14 November 2005

100 films: Casablanca

starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains
written by: Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, from the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
directed by: Michael Curtiz
NR, 102 min, 1942, USA

Saloon keeper Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a cynical man of the world who sticks his neck out for no man. He does not drink with his customers, he doesn't even talk to them any more than he has to, and has a few functional relationships with people around him, but they're merely matters of convenience rather than actual friendships. His only allegiance is to himself and his piano player Sam. This is a wise foreign policy, as there is a war ravaging Europe and the Germans are threatening to extend it to Africa, but all that changes when freedom fighters Victor Laslo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walk into his saloon. Rick and Ilsa were lovers in a past life and in attempting to get Rick's help in securing their escape to America, they fall in love all over again. Rick is forced to get involved despite himself.

Casablanca is a rare example of a studio film being better because of the studio. If you'd been paying attention to the news around the film prior to its release in 1942, there's very little that would have given you much confidence. The original play, "Everybody Comes to Rick's", hadn't been produced when Warner Brothers bought it. One version of the script, by the Epstein twins[1], was finished days before they started filming, and another version, by Howard Koch, wasn't finished until two weeks after they started filming. These two scripts were cobbled together on the fly, with lines reportedly being added by other various people. Due to various politics, they had some trouble assembling the cast they originally wanted[2]. The whole thing had the look of a train wreck, the sort of thing you'd avoid until some good reviews started coming in. And somehow, to the amazement of pretty much everyone, it ended up being one of the greatest, most beloved films ever made. Go figure.

There are, in my humble opinion, two major reasons for this. The first is that Humphrey Bogart's Rick is perhaps the coolest main character to ever exist on film. Mostly wearing a white tuxedo with a cigarette and alcohol within reach, he is impressed by no one. A important man attempts to enter the saloon's back-room casino, but is denied by Rick. When he protests with the line "What? Do you know who I am?", Rick calmly replies "I do. You're lucky the bar's open to you." He is completely unflappable, until he sees Ilsa. You see, at heart he is really a "rank sentimentalist". The wall he has put up is simply a defense mechanism to deal with a broken heart. So he is at the same time, as Captain Renault put it, "the kind of man that... well, if I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.", and he is a vulnerable drunkard who's just as human as the rest of us. He is our fragile insecurities hidden by the person we all wish we were. The second reason is that for all the various chaos involved in writing the screenplay, it happens to be a nearly flawless one. Maybe they got lucky, but there isn't a bad (or even slightly awkward) line in the entire film. Every word feels like the perfect thing you wish you would have said. Perhaps that makes the whole thing unrealistic, but if you're going to be that sort of critic, you'll live a miserable life.

Full disclosure time: this has been one of my favorite films for a long time, so I could easily go on and on extoling it's virtues, but I'll resist that urge. To know Casablanca is to love it completely. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

[1] Philip G. Epstein was actually the grandfather of former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, who famously assembled the team that won the 2004 World Series and broke the curse of the Bambino. My good friend Nate Wilks met him in Augusta, Georgia before he got promoted to GM and relayed this bit of information to me. This immediately elevated my trust in his overall worth as a human being.

[2] Rumors that Ronald Regan was being considered for Rick were not true.