pat who simply gets caught up in the shady activities of a few people, but you end up rooting for Rick to get the girl and get on the plane and leave Laszlo behind. Character development isn’t incredibly well done, but it’s done enough through dialogue between certain individuals that a viewer doesn’t really need a whole lot of extra information. There are quite a few extraneous characters to keep up with, especially since most of the characters do actually add to the plot in some way. My issue with the characters is that they’re very plot driven – we get that Renault is corrupt, but we don’t really get why he is the way he is. Maybe that’s my own baggage getting in the way, as I really appreciate when a character is well rounded and seems “real.” The only one who felt remotely “real” to me was Rick, and even then he just acted like a jerk for most of the movie. You see him begin to come around towards the end, as he decided to do the right thing and send Laszlo to American instead of trap him in Casablanca with the Gestapo, but that was even a little predictable. As for Ilsa, she was pretty flat. Her stereotype is that of the beautiful woman who weaves a tangled triangle of lovers, and she is almost completely driven by her emotions. The dialogue is one of the best parts about this movie. It’s so accurate for the characters that you expect them to say what comes out of their mouth.
That being said, if you don’t analyze Casablanca and the different aspects of the film and just watch it for what it is, then it’s an excellent movie. But the more I think about it, the more faults I begin to find, and I’m not sure that I’m appreciating it for what it is. After all, the movie was filmed in 1942 in black and white, almost exclusively on studio sets. Like Rick, the moral of the movie is a little difficult for me to corner. Does one do what’s best for love, or do you do what’s best for yourself? Do you devote your life to a cause like Laszlo, or do you take care of only yourself, with little regard for actions of others, like Rick? Do you go with the beautiful woman on the plane to America, or do you stay in limbo with the rest of the war refugees? These are all important questions in the film.
In terms of mood, Casablanca did have me yearning for war torn Europe in a weird way. The inhabitants of Casablanca itself are so far removed from the conflict, that they’re able to enjoy these new lives and forget about the horrors happening back home. Many of them are waiting indefinitely to travel to America, but they can have a drink while they wait at Rick’s. The film made me want to fall in love with someone during a time of crisis, which probably wouldn’t make for a very healthy relationship, as demonstrated by the feelings Rick has towards Ilsa after he leaves her in Paris and then appears again, years later, with her husband. Regular people just don’t behave that way.
A definite strength of the film was the storyline, which kept it moving and kept it interesting. The characters worked well as instruments of the plot, but not as individuals in their own right. It works well seventy years later because it harkens back to the “golden age” of films; dashing, brooding men, beautiful women, exotic locales, and more intrigue that one can stomach – while not being cheesy or overdone. I’m tempted to give it an A, but my more cynical side is leaning towards a B+. Casablanca, while an excellent film, was certainly not designed to be authentic to any particular aspect of the real world. It feels like a movie, designed purely for entertainment and consumption, more so than many other movies I’ve seen. I didn’t watch this expecting to relate to the characters, but I was a little surprised when I didn’t find them very relatable by the end (coming from the girl who literally related to the ghost-possessed Dad in Insidious, this is a point of contention for sure.)
In sum, I liked Casablanca, but I didn’t like thinking about why I liked it. I didn’t like breaking down the characters or their actions or even the plot; because that made me realize how little there really was to break down. Hollywood doesn’t make movies like this anymore for a bunch of reasons (namely, color film) but also because I think American audiences want more depth from their films, which is what Casablanca was lacking. So, here’s looking at you, Casablanca, for making me question why everyone raves about this film so much.