Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Casablanca Review (Classic Write-Up)

An interesting thought occurred to me as I started to watch Casablanca for the first time; I had no idea what this classic motion picture was actually about. Oh, I'd obviously heard of Casablanca, as well as the large amount of quotes from the film seared into pop culture eternally ("Here's looking at you, kid", "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow..."., etc.), but as for the actual plot of the film? For some reason that evaded me until this very special viewing.

As it turns out, the premise of Casablanca (taking place in the titular city located in Morocco during the final month of 1941) revolves around a man named Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), owner of a high-end nightclub. He keeps himself emotionally distant to all those around him, but his tough shell is cracked once Ilsa Rund (Ingrid Bergman) returns to his life. The two had a romantic affair in Paris, France, until she left him in an abrupt fashion. She and her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), are looking to escape the country, but as things begin to spiral out of control for the couple, it becomes more and more apparent that they'll need the assistance of Blaine to escape the clutches of the Nazi's.

Plenty of incredible qualities can be found in the screenplay of Casablanca (credited to Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), but perhaps its best attribute is in how it handles the character of Rick Blaine, who could so easily have become unbearable under different storytelling circumstances. Instead, his more aloof nature early on in the story makes him a mysterious but fascinating figure. Patrons of his establishment whisper his name in reverent tones, while Blaine keeps himself isolated from the majority of those who partake in his establishment. That being said, we can also see that there's goodness in him by the way he helps out Signor Ugarte (Peter Lorre), establishing his more sentimental side while also retaining his more withdrawn nature via his humorous dialogue to Ugarte.

This right here is a phenomenal showcase for how to establish am emotionally complex character in a concise manner. To boot, him eschewing assistance for Rund in her and her husbands hour of need due to the way their relationship concluded is clearly depicted as a negative thing within the context of the story, however, since we've seen Blaine be a good person prior to this sequence, we're also rooting for him to overcome his damage, to get over himself, to be as good of a person as he can be. I know this all sounds so simplistic the way I explain it, but it's these specific character beats and narrative choices that can make or break the overall effectiveness of a character. Luckily, the script aces the landing in giving Blaine nuance in his strife, while Bogart emits charm in his performance even in the more unforthcoming moments of the character.

Meanwhile, the rest of the film surrounding our protagonist manages to be just as great, especially the performances from Bergman and actor Claude Rains, though for very different reasons. While Bergman has great chemistry with Bogart in flashback sequences and handles her characters desperation driven personality in a subdued manner in the "modern day" scenes, Rains excels with comedy. His rapport with Bogart provides many moments of amusement, especially in one exchange where he's absolutely shocked (shocked!) to find that there is gambling going in this establishment.

For me, Casablanca stands tall with the likes of It's A Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane and 12 Angry Men as the sort of classical feature that more than earns its reputation as a masterpiece. There's a reason this 1942 feature has endured for 74 years as an example of cinematic greatness, and those specific reasons are as plentiful as water in the Niagara Falls. Hell, the ending alone, a race to the airport to get Ilsa and Laszlo to safer territory, is worth the price of admission. It's a marvel of pacing and also contains an exquisite monologue from Blaine where he simultaneously urges Ilsa to get on the plane while letting go of the past that has embroiled his soul for far too long.

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