Casablanca Is Not a Great Film

CasablancaIn 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:

To this day, I do not know why the film works so well. Yes, it’s very funny. Yes, it has some of our favorite actors. And yes, it’s great anti-Nazi propaganda from a time when most people didn’t know their full villainy. But there are all kinds of things in the film that normally I would hate. I think Ilsa behaves very poorly at the beginning, not giving Rick any space to be angry when he is clearly way over the legal limit. And then she acts like she’s a schoolgirl. Rich is too clean as the antihero and Laszlo is just too perfect generally.

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.

0 thoughts on “Casablanca Is Not a Great Film

  1. Why are there no English in the Vichy territory of Casablanca?? Surely you can figure that out – the members of the British Empire ( meaning Brits plus Aussies, Canucks, Kiwis, Indians etc)were the only ones still undefeated and at war with the Axis and its allies and so they were identifiable enemies who stood to be immediately imprisoned. The various nationals in the movie were from occupied countries or perhaps ‘neutrals’ (Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey). The sense of waiting for something to happen was surely deliberate – people had been ‘waiting’ in North Africa for years in some cases, for an opportunity to get out of Europe.

  2. @R.Ward – There [i]are[/i] the British tourists. And I’m not talking about the plot when I say waiting for something to happen, I mean the actors. I still like the film, I’m just arguing that it isn’t great filmmaking. It succeeds despite itself. But regardless, it is just light entertainment. [i]The Maltese Falcon[/i] has a much stronger claim to greatness.

  3. But but but but … The Incredibles is, well, incredible. One of the finest animated films ever.

    And The Graduate? I never till Anne Bancroft seriously before that film and afterwards I wanted to take Mrs. Robinson and take her again and a third time, and …. Also, I’ve never forgiven myself for not investing every penny in plastics!

    More seriously, R. Ward makes a good point about Casablanca being a city filled with people on edge waiting for history and their own lives to be resolved. And a film made during a period when the world was filled with people — including an audience — who shared those sort of emotions. I can’t think of any other film that tries to recreate such a setting.

  4. I’m not a fan, largely because of the pedestal the movie is placed on. (I like "To Have And Have Not" better.) Thanks for mentioning that flashback scene, which is truly Max Steiner at his worst (although pretty much all of Max Steiner is at his worst.) It has one of my favorite ever pieces of dumb-dumb pseudo war-savvy dialogue:

    Rick: "Ah, that’s the new German 77. And judging by the sound, only about thirty-five miles away." (Boom.) "And getting closer every minute!"

    Turns out the British wasted time and effort inventing radar to detect incoming bombers. They could have just hired Rick and his Super War Ears.

  5. @ Mike Shupp — Once I saw a truly terrible Monroe movie on late-night TV called "Don’t Bother To Knock." There was a actress in a brief scene early on who just radiated brains and sexiness. I had to wait until the closing credits to find who it was . . . a barely-legal Anne Bancroft. Dang, Mel Brooks married well.

  6. @mike shupp – You all are taking this way too seriously. All I’m saying is that [i]Casablanca[/i] isn’t a great film. It’s still a really fun film and it probably taught me more about what it is to be a man than any other film. That’s why I act so much like Peter Lorre. Just kidding! No, really: Rick’s sacrifice at the end is noble. But it is usually compared to [i]Citizen Kane[/i]. I mean: really?! And in saying that, I’m well aware that [i]Citizen Kane[/i] is way overrated. I was just looking at the [url=http://www.afi.com/docs/100years/movies100.pdf]AFI 100 Best American Films[/url]. Four of the top 30 films star Bogart. How can you justify that? [i]To Kill a Mockingbird[/i] is down at 34. Are you really going to tell me that [i]Casablanca[/i] is a better film than [i]Mockingbird[/i], which is unquestionably a great film? [i]The Third Man[/i] is on the list, which I wouldn’t mind except that it isn’t an American film. Sneaky AFI bastards. Anyway…

    As for [i]The Incredibles[/i], I love it. I own it! Of course I do: it stars Sarah Vowell who I have a crush on.

    You do, however, understand that if [i]The Graduate[/i] were made today, the plastics joke would be, "I just want to say one word to you: computers."

    Now [i]Casablanca[/i] has aged a hell of a lot better than [i]The Graduate[/i]. Speaking of overrated: Dustin Hoffman.

    Anyway, maybe I’m just being an iconoclast. I still really like the film and I’m sure I will watch it many more times. But I don’t think it is great filmmaking. [i]Bride of Frankenstein[/i], now [i]that’s[/i] a great film! (Note: that’s not a joke.)

  7. @JMF – That was very funny. But I think you are being mean about Max Steiner. Yeah, he was kind of a hack. But that’s what film composing is. That’s why I very rarely mention one in the birthday posts. There are a couple I think are particularly good (eg Howard Shore). And then there is Hans Zimmer, who actually isn’t a human; he’s a device they plug into films to make them sound exactly the same as every other film that the Hans Zimmer device was plugged into.

  8. @ Frank — You’re probably right about film composing. I wonder how many times a composer has come up with some great, subtle music and the idiot director said "that’s really not what I was looking for." Plus I imagine if the movie just doesn’t inspire you, there’s not much you can do besides plug away. Unless you’re Ennio Morricone.

    Of course Hans Zimmer is a human, silly. He just changed his name from "Vangelis."

  9. @mike Shupp – Yeah, you’re right. My first idea was "internet" but then I went with "computers," which makes it worse. The joke is that it is old news but not so old than even the old guy would know. Actually, my computer partner recently had a client who was gushing about the "Microsoft Cloud." Had he heard about it? So that’s about right.

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