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Old Ass Movies: Casablanca

By  · Published on April 18th, 2010

Every Sunday Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Casablanca (1942)

Because of the conversation started when I wrote about Citizen Kane, and the subsequent conversation started when Landon tackled the concept of Kane’s overrated-ness for his Culture Warrior column, I’ve decided to take a look at the film that is ranked #2 on the AFI Top 100 List: Casablanca.

I find the idea of a second-best film intriguing for a few reasons. First, no one seems to ever call Casablanca overrated despite being inches away from being called The Best Film of All Time. Secondly, with so many clamoring about Kane being overrated (and giving very few reasons for it), it makes me wonder how Casablanca would fair if given the top spot.

After all, Roger Ebert claimed on the commentary track for the film that it was most likely featured on more Top Ten lists than Cane ‐ citing that Cane was “greater [but]…Casablanca is more loved.”

I have no idea if that’s true, but I can attest to my own watching history, and it’s clear that I’ve seen or wanted to watch Casablanca more times than I have the Best Film of All Time ‐ last seeing it out on the National Mall for one of DC’s Screen on the Green features. It’s the old scenario of someone offering you a choice between the stark, meaningful drama and the lighter fare. They’ve even done studies where people claim they would watch the deeper movie, but those same studies show that when put to the test, people almost always choose something that will go down easier.

That’s not a dig at Casablanca, but the film does go down fairly easy. It’s melodrama and romanticism hiding behind beautiful people and (arguably) beautiful camera work.

For the few who haven’t seen it, the film tells the story of Rick (Humphrey Bogart), an American running a gin joint in Casablanca after having fled France. He is an unfeeling husk who is there to exploit and make money, but then Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks back into his life asking him to get her (and her husband (played by Paul Henreid) safe passage out of Nazi-controlled Europe and safely to America. Luckily, thanks to a low-life played by Peter Lorre, Rick has just the papers to do so. The question now hinges on whether Rick will help out his old flame, rekindle it and leave with her to America, or leave the scorned love to the wolves of the SS.

Beyond a great film noir and the shifting allegiances and the fantastic character revelations, there are probably a thousand reasons why this film has climbed it’s way to the top. It is an honest story told with no moral compass. It is a story about change and remembering why you love someone. It is a story about how that love can realistically take shape. And I’d be willing to bet those that haven’t seen it already know at least three quotes from it.

Of course, at this point, there is also the nagging external reason to see the movie: to be able to participate in the cultural conversation about it. It has grown to colossal size in the ongoing conversation about film while staying either too under-the-radar to be stoned to death by claims of being overrated or too genuinely loved for anyone to dare do so.

What I find most interesting about the film is that it was released during WWII, almost a year exactly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, it told a specifically European story ‐ even with Rick as its centerpiece ‐ and the initial box office reaction was fairly lukewarm. Still, it’s interesting to think of filmmakers at the time hunting down a WWII script (in this case, an un-produced play) just months after the United States was drawn into war.

It’s also progressive in another striking way. For anyone who marveled at Inglourious Basterds for its casting of internationals in international roles, Casablanca did it 67 years earlier and managed to only feature three American actors total.

All of this fascination aside, the thing most interesting about the film now is its placement in the #2 spot of all movies of all time. In a way, it’s even more interesting than being called #1. It makes me wonder if the tables were turned, if the kind of animosity shown to Citizen Kane would suddenly manifest itself for Casablanca.

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