RogerBW's Blog

Casablanca 26 January 2023

1942 wartime romance and comedy, dir. Michael Curtiz, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman: IMDb / allmovie. As refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe collect in Casablanca on the way to Lisbon and freedom, everybody comes to Rick's Café Americain.

All right, I'm a sucker for this period and style of filmmaking, when emigrés from Germany in particular were pepping up a Hollywood process that had very often been by-the-numbers. This film would have to get a lot wrong for me not to enjoy it; and it doesn't.

But I was particularly struck during this most recent viewing for Ribbon of Memes by the fact that, on the one hand, I could happily watch Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet doing their standard bits all day, but the bits they do here are pretty much the same ones they do in The Maltese Falcon from the year before. On the other hand, I've seen Claude Rains as King John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and his manner there is completely different from the way he plays Captain Renault here – and they're both utterly watchable.

As a romance, though, for me, it's something of a failure. Rick and Ilsa had their few weeks or whatever it was, in Paris with the Nazis advancing, and then she vanished… and that's wrecked him completely, so that eighteen months later he's drinking himself to death in the middle of nowhere? I have suffered romantic setbacks and been unhappy aboout them, but this seems extreme, particularly for a tough guy such as Rick is supposed to be – and we never really see why it should have hit him so very hard, what is so amazing about Ilsa that losing her should shake him so profoundly. (Or indeed why Ilsa shouldn't have said to him "I thought I was a widow, but I've just found out I'm not, so while this has been great it's got to end now" rather than vanishing without trace.) At the same time, Ilsa has very little agency, being defined entirely by her relationships with Victor and Rick.

What really does work for me, though, is the other story that's wrapped around the romance, of the guy who "sticks his neck out for nobody" who sticks his neck out for everybody, and of the cheerfully and overtly corrupt police captain.

It's worth bearing in mind that this is the censored post-Breen script: Renault's trading of visas for sex was more explicit in the original, as was Rick and Ilsa's relationship in Paris. Though the censorship had one good effect: everyone involved knew it would be completely unacceptable to show Ilsa leaving Victor, so if they wanted her to end the film with Rick they'd have to get Victor killed, which was a much larger change than they were prepared to make.

A small technical note: the catch lights used to add sparkle to Bergman's eyes were also known as "Obies", being invented for Merle Oberon by her husband Lucien Ballard.

Something that's perhaps more obvious to a modern viewer: the driving sequence in Paris is filmed in the standard style, the actors in a car in a studio with back-projected film shot from an actual vehicle. At the time this was simply the way scenes in cars were shot, because of the practicalities of mounting a camera on a moving vehicle, though I often find it distracting. But here one backdrop is allowed to fade into another in a dreamlike way, and it's rather effective.

The famous Wacht am Rhein and La Marseillaise scene would have used Horst Wessel, i.e. an explicitly Nazi song rather than the older German one, but it was still under German copyright in non-Allied countries.

A French 75, named of course for the field gun, is 2 parts gin, 1 part lemon juice, 1 part syrup, 4 parts champagne – quite like a Tom Collins but using champagne instead of soda water. I recommend them highly, particularly if you won't have to walk anywhere for a bit.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

See also:
The Maltese Falcon

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