by Ron Swanson
One of cinema’s most beloved and iconic films, Casablanca will be in selected cinemas in time for Valentine’s Day. The re-release is to mark the 70th anniversary of a film whose reputation has never dimmed. A winner of three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Curtiz and Best Writing – Casablanca is revered as one of cinema’s greatest, most indelible romances. In 2007, the American Film Institute voted it the third greatest film of all time, behind only Citizen Kane (1941) and The Godfather (1972).
In its most basic form, Casablanca is a love triangle. At the three points are Rick (Humphrey Bogart*), Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor (Paul Henreid). When the film begins, Rick is a cynical saloon owner in Casablanca. Ilsa and Victor, meanwhile, are husband and wife, and arrive in Casablanca in order to fly to America and escape capture from the Nazis, like most of the town’s sorry inhabitants. What sets them aside from the rest, though, is that Victor is terribly important to Allied hopes of defeating the Nazis, and that Rick and Ilsa were once lovers, and it’s only being spurned by her that has turned him into the man who says things like, “I stick my neck out for nobody!”
Much of Casablanca’s appeal comes not from the romance, but the performances and dialogue. It’s a truly exceptional cast, with Bogart at the top of his game, and Bergman and Henreid make a beautiful, noble couple. Then there are stand-out supporting performances from two of cinema’s greatest ever actors, Peter Lorre and, especially, the peerless Claude Rains. Rains has great chemistry with Bogart, in particular, and the dialogue sizzles, throughout. You can talk long and hard about what makes romantic films click. Chemistry is undeniably important, but Bogart and Bergman have nowhere near the spark that he would have later with Lauren Bacall. Even so, Casablanca is loved far more than To Have and Have Not (1944) or even The Big Sleep (1946).
Several of my favourite screen romances are set during, or just after, times of war; films as varied as Brief Encounter (1945) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Notorious (1946) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). There’s something about the juxtaposition between fear and desire that sparks huge empathy in a popular audience – hell even crappy war-time romances can deliver big box-office cf: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Even that, though, doesn’t quite explain the enduring appeal of Casablanca. You never really feel like anyone’s in any danger here. Rick is perfectly capable of issuing a sarcastic put-down to put the Nazis in their place, while in the film’s best scene, Laszlo leads a rousing chorus of La Marseillaise in front of all of the German officers.
Some romantic films work because they entice fractions of the audience’s memories, and enable them to extrapolate their own romantic histories onto the characters. It’s in an entirely different league to Casablanca, of course, but that’s the way that Drake Doremus’ recent box-office misfire Like Crazy reduced me to a puddle of tears. Others, like A Matter of Life and Death work because they show us a fantasy version of love; no less than a love that can bring a man back to life. This is in contrast to Brief Encounter, say, or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, two very earthy romances, films where compromise seems to be admirable, and the pain and constant panic of love is presented as part of the deal. That’s not a trait that modern romances are accustomed to. Now, we have films where a third party is discarded, with nary a moment’s thought, because filmmakers think that audiences only care about the immediacy of happiness.
When thinking about Casablanca, that’s a thought that kept coming back to me. Nobody in Casablanca is truly happy. Rick sacrifices the love of his life, Ilsa leaves with the man she loves, but not the man she loves most, and Laszlo is aware of his wife’s feelings for Rick. Throughout the film, Rick is unhappy because Ilsa is around once more. Ilsa is unhappy at imposing upon her former lover and Laszlo, ever the hero, is willing to sacrifice himself, his ideals and the hopes of the Allied nations so his wife can be safe, even if it is with her former lover.
Casablanca is not a film of romance in the way that current audiences understand it. It’s a film where the romance comes from individual sacrifice for the greater good. Each of the three main characters are decent, good people. Each does remarkable things. Where the romance comes, for a male audience at least, is in the romantic notion of being a hero. Rick Blaine is a hero, without any qualification. He lets what would make him happy go – because, as he himself puts it: “the problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.
Sometimes, for some people, it’s hard to believe in a realistic romance. I will, literally, watch any old shit if it has a love story as part of it, but if I really want to be moved, to feel like love is possible? I’ll choose to watch something timeless, something that makes me think humanity isn’t so bad, after all, and make me wish that I could choose the better way, rather than the easy one. That’s why Casablanca has endured, and is a Valentine’s Day classic.
* Contrary to rumour and legend, Rick was never to have been played by Ronald Reagan.
Casablanca is released in key cities on 10 February