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Casablanca

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/24/06 04:40:59

"It really is that good."
5 stars (Awesome)

There is not a whole lot to say about "Casablanca" that is new. I feel vaguely silly writing anything at all, because anyone likely to read this probably already knows that this film is an all-time classic. Here in Boston/Cambridge, the Brattle Theater runs it at least twice a year, often preceded for a month by a trailer that regulars have memorized ("but they're all trapped!"). People attending a "Great Romances" double feature February 13th were advised to arrive by four the next day if they wanted to get tickets to the annual Valentine's Day showings. This is a beloved, famous movie, and rightly so. Do people really need to be convinced to see this?

Well, sure, maybe. People aren't born having seen it, and even if they have absorbed the plot and some of the greatest lines through osmosis, there's still plenty of delights to be found from actually watching the movie. There's a great cast on hand, so they can get introduced to some of the finest stars and supporting characters of classic Hollywood all at once. They can assure themselves that Humphrey Bogart does not, in fact, use the line "play it again, Sam". And they can witness just how a fantastic cast and crew can make a flawed story into a classic, and what a delight it is when that happens.

Because, let's face it, Casablanca's plot creaks a little. The central plot device - "letters of transit" that will let anyone, even Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), travel freely during a time of war - doesn't really hold up to a second of examination. But that's okay. Those letters are just an excuse to throw Laszlo, his beautiful wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), and her one-time lover Rick Blaine (Bogart) together. Rick runs a bar in Nazi-occupied French Morocco, and comes into possession of the letters after the untimely death of small-time gangster Ugarte (Peter Lorre). The Laszlos have recently arrived in Casablanca, but SS Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) is watching Rick's like a hawk. Besides, Rick's got a policy of sticking his neck out for no-one, and to help Laszlo escape would mean saying farewell to the love of his life once again.

Look at the events logically, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But we love watching Rick struggle against his better nature, and five minutes don't go by without someone popping out a great line. The cast is full to bursting with great supporting characters; in addition to those already mentioned, there's Claude Rains's gleefully corrupt Captain Renault, and Sydney Greenstreet as a mobster who probably wields as much power in Casablanca as either the French or the Germans. Dooley Wilson is mostly there to sing and play the piano, but he carries himself in a way that makes him feel much essential than many black characters of the time period. The movie is pure, classic melodrama, but also funny and built on winning chemistry between its leads.

It's a love triangle that works, because neither leg seems less than genuine, and the film portrays love as a powerful force that can wreak havoc on these people's lives and, because of their actions, the world around them. Bogart's Rick is the apparent epitome of cool, growling and appearing unfazed by the evil around him. It's a front, of course - not sticking one's neck out is an attitude born of fear, not strength, and it's a front that crumbles upon Ilsa's return. Henreid's Laszlo, on the other hand, does make a habit of sticking his neck out, but that sort of activity takes a toll on a man, and he needs the support Ilsa give him. Meanwhile, we see Ilsa genuinely torn between her two lovers, devoted to her husband but ever mindful of the raw passion she and Rick shared. English isn't her first language and she doesn't seem as assured delivering her lines as the others are, so the movie at times has to rely on her looks to explain why she is so central in these two men's lives. Being one of the most beautiful women ever captured on film is one hell of a crutch, though.

And in the end, that this must be relied on doesn't matter a whit. The cast is thoroughly charming, the love story is grand and uncompromising without ever being saccharine. Michael Curitz knows his stuff, working in both snappy patter and gunplay without ever losing the focus on the central romance and drama.

Of course, you should already know this. If you like movies, you should probably have this half memorized, and not just because you're expected to. It's a great movie, one that stays great even if it couldn't be made the same way today.

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