By Lisa Fabrizio
At this time of the year, awards are generally handed out wherein lists are compiled toting up the greatest song, athlete, movie and even TV show of all time! As if all of these have taken up even an eyeblink of history. This was most annoying at the turn of the last century, but it continues today. The "voters" are usually some pointy-headed group, or an arm of the corresponding category's media, but sometimes even the general public itself speaks.
And when the American people have a voice in declaring their favorite movie, the 1942 Warner Brothers classic, Casablanca usually finds its way to the top of the list. But this is not always the case. Film critics, as I like to call them, are just that: they, unlike most Americans prefer films--those efforts of film noir or other French-sounding genres which are produced by auteurs and must be explained to us by our betters--to what the rest of us call, movies.
This is why Citizen Kane is so often regarded by them as America's greatest cinematic achievement. While I'm sure it in some ways has technical merit, let's admit it: it's a confusing and especially depressing work whose only redeeming quality it seems, is that it skews liberal bugaboo William Randolph Hearst. Add to this that it makes little sense--how does the reporter or anyone else hear Kane whisper "Rosebud," on his deathbed when no one else is in the room?--and you see what I mean.
On the other hand, there is what every movie should be: Casablanca. But why would folks, most of whom were born long after its making, put it at or near the tops of their lists? At its preview in November 1942, popular reaction to it was called "beyond belief," as its release was planned to take advantage of the Allied invasion of North Africa. But today, with the nostalgia for WWII movies waning, why has it endured?
Because it has everything: all of the emotions which combine to make up everyday life, intensified by the cauldron of war. Because it has "moonlight and love songs, never out of date; hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate." Who can deny it? These emotions and the decisions they force on people even today, are transcendent.
Because its casting was either an incredible stroke of luck, or one of genius. Of the credited actors, only three were born in the United States. The cast was mostly made up of European refugees, who, like their counterparts in the movie, fled the ravages of German occupation only to "wait in Casablanca... and wait... and wait... and wait."
Because it was filmed in glorious black and white. The lighting, cinematography, sets and costumes combine to cast an almost mystical glow over the proceedings. From Rick's glisteningly white dinner jacket and the gorgeous ‘catch lights' sparkling in Ilsa's eyes, to the wisps of cigarette smoke dancing in the dark which frame the lovingly lit close-ups of its protagonists, Casablanca is bathed in a glorious luminosity which suits it perfectly. After all, we don't need Technicolor to imagine that while the Germans wore gray, Ilsa wore blue.
Because its dialogue is so deliciously quotable, even today. Forget about playing it again, being shocked, shocked and looking at you, kid. The next time you make an appointment and your friend calls to confirm the time, try saying: "I'll be there at ten!" Or when a particularly knotty problem arises, take a drag on your imaginary cigarette, wince, and say, "You want my advice? Go back to Bulgaria." Better yet, when an over-officious interviewer annoys you, look up at him and ask, "Are my eyes really brown?"
And the music! Forgetting the epitome of the "tinkling piano" tune, "As Time Goes By," the rest of the movie is filled to the brim with what we used to call ‘standards': those that could be and were adopted by different artists and still retain their original themes. The kind of songs that were truly considered "popular" music in that they invoked memories of romantic intimacy rather than those of today which are little more than very loud, primal screams reminiscent one's last great drug-induced high.
Yet for all the visual and musical elements that combine to make Casablanca what it remains; the ultimate Hollywood movie, these elements could probably be replicated, if to a lesser degree today. But sadly, what makes it truly memorable; that which is at its essence, cannot. The notion of sacrifice for a bigger, more noble goal than one's self, is, if not shared by a majority of the country, surely absent in modern Hollywood.
Maybe that's what generations of American movie-goers still long for. Humphrey Bogart, as Rick Blaine is just as cool, just as selfish, bitter, and non-committal as are today's celluloid heroes; he's just one thing more: a patriot.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!