Monday, June 21, 2010

"Casablanca" (1942)

"Casablanca" (1942)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid
Written by Julius and Philip Epstein
Directed by Michael Curtiz

"I don't stick my neck out fer nobody... 'cept the hotties."
I can only imagine what it must have been like going to see a movie in the 1940s.  Without the ever-present glow of the television in American homes, only the squawky harsh sounds of the radio for electronic home entertainment... a night out at the cinema must have been a big deal.  Add to that the fact that the United States had just entered World War II, and it makes me wonder what seeing a movie like "Casablanca" might have been like.  I imagine that it might have been something like the blockbusters we see nowadays, only on a smaller scale.

Back then, movies weren't released simultaneously nationwide (let alone worldwide) like they are now.  Instead, they were rolled out slowly by location, sometimes taking months to be released in certain areas.  In the mid-1970s, "Jaws" would change that...

But in 1942, a film was released that would eventually become respected as one of the finest in history.  "Casablanca" stars two giants of Hollywood's golden era, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as Rick and Ilsa, lovers torn apart by the politics they are so desperate to avoid in their lives.

Rick Blaine (Bogart) runs Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca, Morocco.  With the Nazis steamrolling across Europe, people hoping to escape their iron grip make their way on a long, expensive journey to Lisbon, last stop before boarding intercontinental trips to the United States.  On the way to Lisbon is Casablanca.  While maintaining an air of neutrality, Rick in fact uses his club as sort of a stop along this underground railroad, helping people get the money or papers they need to get to Lisbon.

One day, a detachment of Nazis led by Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) arrives, searching for a man named Victor Laszlo - a leader of the European resistance movement against the Nazis.  It seems Laszlo escaped from a Nazi concentration camp and has made his way to Morocco.  Unfortunately, Casablanca is controlled by the Free French, and not the puppet Vichy government controlled by Germany.  In an effort to appease the Nazis, the local constable, Captain Renault (Claude Rains) will show Strasser courtesy and even do his best to keep Laszlo from escaping Casablanca, but he won't arrest him and hand him over to the Nazis.

Laszlo comes to Rick for help securing travel papers.  Although Renault would never grant him an exit visa, it seems that legitimate travel documents have been stolen from the Nazis, and are in Rick's possession.  All that needs be done is write the names on the papers, and whoever holds them has a free ticket out of Casablanca.  The one wrinkle in Laszlo's plan, unfortunately, is the sad history between Rick and Laszlo's wife, Ilsa (Bergman).

Ilsa broke Rick's heart years earlier in Paris, just before the Nazi invasion.  Now, Rick is a cynical shell of his former self, his eyes burning with a combination of hatred and desire for Ilsa.  As the Nazis close in, tensions in Casablanca begin to flare, and Rick finds his neutrality in all of this crumbling.  Does Ilsa still love him?  Does he still love her?  And what about Laszlo, who may be the key to freeing Europe from the tyranny of the Nazis?

"Casablanca" is a fine film, truly deserving of its status as a classic.  Memorable performances and a stirring storyline propel it beyond mere romantic junk.  The script is structured and staged much like a play, which the movie is based on.  In fact, with only a handful of locations and no real moving action, the whole thing could easily be put up on a theatre stage.  But with such an engrossing story, it's easy not to dwell on how simple this all seems at first glance.  Once the nuances of the performances start coming out, and once the story begins to unravel the history between Rick and Ilsa and the staggering emotional implications for the both of them, you'll forget about any problems like that.

This movie has left a lasting impression on pop culture.  A number of lines from "Casablanca" are oft-quoted (and misquoted - no one ever says, "Play it again, Sam" in this flick).  Rightly so.  This is just a great film.

Released not too long ago on blu-ray, it's also a great looking film, for one of its age.  Of course, it'll never look like it was shot recently, but the HD upgrade brings out a lot of excellent details like skin and costume textures, and wisps of smoke from all those cigarettes.  If you can view the movie this way, I highly recommend it.  There are a few questionable bits here and there where the black levels skew out, but for the most part, "Casablanca" just proves that even ancient classic films look great in HD.