Op-ed: 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Casablanca’ (#1)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
This is one of the most famous movies of all time so I felt some trepidation when it came to reviewing it and writing about my apathy towards it. There is no denying the fact that it is almost universally beloved as it regularly places at the top of lists of the greatest films of all time and is regularly cited by ordinary non-cinephiles as their favorite classic film. It has endured over time and for a film that is 78 years old, it is remarkable that people still talk about it so much. Despite all of that adulation, I have never been able to get that worked up over it. I love cinema from this period and most of my favorite films were made in the 1930s and 1940s and I love romances in which two people briefly spend some time together before being separated because of their respective responsibilities. I am moved to tears by Brief Encounter (1945) when the two lovers have to separate and know that they will never see each other again. For some reason, Casablanca doesn’t move me and I am always aware of the ways in which it is trying to manipulate me. I want to make it clear that I do not hate it but I don’t understand its reputation as one of the greatest romantic dramas of all time and I feel like it isn’t entirely successful in being what it wants to be.
We all know that this is a film about an American nightclub owner, Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart, who once had an affair with a Swedish woman, Ilsa Lund, Ingrid Bergman, while the two of them were in Paris, France. Years later he is living in Casablanca, Morocco where she and her husband, Victor Lazslo, Paul Henreid, have traveled in order to escape to a territory that is not under the control of the Axis Powers. He is torn between trying to keep her for himself and helping her escape to Portugal with her husband. Eventually, the two of them sacrifice their relationship so they can both remain safe. It is a plot that everybody is aware of and for some reason, a lot of people think it is a perfectly written piece of cinema.
One of the fundamental reasons why I wasn’t swept up in the magic of the film was Ingrid Bergman. She is an actress who I have never warmed to even though she gave adequate performances in Gaslight (1944) and Goodbye Again (1961). She ranks up there with the great stars and has an unimpeachable reputation as a beguiling performer in the eyes of many but there is something terribly cold and passionless about her. She often seems rigid and stiff on screen and I can always see the gears turning in her head whenever she makes a decision. I don’t doubt the fact that she was a highly trained actress but she did not conceal her technique when she performed. You can easily imagine sitting at home and studiously learning her lines whenever you hear her delivering dialogue and there is a canned quality to the way she speaks. It is like she has rehearsed these lines a million times and picked up little inflections here and there as she practiced them. A truly skilled actress would have been able to add some spontaneity and liveliness to these line deliveries and I would have felt like I was watching somebody reacting to newly developing emotions. With Bergman, I always feel like she has very clearly mapped out what she is going to do and there is the sense that she is hitting her marks and trying to impress the director rather than fully inhabiting her role. I am rarely surprised by her and I find it difficult to go on an emotional journey with her as I almost feel like I am being led around on a leash when she is on screen. She wants me to see everything she is doing and all of the techniques she is displaying so I am not allowed to draw conclusions for myself or experience the joy of picking up on small details in her performances without having them shoved in my face by Bergman herself.
Casablanca is likely the film for which she is most remembered even if cinephiles might protest that she gave a better performance in something like Autumn Sonata (1978) or Stromboli (1951). As Lund, she embodies the ideal woman of the 1940s as she is young and pretty but also willing to sacrifice her own happiness for practical reasons which are related to World War II. She is virginal and non-threatening even though she has had serious relationships with multiple men and we always see her in soft focus so she appears to be an angel. I had all of my usual objections to a Bergman performance here but I also felt like she was completely miscast as Lund. Bergman was always better at playing mature women who were angry at the world as well as being selfish and inconsiderate. She had a knack for portraying entitled women who expected people to hand them the world on a platter without offering anything in return. In Autumn Sonata she manages not to seem so uptight and self-conscious and gives one of her most natural, relaxed performances even though her character deals with a lot of emotional turmoil. Lund is meant to be a cute young ingenue who is still a dreamer even though she has had her fantasies of being with the man she loves ripped away from her. She isn’t cynical and she is ultimately noble and stoic when she could have been selfish. Bergman doesn’t fit this role in the slightest and she comes across as bland when she tries to act like a luminous innocent who is untouched by the harshness and cruelty of the world around her.
We should be invested in the journey of this resilient woman who has always had to put aside her own needs in order to support others. She has just a few minutes in which she can reunite with her great love and she should be trying to remember everything about him so that she can savor this memory in her later years. Bergman looks at Bogart with reverence in her eyes but there is something false about it as I don’t believe that Lund would be so bowled over by him. She should be a woman who can hold her own in this situation and her strong affection for him would be represented in a more subtle manner. She quivers as much as she possibly can and she even comes close to crying at some points but Bergman is so obviously calculated that these moments don’t come off as they should. She gets close-up shots which lovingly admire every plane of her face and she is lit to the heavens but I couldn’t get away from the feeling that she was about to hand Bogart some notes a few seconds after she finished each take. She is pretty but it isn’t the beauty of a youthful ingenue and you do not get the feeling that you are seeing somebody with romantic notions having her belief system destroyed.
I also take issue with the famed script as I was annoyed by most of the dialogue. I don’t always hate it when I am fully aware of the fact that I am hearing lines that have been written by a rather self-satisfied screenwriter but with Casablanca, I was irritated by the fact that I could imagine the Epstein brothers grinning in self-congratulation after they wrote every line of dialogue. It is overwritten in many ways as it has no connection to anything that anybody in the real world would say but it also isn’t ridiculous enough to establish the fact that this film is set in an alternate universe with its own rules when it comes to the way that people communicate. All of the big lines did not strike a chord with me and even when Bogart says “Here’s looking at you, kid” I did not shed a tear. People quote this film all the time but I don’t find myself saying “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Where I do appreciate the film is in how minimalistic the approach of the set designers and art directors was. So many glamorous romantic dramas from the 1940s end up looking gaudy because there is so much emphasis on making the locations look so luxurious that they end up appearing gaudy. In romances that are meant to be about everyday people who interact with one another in places that they have inhabited all their lives you feel like they are in a completely foreign location because the walls behind them are covered in so much paraphernalia that you can’t buy into the universe that has been set up. You are almost disgusted by the fact that the camera keeps turning towards giant staircases that only exist in films and just want to stop looking at gold encrusted jewelry that rests upon a marble dresser. We do go to the theatre as a form of escapism and want to live in a different world for a few hours but sometimes we hate it when filmmakers rub our noses in the fact that they have money and are willing to spend it on lavish production values.
Casablanca looks classy as Blaine’s nightclub is accessorized in a manner that does not seem excessive and you can sit back and appreciate the small details as you watch certain scenes. There is a small lamp that sits on the desk next to the piano in the nightclub and as the camera pans out you realize that these are dotted around the entirety of the nightclub. It adds an extra intimacy and softness to the location and you start to look at the people sitting at other tables more. You see other women and men sitting close to one another and talking to each other with a calmness that contrasts nicely with what we see between Blaine and Lund. Other people see this nightclub as a refuge from the dangerous world outside and they can sit with their loved ones, drink some alcohol and chew the fat without thinking that they will be shot in the back of their head. Blaine claims that he is a cynic but he runs a nightclub in which people can escape all their problems and he has set it up as a place in which romances are fostered. The lamps would feel at home in an American living room and there is a universality to them that reminds us that people can carve out a little place for themselves in the world even though threatening forces loom on the horizon.
It is all very tasteful and it is nice to realize that this is not just another World War II exploitation flick in which we get a few violent action scenes and a lot of evil Germans acting like buffoons. This is a film that wants to deal with the way that little people were impacted by a world-changing conflict and it doesn’t care to hit the audience over the head with too much jingoistic propaganda. It has a nice message about people from different nations uniting in favor of a common goal and even though the protagonist is American you never feel like you are watching a propaganda film that advocates for Americans running the world. The perspectives of Europeans are taken into account and their characters do not just feel like they are a bunch of stereotypes that have been cobbled together. We know that Lund is Swedish but she doesn’t have to be a big ice hockey fan and we don’t witness her wolfing down pickled herring while she communicates with her husband. She is allowed to be a human being who is not defined by her nationality and even though she has the cool reproach that we associate with Bergman it doesn’t feel like Lund is the sort of Swedish iceberg she would play later in her life. This is very much an American production but it does have an international flavor to it that is refreshing and that ensures that the message of banding together to fight back against a common enemy is moving.
The costumes are also refreshingly simple as Bergman gets to prance around in cocktail dresses and conservative skirts rather than strutting around in a ballgown that would feel at home in Gone with the Wind (1939). When Lund confronts Blaine, she wears a funny little patterned shirt that is decorated with ruffles and it looks positively cheap. It illustrates the fact that Lund is a woman who has fallen into disarray as she can’t afford to wear the fancy little white dress she wears to the nightclub where she and Blaine first reunited. She must satisfy herself with clothing that isn’t all that expensive and resign herself to a life in which she won’t be wearing the latest fashions in Paris. Her fancy clothing has a subtle elegance to it and she isn’t gussied up in brooches and feather boas that would have made her look like too much of a glamor queen. She is the wife of a freedom fighter who places his principles above his own needs and we can’t imagine him spending what little money he has on buying her items that will make her look nicer. This means that we can engage in the story without being distracted by spectacle and when we see the characters wearing chic but basic garments we don’t start to question how they sourced them.
I can see all of the ways in which this has aged better than so many overblown romances of this era and I appreciate the fact that it is not tacky but I still wasn’t taken by it. It wasn’t stirring and I never really felt like I cared about these characters. The feeling of not liking something as much as everybody else is very odd as you can’t take a hard line stance and say that you completely disagree with them but you also can’t share their unbridled enthusiasm. At least you can have a proper good natured argument when you really disagree about something but a subtle tension arises when somebody thinks that something is just fine instead of adoring it with every fiber of their being. You can’t really argue with these people as you will probably make them like the film less by putting up a fight so you are left without any course of action. I inevitably tell people who love it that I will see it again and hope that I will see what everybody else sees when I watch it for the millionth time but it hasn’t clicked for me yet. There aren’t any other classics that I am more apathetic about and I almost feel bad for giving such a mixed review of this film.
In time I might come to love it as a lot of people have told me that maturing and growing older lets you understand it on a deeper level but I am not at that point in my life yet. At the same time, I have easily related to other films that deal with similar themes and subject matters because I found them more involving and I cared about the characters in those stories. As much as Lund and Blaine didn’t feel too much like stock characters I also didn’t find myself falling in love with them and they both seemed like the sort of people that a lot of people like to admire without actually wanting to be like them. I suppose it is finally time to talk about the romance at the center of the story and whether it works. I felt as though Bergman and Bogart had tepid chemistry and they almost felt like two performers in a school play where you could tell that they were chummy behind the scenes and were so friendly that a frisson of sexual tension could never develop between the two of them. Their whole love affair is meant to be tragic as they have already lost all hope of returning to Paris and the good old days at the beginning of this story. Something about the way that they march towards their self-sacrifice made me mad as they turned into Greta Garbo types in the way that they delighted in their own suffering. The film encourages us to cry and ask “If only” as they are separated but I couldn’t get away from the niggling feeling that I was being manipulated.
In any film, you are aware of the fact that you are being conned in some way but Casablanca makes its manipulations so obvious that you start to resent it at points. It is better in the quieter moments when the two lovers regard one another over a small table with close acquaintances sitting right next to them and you see them both struggling with the complications that they face in this new situation. Scenes like this are handled without the overwritten dialogue and we aren’t reminded that Bogart is meant to be a great wit every five minutes. We rely on Bergman and Bogart’s silent acting in this scene and they both pull off the moment quite nicely as there is an immediate touch of regret and fear in their eyes that is eventually subsumed by the excitement they feel at being together again. I still wasn’t convinced that Bergman and Bogart made a great pair but in this scene, I could convince myself that the two of them were thinking about the freedom and happiness they had in Paris more than each other. They see each other as a symbol of a time in which they could afford to be carefree and that is why they cling to the idea that they are hopelessly in love.
When we are later asked to believe that their love is real and they are meant to be together it did not ring true for me. Bogart doesn’t click with Bergman in the way he would click with Lauren Bacall and I have never thought that she was very capable as a romantic lead. As an independent woman who takes what she pleases and never settles down anyway she would be far more convincing. Bergman didn’t make me believe that she was torn between keeping herself safe and staying with Bogart as she was more attuned to playing women who were obsessed with self-preservation. She seems too practical and too bullish to be a hopeless sap but I am afraid that is what the part asks for. She and Bogart don’t generate heat and in that final encounter you don’t feel like either of them are particularly invested in what they have.
Casablanca is best enjoyed for its production values and what is happening on the peripheries as the love story is rather disappointing. AFI members did decide that this was the greatest love story in American cinema and I have to decisively disagree with them. I have reviewed two of their choices so far and this is miles ahead of those other films but it still isn’t a masterpiece. You would think that they could have placed one of the more ambitious films on the list first or they could have gone against conventional logic by picking something kooky and random like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). They made a safe choice and didn’t defy anybody and I find myself rapidly losing respect for them. I know that there are classic films on this list that have to be an improvement over Casablanca and I look forward to watching and reviewing them but this choice has confirmed that I have a very different taste to the members of that organization. If they had made a brave and daring choice I might have respected them even if I disagreed with it but they didn’t so I see them as weak and afraid to do anything unconventional.
As I look forward to next week I hope to expand my horizons and I have chosen to explore yet another Bergman flick. She received a lot of acclaim for Casablanca but she also raised her profile by working with Alfred Hitchcock and of their collaborations I think it could be argued that Notorious (1946) receives the most respect from critics. It is considered one of his crowning achievements and it is seen as a piece of work that allowed him to mature into a more sophisticated filmmaker who was capable of dealing with complex human emotions. I don’t necessarily agree with this assessment and I couldn’t tell you how I feel about the film as I have not seen it yet. I plan to watch Notorious with my father and I will produce a review of it next week that should give me the opportunity to express my thoughts on Hitchcock, Cary Grant, and whether having sex with somebody who might kill you would be fun. I will also get to see whether I can ever feel fond of Bergman but I suspect that I won’t like her in this one. I will be thrilled if I am pleasantly surprised by her.