Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

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Casablanca: The Fundamental Things

As the song says, “The fundamental things apply as time goes by,” and, in my view, there is no more fundamental example of great cinema than 1942’s Casablanca. And, as time has gone by, I’m amazed that this film doesn’t appear at the very top of more critics' greatest-movies-of-all-time lists, as I don’t think there’s ever been a better film made. Casablanca is a movie uniquely suspended in time, and because of this it not only never feels dated, it in fact takes on more power and meaning as time passes.

While Casablanca is easily found on many movie fans' top ten lists, it is, surprisingly, not on most critics' lists of the best of the best. I suspect this omission occurs because most serious critics prefer films fashioned by auteurs, not movies churned out by big studios. Most critics could never bring themselves to admit that the greatest film ever made had the head of a studio as its primary creative force, rather than a director. They would have a hard time admitting that a perfectly crafted motion picture was adapted from a play and had more than seven writers, rather than springing forth from the mind of one man. And they would never deign to acknowledge that the pinnacle of cinematic achievement was achieved not by a maverick or misunderstood genius who risked it all to put his vision onscreen, but instead as a fairly routine nine-to-five production at a studio where dozens of other pictures were being simultaneously produced.  These reasons explain, I believe, why films like Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, Vertigo, The Searchers, The Godfather, and Raging Bull always lead critics' lists, while Casablanca often does not even crack the top ten.  
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Great as those other films are, I would argue that what makes them great is that they are atypical of most movies, rather than being representative of cinema in general. The usual top-ten suspects are more often the prime examples of the particular style of a specific filmmaker, and one often needs a high level of cinema literacy to understand what is special about these films. But anyone watching Casablanca, whether it’s for the first time, the hundredth time, or even if it is the only movie they ever see, will have a distinct experience of the power of film.

Casablanca is a great film for all the obvious reasons.  It has a tight and inventive script, richly drawn characters, intricately layered dialogue, and a comedic tone unique to the studio system with its stable of contract players in familiar roles. It features one of the best casts ever assembled—not just the iconic leads Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains, but also every single supporting and bit player. And it features the expert direction of studio craftsman Michael Curtiz, the Oscar-winning Hungarian director who also made The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, and White Christmas. But what sets Casablanca apart from other great movies is that it was made during a time when the views and emotions of its mass audiences were aligned with its subject matter to a degree no other movie has achieved. This alignment adds a level of emotional depth that heightened the film’s power when it was released and has only grown stronger as time has gone by. Casablanca’s main theme is sacrifice: what one will sacrifice for one’s country, one’s ideals, and the love of another person. While these themes are timeless, they resonated especially strongly in the 1940s, and when we look back at this time through the film, they become all the more pronounced.
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The character of Rick Blain, portrayed by the peerless Bogart in his first romantic role, can be viewed as a metaphor for how 1940s America viewed itself: tough, self-centered, and isolationist (“I stick my neck out for no one”), but with a noble nature and a willingness to sacrifice baser impulses in order to fight for what is right and good.  Rick, however, defies reduction to a one-dimensional symbol.  He's a complicated character with a rich backstory that we get only in tantalizing fragments. Similarly, Casablanca is much more than a WWII American propaganda film.  Its blend of romance, suspense, comedy, and melodrama keeps it from coming off as false or jingoistic.  

The first act of the movie contains some of cinema's finest exposition. We delight in the colorful characters we meet in Casablanca’s streets, but at the same time, we learn tremendous amounts of information about who they are, how difficult it is for refugees to get out of the city, the so-called “letters of transit” that enable their bearers to travel freely around German-controlled Europe, and the incipient arrival of a heroic man named Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his beautiful companion Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who are hoping to obtain these documents and use them to get to America.  All this exposition flies by because we are wrapped up in the story of the petty thief Ugarte (Peter Lorre), who has the letters of transit and trusts only Rick to hide them. We are also absorbed by the relationship between Rick and the prefect of police (Claude Rains), as the characters speculate about whether or not Victor Laszlo will be able to obtain them. We know so much about the world of Casablanca and the people who inhabit it before Laszlo and Isla show up at Rick’s Café and Casablanca's real story begins. 
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That story, of course, is the ill-fated romance between Rick and Ilsa: how he fell in love with her in Paris, and how she deserted him right after the Germans marched in and took control of the city.  The major question of the film is whether or not Rick can forgive Ilsa for leaving him and whether he will help her and Laszlo escape to America. The answer is complicated, and arriving at it requires lots of verbal explanation from the film's many characters.  Though Casablanca is filled with long speeches, the dialogue, rather than sounding stilted, has a musical quality to it, which is why the film has proven so eminently quotable. Hollywood films of Casablanca’s time did not aim for realism. Instead, these movies strived for an emotional authenticity that would resonate with the audience.  The level of craft that Casablanca's writers brought to the script created a popular entertainment that perfectly captures this aesthetic.

In Robert McKee’s endlessly readable book on screenplay analysis, Story, he takes what seems like an insignificant scene from this film—one in which Bogart and Bergman meet up at a marketplace after spending the night together—and analyzes it line by line, demonstrating how every one confers information, subtext, reversals, and more.  No line is about just one thing. McKee’s analysis spells out on paper what we can normally only get a sense of when watching a great scene or a great film. Almost every one of Casablanca's scenes can be similarly deconstructed, and I believe the script contains these depths and complexities because it was treated not as a sacred and unalterable text handed down by a genius auteur, but as a studio-owned property generated by all the writers who were assigned to it.  Fortunately for Casablanca, those people included such Hollywood giants as Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Kotch, Hal B. Wallis, Casey Robinson, and director Mike Curtiz, with a few other hands in there too.   
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What makes Casablanca uniquely powerful is its ability to engender nostalgia and patriotism, even in people who were not alive during the 1940s. I was not alive during the time shown in the film, yet there are scenes in this film that I find deeply affecting, which fill me with feelings of patriotic fervor, and I’ve met dozens of people who feel this way, many of them non-Americans. It's difficult not to identify with the characters in this film and to wonder how you would have behaved if you had been in their situations. World War II was the only event that occurred during the time when nearly all Americans went to movies (the 1930s to the 1980s) that affected the lives of every single member of the country, in both a day-to-day and existential way. Almost every American's sympathies were at least somewhat aligned during that war, even those who opposed American involvement (or isolationists like Rick whose “only cause is themselves”). The polarized eras of Vietnam and the War on Terror did not give their respective generations the same experience of a unifying conflict, The film can, therefore, engender nostalgia for a time when we think it was easier to tell right from wrong.

Casablanca's emotional power can also be attributed to the intense passions of its characters, with which we can all identify.  Of course, Rick and Ilsa share a deep romantic love, but I'm also referring here to the love of freedom and liberty that Victor Laszlo possesses. Paul Henreid's stiff characterization of Laszlo is one of the few things that often get criticized about this film, but for me, two of the film's most stirring moments belong to him. In the first, Laszlo hears a group of Germans in the corner of Rick’s Café singing “March on the Rhine,” and he leads the free French patrons to “out-sing” the Germans with a loud and passionate rendition of the French national anthem. In the second, Laszlo plays a crucial part in the iconic final scene of the film. Thumb casablanca laszloThis airport farewell between Rick and Ilsa is so famous that many people can recite it by heart, but I think the best line comes not from Bogart’s now-classic monologue but from Henreid. Once Laszlo realizes what Rick is doing for him, he takes the time to thank Rick and say, in his sonorous voice, “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.” Despite his need to rush onto the departing plane before the Germans arrive, Laszlo takes the time to look Rick in the eye, shake his hand and intone this line in a slow and steady way that has great power.  For me, as classic as the famous, memorable lines are—like “We’ll always have Paris,” “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans,” or “Here’s looking at you, kid”—Laszlo’s parting statement is the key line of the film.

The only thing that gives me pause about calling Casablanca the greatest film of all time is that it is not a film I recommend seeing in a theater. Although its frequent revivals and screenings make it one of the easiest classics to see in a proper cinema, this movie is best experienced at home on a small screen. I've had so many bad experiences seeing this film in theaters with crowds of people who either don’t agree with me about its timeless quality, laughing in the wrong spots or mocking the few dated special effects, or who have seen the film so often that they don’t treat it with the proper respect, shouting out classic lines before the characters do and even speaking along with the actors as the scenes play out. For me, Casablanca is such a personal film that is best experienced in a personal way—not with a full audience, but alone or with a close friend or lover.  Although I have a little trouble claiming that the greatest movie ever made should be watched at home on a TV rather than in a cinema, I still maintain Casablanca is the film that deserves that title.