“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.”
I remember the first time I saw Casablanca. All I could think was, I get it. I get why this movie is still so well known, heavily referenced and so firmly in the zeitgeist more than half a century after its release. I get why Humphrey Bogart is someone I’ve recognised my entire life, even though he died almost 30 years before I was born. I think I’d seen most of The Maltese Falcon on telly once as a kid, but Casablanca was the one that really sealed the deal in making me realise Bogart’s name in the credits was reason enough to watch absolutely anything. Watching Casablanca today for this AFI countdown, is the third time I’ve seen the movie. And none of that initial awe has worn off in those three viewings.
It’s 1941, and as Nazi occupation spreads across Europe, the African city of Casablanca becomes a heavily trafficked port for refugees trying to escape Hitler’s control and make their way to the neutral United States. This kind of passage requires knowing the right people who can help subvert official channels. People like Rick Blaine (Bogart). A former gun runner and mercenary, he now runs a nightclub in the titular city where back room deals go down.
Things are going just fine until Lisa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks through Rick’s front door. A former flame who seemingly abandoned him in France years earlier as the Nazi’s invaded, Rick has been cold and cynical ever since. Even worse than just showing up, Lisa even has a new husband in tow, Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlow. An idealistic freedom fighter, Laszlow is Rick’s moral opposite. Even worse, Laszlow wants Rick to help him and Lisa escape via some transit papers that Rick has come into possession of through petty crook, Ugarte (Peter Lorre).
Made just after America got actively involved in WWII, it’s interesting to see their perspective on the war. Rick is a former gun runner and mercenary, but because all of his worst decisions and intentions are driven by a broken heart, we know that he’s a good guy, deep down.
And maybe because things like the landing at Normandy hadn’t happened yet, Casablanca is a surprisingly un-jingoistic, flag waving patriotic-fest. Laszlow is an uncompromising hero with honourable intentions and beliefs he’s willing to die for. But this isn’t Laszlow’s movie, this is Rick’s movie. And while some of his decisions might border on honorlable, they’re motivated by his love for Lisa, not his love for America or the concept of freedom.
If Casablanca was made today, Rick Blaine wouldn’t be a former gun runner and mercenary, out for his next buck. He’d be a former American military hero, suffering after some selfless act. And in the end, his devotion to God and country would return as he helped Lisa and Laszlow by killing a shit load of Nazis. Hopefully, Casablanca is the kind of movie that’s just too revered for even cynical, money hungry Hollywood to try to update. Because as is, it really as close to perfect as any movie can be. And every time I watch it, Casablanca reminds me why it and it star are still so recognisable today.
Outstanding Motion Picture
Best Actor (Bogart nominated, lost to Paul Lucas for Watch on the Rhine)
Best Supporting Actor (Rains nominated, lost to Charles Coburn for The More the Merrier)