Judging from a conversation I overheard before the start of the screening, it seems that there will always be people who haven’t seen Casablanca (1942). ‘I can’t believe you guys have never seen it,’ said the man to the two friends he’d brought along. ‘How did that happen?’ Even the friends were probably wondering. Because if you haven’t seen Casablanca, you may feel as though you have: as with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s hard to start fresh with Casablanca, so prevalent are certain images and lines from the film. A foggy night, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman gazing at each other from underneath the wide brims of their hats before the plane takes off. The stylishly dressed customers in ‘Rick’s bar américain’, Rick the most stylish of all in his white double-breasted dinner jacket. ‘Play it, Sam’, ‘here’s looking at you, kid’, ‘I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’: it’s one of the most referenced films in history.
A digitally restored version of the film is being screened at the BFI to celebrate the film’s 70th anniversary. Critics are giving the film five stars, and for once I can agree: Casablanca achieves the difficult trick of balancing beauty and intrigue. To its further credit, it’s a World War II film with subtlety made while that war was still going on. When Paris came under German occupation (the film’s prologue explains), many fled to the free zones of France, which included its North African territories. In the film, Casablanca has become an international holding tank: people from all over Europe rush there, intending to carry on to North America, but are forced to wait to obtain the necessary visas. A few, like Rick, have resigned themselves to never leaving Casablanca. The American presents himself as a pragmatist, resolutely neutral on the subject of the war, and committed only to looking out for his own interests. But when an old flame arrives in the city with her Czech dissident husband, and both are under threat from visiting Nazis, Rick gradually becomes forced to choose sides.
In the past ten years, there have been World War II films which reject the simple template of angelic Allies, demonic Nazis, and passive concentration camp inmates: to avoid making the same films over and over, and to acknowledge the complexity of the human character, directors have made films featuring a good Nazi (Milos Radivojevic’s How I was Stolen by the Germans), a bad ally (Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book) or a concentration camp prisoner who escapes (Wolfgang Murnburger’s My Best Enemy). Michael Curtiz’s film was daring as a World War II film featuring sympathetic characters who sail close to the wind ideologically: Rick, who claims to be neutral, and the French police captain Louis Renault, who keeps a cosy relationship with the Fascists in case they end up in charge. Curtiz would go on to create an even more compelling character dynamic in Mildred Pierce (1945), another rightly revered classic of cinema: the film centres on a mother (Joan Crawford) who devotes herself entirely to providing for her daughter, but is ultimately forced to confront the kind of daughter she has raised—should she be blamed for her devotion, or was her daughter bad to begin with? Or was it an unfortunate combination of factors? Like Casablanca, Mildred Pierce is a film that no lover of cinema should miss.
A romance and a historico-political thriller with a touch of comedy, Casablanca has something for everyone. There is the tension of secret meetings between members of the resistance, all under the watchful gaze of Captain Renault and his Nazi guests. There is Rick’s history with Ilsa, their days in Paris recounted in a perfectly concise flashback, prefaced by their haunted, emotional gazes across the bar, while ‘As Time Goes By’ plays in the background. The judicious lighting, the beautiful black and white photography of Bergman’s and Bogart’s faces in close-up: it is emotionally stirring to see these images from seventy years ago, still so clear and beautiful. Even if you know how much work will have gone into restoring the print, it gives an impression of timelessness.
Casablanca is screening at London’s BFI until February 23rd.