Download:: Yes, You Should Watch Casablanca
This week, we got some old-fashioned Oscar blogger drama. It reminded me of the good old days before everything resembled an extended cut of Orwell’s 1984. There was once a time when Oscar bloggers were still a thing, when we mattered beyond simply positioning for the Iron Throne. Who was most influential? Who was most popular? Who was the best predictor!?
There isn’t much left of that bygone rivalry, but one ruckus did kick up this week that feels like a flashback to simpler times. It’s discovering someone who’s committed grievous offense of never having seen a beloved classic of American cinema. Clayton Davis, the awards editor at Variety, has confessed to never having seen Casablanca.
Taika Waititi is probably right. Few people other than avid film fans might remember who directed Casablanca. Michael Curtiz was never particularly a household name. Average moviegoers may not remember his name like they know Alfred Hitchcock or Frances Ford Coppola. Some films that are beloved throughout history are directed by people no one knows, like Gone with the Wind the Sound of Music, Oliver! I would bet that most people don’t know or remember or have even heard of the names of the people who directed any of the Best Picture winners of the last ten years.
What was the last Best Picture winner that anyone would remember who directed it? And I’m not talking about Oscar bloggers or film critics. Argo, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Million Dollar Baby, Return of the King, Gladiator, and Titanic. And of that very easy list, I imagine your average person now would only remember who directed Titanic.
Some directors make an indelible mark on movie history and their names are legendary. Others not so much. Taika Waititi is correct that he’s probably in the group that won’t be remembered. But what makes Casablanca still worth seeing is not who directed it. That part doesn’t matter as much. The film itself stands the test of time the way few films do – and not to put too fine a point on it, but I would imagine nothing Waititi makes, or almost every movie made in recent decades is likely not to be remembered the way Casablanca is.
This has probably always been true, but it’s even more true now. Movies are not what they used to be. They diverged at some point into the airplane analogy – people in first class get one kind of meal, people in coach get another. If your movie plays to people in first class, it’s likely not to be remembered. There is strength in numbers.
Casablanca is a movie almost everyone still knows because of its memorable dialogue. There are so many great lines that still mean so much. Like:
That keeps coming up because people tend toward hypocrisy.
“Here’s Looking at you, kid.”
“Welcome back to the fight, This time I know we’ll win.”
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all of the world, she walks into mine.”
“Round up the usual suspects.”
But let’s ask a film professor:
And yes, today’s audiences would likely find some of its roles “problematic,” especially Dooley Wilson as Sam who calls Rick “boss,” and is referred to by Ingrid Bergman as a “boy,” but there is also Rick’s line, “I don’t buy and sell human beings,” which in 1942 was considered progressive. If you want to look for things wrong with Casablanca from a social justice perspective, you won’t find the search that difficult.
I’ve always loved the movie, even as a kid, because the characters are perfectly written and the story is unpredictable, funny, and emotionally involving. When I was young, I had no idea that it was set against the backdrop of WWII – knowing that later in life only deepens the experience. It’s really the familiar archetypes in the film — tough, stoic, cool Rick who suffers no fools (“I stick my neck out for nobody”) but has a weakness for love. Watching him break down when he lays eyes on Ilsa is just great dramatic tension. Similarly, she wants to do the right thing and stand by her husband because she’s the thing that keeps him going, and yet, when she sees Rick she’s potentially undone by love.
Through all of it, we’re aware that this wrenching personal conflict is unfolding the midst of a devastating global conflagration. France has fallen to the Nazis. America must rally to become the good guys, our shining moment when we saved the world. I think the idea is that there is no ambivalence about that war – that the Nazis were the greatest evil the world has ever know (they have to be in the top five at least) – so the moral duty is crystal clear.
It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s moving, it’s thrilling. But overall, we just become wrapped up in the characters — even if their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans — and we have to wait and see how it will all turn out.
Filmmakers have been trying to make a film as good as Casablanca for decades and no one has ever come close. Even the people making the film didn’t realize what they had until it was all finished. They were mostly writing the script on the fly, making it up as they went along. Even the actors didn’t know how it was going to end, whether she would end up with Rick or with Victor.
Casablanca has been nested into other films, like Play it Again, Sam and When Harry Met Sally:
As a sidenote: They’re talking on landlines and watching a movie on TV at the same time. These things no longer exist in our culture.
Yes, anyone who care about movies should see Casablanca because I’m not sure if a more perfect film has ever been made. You might not love it. It might not imprint in your heart. But at least you can say you’ve seen it.