Casablanca On the Big Screen Again for 80th Anniversary

It seems silly to recap the plot of Casablanca, or to sing its praises, it’s all been said before, but, by definition a classic must be rediscovered and treasured by successive generations. For those in Cape Town who have not yet seen it, your chance is now; Casablanca is showing on the big screen at the Labia Theatre until 3 March.

In 1941, Casablanca is home to Rick’s Café Américain, a nightclub replete with local authorities, spies, rebels, refugees, and Nazis. Most, including expatriate pessimist and club owner Rick, have come from Paris, and look to planes leaving for America with longing. The refugees are trying for exit visas with the spies, the authorities may supply them for favors, and the rebels need them more than most, especially with the Nazis exerting their mounting influence. Rick allows all this without interference because, much like his home country at the time the film is set, he sticks his neck out for nobody. Why is Rick in Casablanca? Well, in one of those perfectly terse and clever remarks of his, he surmises: “I was misinformed”. Like a lot of Rick’s lines it’s sharp and disarming, but betrays that he’d really rather keep away from the true answer.

We don’t have to wait long for it; Ilsa Lund walks in with famed fugitive, resistance fighter and perennial bore Victor Laszlo on her arm, and from the look on Rick’s closest friend, Sam the piano player’s face, Rick had no mind to ever see her again. She left him in Paris, and he doesn’t know why. It stings to have reverted, only to see her with an idealist twice the man he ever was. Rick, to protect from being wounded again, tells himself a lie about who he is; he wears the uniform of a cynic. She wants to explain, he wants to hurt her and win her back in equal measure. Resentment and pity fly between them, but they can’t stay away from each other, even as Ilsa and Laszlo work to secure visas for their escape. Of course, who has the visas but Rick?

Why do we want Ilsa to stoop? For Rick and her to reunite, and leave a resistance fighter brokenhearted? It’s a fundamental quality of movies that we should identify with the conflicted lovers, and not the hero. Rick, like all of us, does less than he should. We identify with Rick because of his shortcomings and endearing personality, but also because it must be impossible not to fall for Ingrid Bergman. She is luminous and vulnerable, as committed to idealism as Lazlo, but more human in her capability to be governed by her passions. Bergman’s performance is desperately emotional, there is so much pain buried in the shimmering flecks of light in her tears, placed carefully with pinpoint lighting by Arthur Edison.

That sort of gorgeous, precise technique comes down to the fact that Casablanca was a product of the Hollywood studio system; not exceptionally artful, but made with pure and perfect storytelling. Everyone involved is working at the top of their game, and no one domineering talent shapes the film (the best case could be made for producer Hal B. Wallis), it’s all on point. It’s stars were tailored in, for instance, low brimmed hats to hide their eyes behind in retreat, and smart costumes to make Bogart dapper and Bergman stunning, without seeming out of place among the marvelous company of characters (mostly European émigrés making up probably the strongest supporting cast ever assembled for a studio picture).

Then the spaces, shot entirely on sets constructed at Warner Bros., draped in delicate, flattering black and white, and then stark shadows and obscuring mists later in the film. These sets are unconvincing, the same can be said for the backscreen projection and model planes that make up the film’s special effects. But, Casablanca is very theatrical, and a film as melodramatic, sentimental and filled with clichés as this humbly requests that you buy into the staginess of it all, it helps the dramatics go down. As Umberto Eco put it: “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us.”

It was rare, and remains so, to see a Hollywood film where love doesn’t conquer all. Where, for the good of the world, and the betterment of those involved, the characters put themselves aside entirely, and for this conclusion to satisfy audiences. “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans”. And it certainly does satisfy audiences, since this story about fallible people, who we see ourselves in, rising to the occasion, brings them back again and again. Of course Casablanca is a classic by right of its quality, but it is also one because the more you see it, the better you understand all the power and intricacies of the central relationship, the more you get out of it. People keep watching Casablanca because it keeps getting better.

Having just seen it again, in a theatre… one of many times, it was better than before. The character’s sacrifices were more admirable. There was more delight in their strained friendships. The passionate rendition of “La Marseilles” was more moving. The chills were stronger when Ilsa walked into Rick’s, slowly realizing she’d find him there, and knowingly witnessing the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

It wasn’t enjoyed alone. There was an elderly couple, who laughed at all the jokes, and a young couple, who turned to each other when Sam started singing “As Time Goes By”. Our love for Casablanca is a great collective experience among movie lovers, watching it should be the same.