Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Casablanca **** (1942)

Watching Casablanca in 2017 makes for a harrowing and almost spiritual viewing experience. Set in Morocco during the Vichy/Nazi Occupation, most of the film centers around the goings on at Rick's, a night club run by a mysterious American played by Humphrey Bogart who will find himself at the center of international intrigue.

Rick's known to be apolitical and unsentimental towards the political situation, he simply wants to manage his club and turn a profit.  He maintains an uneasy working relationship with Vichy officer Captain Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt official also in it for the money.  Despite Rick's "isolationist" politics we learn he once fought the Fascists in Ethiopia and Spain.  When his former fiancee Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his place one night his life will be forever changed.

For Ilsa is now married to a leader in the French Resistance Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). In a flashback we learn Rick and Ilsa had a brief romance before the fall of Paris and were considering marriage.  Rick is clearly still in love with Ilsa, but also finds himself in a position to aid the Resistance. Laszlo is an honorable man as well. All realize they are caught up in a cause greater than themselves.

Few films have better blended international intrigue and romance better than Casablanca. The pacing and editing are flawless, way ahead of their time in narrative drive.  And unlike a James Bond film, Rick's not a cold blooded killer but one who quietly helps people who have no where to go. In a moving scene he secretly helps two Bulgarian refugees fleeing Nazi Europe.

What are some of my favorite moments?  My favorite exchange happens when Rick defies a couple of Nazis. He suggests the Germans stay away from certain sections of New York City. Quiet confidence defeats blustering arrogance.

Perhaps the most memorable part is when the band plays the "Le Marseilles" to defy the Nazi occupiers - an inspiring moment that encapsulates the 1940s struggle against Fascism. Many of the extras were actual refugees from Europe.

Rick and Ilsa must decide whether to get back together or to do what's best for the cause. Like Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, Rick decides to sacrifice himself for something greater.

As movie critic Leonard Maltin once observed, Casablanca proves the old Hollywood studio system could produce great art.  Although not as innovative as Citizen Kane that came out the year before, Casablanca exemplifies superior storytelling told with punch and verve.

As the world once again faces a refugee crisis and a resurgence of coarse nationalism, we realize how fragile democracy can be and how it must be defended at all costs. Casablanca reminds us people have faced these challenges before.

And last but not least, the Bogart persona remains ever more relevant. Rick meets the chaos of the world with a wry shrug of the shoulder. In the face of stupidity and outright villainy he quietly takes action on the side of good.  That's the resonance for 2017.  

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