As I announced yesterday, I’m going to watch all 100+ movies from the AFI 100 Years 100 movies list, which lists the greatest American films of all time (or up to 2007 at any rate).
Today we begin our adventure with Casablanca, which placed #2 on the 1998 list and #3 on the 2007 list.
Here’s the film’s IMDB page if you want more info. Here’s the synopsis from imdb, too: “Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate (Humphrey Bogart) meets a former lover (Ingrid Bergman), with unforeseen complications.”
Namely, the former lover is married to one of the leaders of the resistance movement against the Nazis in WWII. It feels a little silly to recap the plot for Casablanca for goodness’ sakes but, hey, what the hell. Maybe there’s someone on some corner of the internet who doesn’t know this movie.
I actually found my cultural familiarity with this film hurt my viewing experience at times. And how could it not? So many of the lines from this are iconic now. How can “Here’s looking at you, kid” resonate well in its proper context when it’s been parodied and copied and homaged to death? This happened for a lot of the moments in this film– this jarring dissonance where suddenly I would leave the newness of watching this movie for the first time and instead find myself hearing a line I’ve heard a million times before.
Still, that said, I can totally see why each of those moments have become iconic. The three-beat on “Here’s looking at you, kid” was just magnificent. I knew how this movie would end, I knew most of the plot and at least half the dialogue and it still got me in the gut when Rick chucks Ilsa under the chin and says that famous line one last time.
So, because of the cultural zeitgeist around this film were there any surprises left for me as a new viewer? Oh hell-to-the-yes. For one thing, I really enjoyed the relationship between Rick and Renault (Claude Rains). Theirs is probably one of the first bromances captured on film and just as interesting and complicated a relationship as the one between Rick and Ilsa. Rick and Renault certainly have more laughs together than Rick and Ilsa ever do. For instance, this moment, which was probably my favorite bit of dialogue from the whole movie:
Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
Captain Renault: That is my *least* vulnerable spot.
Bros before hos, Bogie.
The other big surprise for me was actually Victor Lazslo (played by Paul Henreid), Isla’s husband. Victor is the metaphorical wrench thrown into our two lovers’ romance. I’d always been led to believe that the Victor character was boring, unromantic, the lesser choice compared to Bogart’s Rick.
Um, no. I call bullshit. I thought Victor was downright dreamy.
Granted I’m not a huge Bogie fan, but I feel like the film really goes to great lengths to show that Victor IS the better choice for Ilsa in the bigger sense. Which I think some viewers miss? Maybe. (Maybe I’ve just watched When Harry Met Sally too many times). But thank God Victor is so wonderful, otherwise we’d all be howling for blood at the end of the movie.
This ties into a lot of stuff I’ve been reading lately how the ending has to be right for the movie. This is why it rarely if ever works when studios tack a new, more “commercial” ending onto something. The truly great films are ones that build to only one possible ending and one ending alone. Great movies can’t end any other way and be satisfying. And this movie really does build toward Ilsa leaving Rick, again, for Victor. As I was watching I couldn’t imagine any scenario in which I would have been satisfied with Ilsa leaving Victor for Rick. And I’m a freaking romance writer! I’m ALL ABOUT the happy ending for star-crossed lovers. Yet this movie totally made me root against them. Well done, Casablanca. The ending was inevitable and perfect. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
All right, now let’s do a little round-up.
Can I see why this movie has become a classic? Most definitely. This movie really is brilliant. The characters, the drama, the atmosphere. Just the world-building of the city of Casablanca and Rick’s Cafe in particular. The sense of community was amazing. All the staff at Rick’s, it really felt like a family. And the city itself was wonderfully drawn. With just a few glimpses and quick scenes we get a great sense of the place. This movie really is pitch perfect. I’ve heard in the past that this movie is slow, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. There wasn’t a moment where I was bored or waiting for something exciting to happen. Casablanca really does deserve to be ranked with the best of the best in American cinema.
Favorite moment from the film? Hands down, the scene with “La Marseillaise.” I actually went back and re-watched just this one part. I still get goosebumps re-watching it. Basically, for those of you like me who have not seen this, a bunch of rowdy Germans are drunk and taunting the rest of the patrons in Rick’s bar by singing the German national anthem. Victor, like the rebel bad ass he is, storms down stairs and tells Rick’s band to play “La Marseillaise.” They do and, well…just watch.
Overall Rating: **** (I really liked it)
For tomorrow: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid