Why is Casablanca considered one of the greatest love stories in American cinema? The leading man doesn’t end up with the girl. He hardly spends any time with her in fact and when he does it isn’t exactly rosy. But at its core, Casablanca really isn’t about lovers, it’s about heroes. This year marks the 70th Anniversary of its release and you can see it on the big screen for free this Friday.
Released in 1942, during the height of World War II, Casablanca captured the fervor of national pride in America. Throughout the film, America is thought of as the place to escape to. Casablanca is a place that remains unoccupied by the Germans, but their grip overseas is tightening by the day, so tourists who have taken refuge in the city are eager to leave while they still can. But one man seams content.
Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is an exiled American and former freedom fighter. Owner of the most popular nightspot in town, Rick runs the place without any affiliation but to himself. He’s perfectly fine with his neutrality in a world where men are fighting other men. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he says comfortably to a Nazi sitting in his club.
He knows however, that one day his comfortable life style will be in jeopardy when the Germans arrive, but he does have enough influence to pay off the local police captain so perhaps he can hide away forever. Then “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
It is Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the woman Rick loved years ago in Paris. Under the cloud of the German occupation, he arranged their escape, but she abandoned him, in his mind, at the train station on the night they were to leave. Now she is with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a hero of the French Resistance.
Scorned by their unexpected separation in Paris and by the emergence of another man, Rick has no intention of seeing her or helping them escape Casablanca. But when Rick learns the truth about why she left him at the train station, they plan to run off together using a pair of transit letters that Rick has acquired. Well, that was their original plan anyways.
Like many of his roles, Bogart plays Sam as a smart, tough-minded cynic who ultimately shows his noble side. In one scene, after it’s revealed that Ilsa was married when she met Rick in Paris and couldn’t risk being on the run with him from the Germans, he still helps a young couple in a similar situation. Despite the risk of exposing his casino as dirty, he still sees what future the couple can have, and what he couldn’t have with Ilsa.
In contrast, Bergman’s performance is just the opposite. Referred to as a kid by Rick multiple times, Ilsa is the young idealist who sees a future for herself and the man she loves. Bergman’s face illicites confusing emotions but who could blame her since neither she nor anyone else on the film knew for sure until the final day who she would end up with. Her lack of knowledge helped her performance become more emotionally convincing.
The film does lack a stylistic quality. Perhaps if it were directed by Orson Welles at the time, he would have infused a little more creativity in the shot selection, but Casablanca was based on a play and you can see why a more creative direction wasn’t necessary when the acting and writing were so perfect.
Ultimately, Casablanca is about sacrifice. Sacrificing love and destiny to fight for a greater cause. Moviegoers today might see the film as too sentimental and dated, but it remains a timeless story full of cynicism, regret and redemption.
The film won three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, check it out on a big screen in glorious black-and-white at Crescent Village this week.
Casablanca is the third movie in Crescent Village’s summer series: “Movies Under the Star.” It will be shown on Friday, August 10 at 8:20 pm. Admission is free and you are asked to bring your own chairs and blankets.