In 1992, I went to the Cinema 21 in Portland, Oregon to see Casablanca. It was the 50th anniversary release of the film and the place was packed. I had never seen the film in the theater, so that was very nice. But I remember walking out afterwards, and hearing a guy say, “I never knew it was such a funny film.” That really annoyed me. Most people really do need a bunch of other people around to know that something is funny. It was written by the Epstein twins—some of the best comedy writers of the time. And it is filled with great one liners like when asked what kind of man Captain Renault is, Rick answers, “Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so.” But I should have been more forgiving; after all, there is that oh very serious ending where Rick says, “Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” And I think that’s the problem, because that isn’t a very serious ending.
This afternoon, I watched the film again. I watch it a lot when I don’t want to think. It’s like candy. But this time, I realized something about it: it isn’t like a Snickers bar; it’s like cotton candy—there’s really nothing to it. Now, this isn’t exactly a sudden realization to me. On director Michael Curtiz’s birthday, I wrote:
I added that it was still one of my favorite films. I think I may have crossed some kind of line with it. Because this time it really bugged me. Let me go over a few things.
The flashback scene, which was written by Howard Koch, is really almost unwatchable. It was a mistake regardless. The film could have provided all that information via dialog in the present. It’s almost nine minutes to tell us two things: Rick and Ilsa were lovers in France (which we already knew) and Ilsa stood him up when they were supposed to leave together. It’s lazy writing too. And then the follow-up just makes it worse. Ilsa finds Rick drunk out of his mind, and he is mean to her and bitter. So she spends the next half hour of the film angry at him, when we finally learn what happened. That wouldn’t be so bad if 25 minutes earlier Rick hadn’t apologized and asked her to explain. Rick comes off pretty well in all this, but Ilsa comes off alternatively as spiteful and juvenile. Feminists should hate this film.
Speaking of feminists, are we really supposed to like Renault? Here is the most corrupt man in the world who is a Nazi collaborator. He blackmails pretty young women into having sex with him in exchange for allowing them to get out of the country. And his turn into a good guy suddenly at the end is not convincing. But the worst of it is how Rick plays him to allow Laszlo to escape. Rick’s plan is so pathetic, a child could see through it. And then in the end, by letting Rick go, you know someone else will just get set up for the crime.
I don’t think so. Rick is supposed to be the most noble character in the film, yet he makes all his money swindling desperate people who are fleeing the Nazis. When he quits the business, he sells it to an even more unethical person. He shows a very slight regard to Ugarte when he learns about his impending arrest, but that’s about as far as his care goes for anyone else. He seems to ship Ilsa away with Laszlo more to stick it to Major Strasser than anything (and maybe as a form of suicide). He claims that Sam is his friend but he abandons him.
Other than Rick’s staff—who all seem more like his slaves—there really are no characters to like in the film. And the only acting done in the film is by Peter Lorre as Ugarte. I have always felt that the film took a great hit after Ugarte left—there isn’t much vitality. And his capture always seemed to be a bit too pat, “But we know already who the murderer is.” Please! What’s more, Ugarte is the only major character who is honest. At least he isn’t conning people with a rigged roulette wheel. The only bad things he does is steal from and kill Nazis. In the context of the film, that makes him a good guy.
Other than Lorre, the acting consists of a lot of mugging and thoughtful poses. And that, I think, is what most bothered me watching it this time. Everyone just seems to be waiting around for that moment in the film when whatever is supposed to happen happens. It’s no surprise that the film has never been successfully redone (as remake or just by trying to do the same kind of thing, like Passage to Marseille). It only works because we all agree that we want it to work. It is like watching a play at Boy Scout camp. All our friends are in it, it has some laughs, and it seems like it is about something.
Certainly Casablanca manages those first two, but the last? No. And I think the whole thing being a metaphor for America’s entry into World War II is really pushing it. As I discussed with Ken Burns’ Cold War The War, the idea is a bit pumped up. But regardless, it wasn’t the United States joining up with France. At least we do have some Russian characters in the film, most notably the charming Sascha who seems to be in love with all women. But other than the ugly tourists, there are no English characters in the film at all. What’s that all about?
Don’t get me wrong. Casablanca is a nice and fun film. But it is no more serious than The Incredibles. It should never be held up as a great film. But there is a long history of people holding up what are nothing but passable entertainments as great movie making. Another is The Graduate. And I say that while proudly proclaiming that It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday are great films. But a film just can’t be great when it tries to be serious (And even important!) but is just silly.