Catching a Classic: "Casablanca" is 75 & everybody has seen it ... right?
Casablanca is 75 years old.
I was invited to see the film at Saline's extra fancy Emagine movie theater, with its leather recliners and cafeteria-style concessions. Casablanca is a beloved favorite of the person who invited me, and despite watching it numerous times, he was looking forward to seeing the film on the big screen.
I, on the other hand, was embarrassed by my reaction to his invitation. A normal person, a person with better manners would have answered the invitation with a polite "yes" or a polite "no." Instead, I said, “I bet I could write about it from the perspective of a first-time viewer.”
I am one of those people who hasn’t seen a lot of the things that other people assume that everyone has seen. Despite being ranked among the best movies of all time, despite having won three Academy awards, Casablanca was a film I hadn’t seen until this weekend. Still, I knew about some of its elements -- barely. I was aware that there was a love story in the film. My understanding of the film had been that it was essentially propaganda. With this in mind, I fully expected to come out of the film thinking about the parallels between today’s political speech and that from the 1940s.
Instead, I was stricken by the love story.
Rick Blaine, the cynical saloon owner played by Humphrey Bogart is the sort of character I love in a movie. Blaine is handsome with a cool exterior, stylish and emotionally unavailable. He had me hooked from the moment I saw his face on the screen; immediately, I wanted him to have whatever motivated him in the film. As the other characters speculated about Blaine’s past, what that past meant, and that he had an idealist inside of him, I wanted everyone else to leave him alone. He was able to successfully operate this business where many people were able to come and enjoy themselves; why did they have to ask more of him? Why did they have to poke at his exterior shell?
“With the whole world crumbling, we pick this time to fall in love.” --Ilsa Lund
When, Ilsa Lund, Rick’s former lover makes her way to Rick’s Café Americain seeking the papers that would allow her and her husband to escape Casablanca for the West, we see a glimpse into Rick’s interior. The film then walks the viewer through the love and heartache that Rick experienced because of Ilsa. The romance between these two characters had been born within the context of World War II and shaped by the events of the war. As I was moved by the chemistry between these two characters, the way they looked at each other, the way they touched, and I wondered what it must have felt like to fall in love during the war. I contemplated how similar or dissimilar it might be to falling in love in an era where you might crawl out from underneath a shared sea of blankets to check your phone and find out that, say, eight people were killed in a terrorist attack in New York City.
As the film progressed, the viewer traveled through themes of patriotism, loyalty, and good vs. evil as they played out against the backdrop of gambling, petty theft, and the questionable use of influence. But love kept things complicated.
“Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers / as time goes by.”
--lyrics from "As Time Goes By," a song strongly associated with Casablanca.
Victor Laszlo a renowned figure in the anti-Nazi resistance approaches Rick to purchase the papers; Rick refuses to sell them to him. When asked why, he tells Victor to ask his wife, alluding to his Rick’s romance with Ilsa. Ilsa later -- after a conversation with her husband about the topic -- confronts Rick, threatening to kill him for the papers in order to get herself and her husband to safety. Rick calls her bluff and finds Ilsa unable to shoot him, finding that she still loves him. Victor acknowledges that he and Rick are in love with the same woman and bargains with Rick to find an arrangement that would tip the scale in terms of her survival. Rick makes the decision that lets the woman he loves to escape with her husband. They all stick their necks out for love right there in the midst of world war.
Even the cynical viewer’s heart is moved and just like that, I fell in love with a movie.
I left, mutating in my mind a famous line from the film:
"We’ll always have Casablanca."
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.
"Casablanca" is available to borrow from AADL.