Wednesday, November 6, 2013

EW #3: Casablanca (1942)

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942).

Michael Curtiz's Casablanca is widely considered the most perfect movie ever made within the Hollywood studio system, telling one of the most compelling romance stories of Golden Age cinema. Casablanca is the film that launched soon-to-be screen icon Humphrey Bogart to stardom, moving him from roles as tough guys and "heavies" in pictures such as The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Three on a Match (1932) to center stage (screen?) as a romantically viable leading man.

Despite its centrality in Hollywood lore and its massive popularity and quotability, I have very little to say about this film. I like and enjoy it but, perhaps ironically, I am not very passionate about it. If I want to see Bogey in a romantic lead, I strongly prefer Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944), which is much steamier than Casablanca mainly due to the fact that Bogart and costar Lauren Bacall were falling in love for real as they made the picture. If I want to see more or less the same stellar supporting cast, including Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, I turn to John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, which gives these first-rate character actors meatier and more interesting roles than does Casablanca. The one thing that stands out most for me in Casablanca is Claude Rains' wonderful turn as Renault, a performance and actor I enjoy very much. But again, I could point to Hitchcock's Notorious as a better overall showcase for the actor.

But clearly I am in the minority in my lukewarm-to-warmish response to Curtiz's undisputed masterpiece. Noting the film's thematic richness and harmoniously multi-layered narrative construction, Sidney Rosenzweig writes that
In Casablanca it is the complex connection between political and personal feelings that shapes nearly every situation and every relationship. Even the most minor characters suggest the problems of the major ones.*

Michael Wood claims that this image of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) represents "what isolation looks like at its best: proud, bitter, mournful and tremendously attractive." **

And indeed, the film is near-perfect in its narrative construction, its beautiful black and white photography, and (of course) its performances. Yet at the end of the day, I guess I prefer films that have a bit more roughness around the edges; or maybe I have simply never had a personal "bonding" moment with this film. I do not dispute its impact upon audiences nor its place in Hollywood history, though, so I commend Entertainment Weekly for placing it so high on their Top 100 list. I'm sorry I don't have anything more thrilling or insightful to say about it.

* Rosenzweig, Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz pp. 84, 85.
** qtd. in Rosenzweig pp. 80-1.

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