Reviewed Jul 24, 2012
[Breaking my self-imposed 160-character limit when reviewing my favourite films of all time. This is my #1]
Simplicity. If you have to sum up in one word why Casablanca is a classic, this has to be the one. For a film with, by all accounts, such a difficult route to the screen (it was shot sequentially because the script wasn’t finished when filming began) it’s amazing that what we got was so tight, so entertaining and so timeless.
Although the plot sounds reasonably sophisticated on paper (an American ex-revolutionary battles with his conscience, whilst trying to help refugees – and an old flame – elude the grip of the authorities in Nazi-occupied North Africa) the film itself positively glides along, presenting a large cast filled with a blend of caricatures and unique characters spouting pithy, sharp dialogue whilst the shadow of evil – both human and bureaucratic – looms.
You could simplistically call Casablanca a suspense thriller, but the film shrugs-off easy categorisation as it encompasses comedy, melodrama, romance, action and adventure. Despite some dodgy accents it also has authentic overseas performers, helping provide a sense of place – it’s quite an achievement for a film to make you feel you’re in some baking North African slum when in reality it was mostly shot on some anonymous Warner backlot.
The stars (and there are many) give performances that, although many are little more than cameos, are up there with their career bests and each is nuanced enough that you truly believe in their moral desperation and ambivalence. This makes any redemption they achieve all the more believable. It also helps that – Nazis aside – the different nationalities are portrayed with an even-handedness that makes you yearn for the days when Hollywood movie characters weren’t bloodlessly divided into America vs. The World.
In fact, even though the American Rick has a change of heart and finds peace, it’s the French who are the true heroes. This is very much a film of both resistance and ‘La Résistance’ with the triumphant vigour of Le Marseillaise ringing in your ears throughout. In the most stirring scene, the Nazi officers’ strident trumpeting of ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ is roundly and loudly quashed by the locals’ joyful rendition of the French national anthem.
There are so many glorious exchanges, monologues and snappy comebacks – many of them passing into everyday language – that very few films since (bar the odd Billy Wilder movie) have even come close to equalling. And the love story is convincing and filled with all the bitterness and hopefulness doomed romances bring. It never becomes mushy, daft nor takes easy shortcuts to a hollow happy ending. In fact, as the film closes on its bittersweet note, and two men – newly become friends – walk off into the darkness, we feel they’ve taken the hard route to their mutual accord. Better yet, the audience feels privileged to have been part of their unique adventure, even for so short a duration. Perhaps that’s why I can’t help going back, as time goes by (groan...)