What makes Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film such a timeless classic?
There’s a good chance that if you know anything at all about Hollywood movies then you are already familiar with Casablanca. Even people who have never seen it know the quotable lines, songs, and famous images. Countless bars, restaurants, and stores have Casablanca posters hanging from the walls. Not only is it one of the most famous Hollywood movies of all time, but it is also frequently named as one of the best films ever made. It was even one of the original 25 films selected in 1989 for the National Film Registry.
Is Casablanca really that special? Why is it still so beloved all these years later? These are questions that critics, scholars, and film lovers have been asking for many years, and I believe the multifaceted answers to these questions are worth exploring. Obviously the answer is more complicated than Casablanca simply being a good movie – art is subjective, and no one can truly know why some works are more celebrated than others. However, it’s definitely something worth thinking about.
The film is based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, and the screenplay was famously written during production, rather than beforehand. Umberto Eco writes in his brilliant essay, “Casablanca, or, the Cliches are Having a Ball,” that the film is seemingly a chain of extremely successful mistakes. Despite all of its unforgettable dialogue – “here’s looking at you, kid,” “we’ll always have Paris,” “round up the usual suspects” – Casablanca was actually put together quite haphazardly. Eco writes that “all those moments of inspired direction that wring bursts of applause for their unexpected boldness actually represent decisions made out of desperation.” Casablanca’s brilliance does not come from calculated artistic intentions, as the artists involved didn’t even know what they were necessarily. They made decisions day by day, which luckily worked in their favor.
In fact, the filmmakers didn’t even know how the film was going to end until they actually shot the final scenes. The ending of Casablanca is one of the most famous in cinema history – Rick (Humphrey Bogart) sends Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) on a plane to Lisbon with her husband Victor (Paul Henreid), despite still loving her and wanting to be the one leaving with her. The images are unforgettable: the plane, the fog and dark skies, Bogart’s trenchcoat and fedora, and Bergman’s glittering, teary eyes as she leaves behind the man she loves. This scene resonates with so many people because even though it is melodramatic, it perfectly portrays the ache of saying goodbye and of doing the right thing even though it is painful.
At the time Casablanca was produced, Hollywood was releasing hundreds of movies per year, many of which faded into obscurity and never resurfaced. On paper, Casablanca was just another standard Hollywood war drama, albeit one featuring A-list stars and a fairly big budget. It was widely released in January 1943, and was fairly successful both critically and commercially, grossing $3.7 million on an $878,000 budget. It was only over time though that it rose in popularity and came to be considered a great cinematic achievement. In 1977, the American Film Institute named it the third greatest film of all time after Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind. What sets it apart from these two films however, is its mass appeal: it is more accessible and succinct than both Orson Welles’ eccentric Kane and the epic, three-hour Civil War drama that is Gone With the Wind.
While the film is almost universally loved, critics over the years have still managed to give Casablanca backhanded compliments, if not flat-out criticisms. On its 50th anniversary, the LA Times wrote that its charm comes from “the enduring craftsmanship of its resonantly hokey dialogue” – implying that what makes it great is that it’s not all that great. Its greatest strength is the “purity of its Golden Age Hollywoodness” – people are fascinated and enamored with the idea of a more glamorous time, where movie stars looked and talked and dressed like Bogart and Bergman. Films like Casablanca give the appearance of a simpler time, when everyone was simultaneously classy and quaint. Pauline Kael had similar critiques to the Times, writing, “It’s far from a great film, but it has a special appealingly schlocky romanticism, and you’re never really pressed to take its melodramatic twists and turns seriously.” The film is melodramatic and cheesy, but it speaks truths about romance and human nature – one of cinema’s greatest strengths as a narrative art form.
Eco’s theory about Casablanca’s enduring popularity is that the filmmakers’ inclusion of every archetype they could think of makes for an unforgettable work of art, and it’s one of the most convincing and in-depth observations on the subject. He notes that it is interesting because it is beautiful, and beautiful because it is interesting; the writers used so many tried and true cliches that it makes us dizzy and comes across as brilliant. Among the archetypes included are Passage to the Promised Land (out of Morocco), Unhappy Love (Rick and Ilsa), Redemption (Rick), Sacrifice (Ilsa), and the Triumph of Purity (the Bulgarian couple who receive exit visas). The key to Casablanca is that it has a little bit of everything, and Eco notes that “the resonance of intertextuality plays upon the spectator.” Bogart plays his classically cynical hero, Bergman is a mysterious woman, Peter Lorre bring a touch of Fritz Lang to the film, and the Nazi officers recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Casablanca is timeless because it beautifully brings together an infinite number of cliches that are as resonant today as they were in the ’40s.
Eco notes that while two cliches make us laugh, an endless number of cliches moves us, and this what makes Casablanca a special work of art. Seemingly put together out of the authors’ control, the film somehow came together perfectly and is now known as one of the most romantic movies of all time. Any list of great Hollywood movies includes Casablanca, and it’s often referenced in other Hollywood films including When Harry Met Sally and Play It Again, Sam. There are countless other films from the Golden Age of Hollywood that resemble it, but Casablanca’s perfect blend of cliches, star power, and romance have set it apart and elevated it to the almost magical status it occupies today.
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