Sunday, 24 February 2013

Casablanca

A classic film from the golden age of cinema, rightly regarded as one of the finest.


You have definitely heard of this movie. At least, if you haven't explicitly heard of it, you have heard it quoted or seen it referenced a thousand times over. Such lines as "Play it once, Sam. For old times sake", or "Here's looking at you kid", or to my surprise, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship..." This is a film that has totally saturated pop culture, influenced many films for decades to come, and is held up as a contender for the 'greatest movie ever made'.

And I liked it. In fact, I think other people will like it too. While it exists in our cultural memory as a sweeping romance film - and, yes, the romance is integral to the plot - it's actually more of a drama/thriller, centring around the tension between characters trying to escape from Casablanca. The film was made and is set in the midst of the second world war, in a town in French Morocco called Casablanca. A melting pot of different cultures, Casablanca is located on the northern tip of Africa. In 1942 it is ruled by the French, who are occupied by the Germans, but is far enough from both that neither exerts complete control over it. Refugees from across Europe have made their way here in order to escape the war, by boarding a boat for Lisbon, and eventually getting to the United States. (The film was written before the States joined the war, but was released the year after.)


So, Casablanca is kind of the Mos Eisley cantina of WWII, if Han Solo had owned the place. Yes, the loveable rogue from Star Wars is a spitting image of Humphrey Bogart's Rick, who owns a diner in Casablanca. He maintains a hard neutrality when dealing with politics, motivated by a cynicism and self interest. A friend entrusts him with the care of two exit visas, obtained by murdering some German soldiers. When the friend is arrested Rick doesn't lift a finger in his aid, but nor does he reveal his possession of the visas. Much of the films' drama hinges on this inciting incident; who knows about the visas, where are they, what will Rick do with them?

Like Han Solo, Rick's hard-hearted exterior is softened by the arrival of a woman; an old flame by the name of Ilsa. Their past together is shrouded in mystery, as is her reason for leaving him at the train station in Paris, and her connection to the French resistance leader, Victor Lazlo. If you're a romance fan, perhaps the love triangle setup will appeal to you, but for me it was completely secondary to the political intrigue that was going on around it. Ricks character arc is great as well, although Ilsa and Lazlo don't seem to have one.

Apart from all this mystery, the movie is just a lot of fun. The dialogue is witty and breathlessly paced, the characters are fun to be around, even the small parts such as Ricks business rival, and Sam, the piano man. Rick has a chummy relationship with a senior German officer, which is a lot of fun to watch (especially when the officer's superiors come to town).

There are brief action scenes that are bloodless, and not particularly spectacular, but satisfying. The music is particularly good (with some grand sequences to which the soundtrack is integral) And while many of the technical aspects of the film are dated, they serve to uphold the story which still resonates. Casablanca is a great movie, and still enjoyable to watch to this day.