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Casablanca (1942,USA)

11/10/2011

Director: Michael Curtiz      Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains

A little while ago I wrote a review of Citizen Kane, in which I talked about the hazards of watching movies that, rightly or wrongly, have been designated as “classics”. My main concern with Kane was that it had been placed on such a high pedestal by the rest of the movie going world that it faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle – to live up to the hype. While Casablanca was up against the same challenge when I finally got round to watching it the other day, it faced an arguably more difficult task. Casablanca is one of those films that has ingrained itself in popular culture. It’s dialogue is heavily quoted (or should I say misquoted), it has been parodied or pastiched endlessly over the years and, most importantly of all, people have considered it ‘spoiler proof’ for so long that while the fine details of the plot were not known to me before I began watching it I was fully acquainted with the ending and the general arc of the story. This, for me, proved a bit of a problem. If you are lucky enough to not know what happens in the film then look away now, because I am likely to give some details away in the next few paragraphs. I also envy you as you can go and watch the film without it being dulled by foreknowledge, you lucky, lucky swines.

Set in 1941 a matter of days before Pearl Harbour and therefore before America has entered the war the film centres around the fortunes of Rick (Bogart) propriator of a cafe/gambling house in Casablanca where he, along with a variety of waifs and strays, has settled to escape the Nazi occupation of France. The last stop on a long refugee trail, Casablanca represents a way to escape to the peace and proseprity of the United States for anyone in Europe trying to escape the war. When the legendary anti-Nazi activist and long term thorn in the fascist side Victor Laszlo (Henreid) turns up with his wife Ilsa (Bergman), Rick has to decide whether or not to abandon his isolationist policies and help them escape Casablanca. Of course, this proves less straightforward than normal as the local representatives of the Nazi war machine have put the screws on the corrupt local Prefect Renaut (Rains) to ensure Laszlo never leaves Casablanca.

As a film it has everything in place that it should. The acting talent is present in spades. It has great dialogue and better timing. When Renaut feigns shock and surprise at the gambling taking place in Rick’s Cafe Americain as a pretext to close it he is forced to pause as the cashier delivers his winnings raised a full blown laugh out of me, on great moment in a series of them. The whole thing is beautifully shot and constructed and has an authentic feel, even if it is shot in a studio and the occasional shots of planes are slightly ropey model work due to the restrictions of night shooting on airfields during war time. Under any other circumstances I would have loved the fact that the whole thing, intentionally or otherwise (it must be intentional), is an allegory for American isolationism in the face of full blown European war. Rick, the American content to make a buck from the situation, sticking his neck out for no one and then, finally, when faced with the decision of doing right by Lazlo and Ilsa or not, finally standing up to the Nazis.

All this stuff was great and clearly why the film has garnered such a reputation but the experience for me was completely dampened by the fact that I felt so familiar with it from the outset. When Rick orchestrates his triple cross plan to get Laszlo and Ilsa out of Casablanca there should be at least a fraction of doubt in your mind as to his motivation. As it stands, for me anyway, there wasn’t as I knew how the film ended. I feel a little bit robbed of the satisfaction of his triumph and getting one over the bad guys and doing the right thing because it didn’t, it couldn’t, come as a surprise. I found myself mentally checking off the famous lines and filling in the missing details of the plot as the clues started to arrive, joining the dots before they were fully revealed to me because I knew what the final picture was supposed to be. Clearly this is not the film’s fault and perhaps I could have made its job easier in some way by making more of an effort to just absorb it without preempting its next move but that is a task that was somewhat beyond my capabilities.

So it was a good film and undoubtedly deserving of its reputation but I couldn’t help feeling that I had been a little cheated by the experience because the rest of the world had not only beaten me to it but ensured I could never enjoy the film as much as it was possible to do by revealing too much about it. It may seem churlish to moan about spoilers on such a famous film that is almost seventy years old but this is something beyond an unfortunate reveal of the ending. So much of the fabric of the film has worked its way into the rest of popular culture that it hardly feels like you are watching an original work at all, a fact that left me with a vague sense of disappointment when there was so much about it that I loved. Still, that’s the chance you take with such a lauded work and as is so often the case my disappointment is more of a function of expectation than experience. At least I can chalk another classic off the list…

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