`Casablanca' is a great weepie and its script delightfully kitschy. Yet it remains among the top 10 love stories. Why? Because it has the inexplicable element called magic, writes UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA.
Inexplicable appeal of "Casablanca".
MOST films can be seen only once; few manage to achieve iconic status. The 1942 classic "Casablanca", by Michael Curtiz, is one such. Not surprising, therefore, that the film was ranked first by the American Film Institute (AFI) among the 100 best love stories of the century. The AFI is rather fond of making lists, and as we know, lists are a wonderful marketing strategy.
Critics have remarked on how "Casablanca" seemed to have been made under a "lucky star". It was made in the height of wartime; it almost had an entirely different cast and some of the lines sound so corny that it's a wonder the script got Okayed. And yet, it came together. It was released in 1942, just three weeks after the Allies had landed in Casablanca. A different cast had been considered, including Ronald Reagan in place of Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan or Hedy Lamarr in place of Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund. But finally, and fortunately, Bogart and Bergman were cast as Rick and Ilsa. Few onscreen pairs have had more mystique. They were better than even Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the 1939 "Gone with the Wind"; and more than equal to Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in the 1953 "Roman Holiday". Oddly, none of these films has the old happily-ever-after ending. Indeed, eight of the 10 top love stories listed leave you with a lump in the throat.
Kitschy, corny, absurd but you're glued to the television screen, with a box of Kleenex in your lap. The setting is Casablanca, specifically, Rick's Café Americain. "Everybody goes to Rick's", says one of the characters early in the film. And it is true, we realise, as all the action seems to happen in this crowded, noisy room.
And who is Rick? We meet him early in the film: the cynical, enigmatic Rick Blaine, played unforgettably by Humphrey Bogart. We wait 25 minutes into the film to see Rick's old love, Ilsa, played by a heart-stoppingly radiant Ingrid Bergman. The story is daringly simple. When Rick was in Paris, he and Ilsa fall in love. Except that she hadn't escaped with him when the Germans entered Paris for there was, of course, a third member of the triangle. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) the legendary French Resistance leader, presumed dead, has finally escaped from a concentration camp and is trying to escapt to America. Laszlo, incidentally, is Ilsa's husband. Everyone knows that only Rick can help them if he chooses to do so.
It's not the story that's so magical: it's the way in which it's told. The film moves fast, but not without a few menacing pauses here and there. The Germans have arrived; and a searchlight placed atop a tower turns slowly, its gaze falling on the door of Rick's Café. And life goes on with gambling and drinking and Sam playing a gentle "It Had To Be You" or a spirited "Knock On Wood" on the piano, while Europe is besieged.
Incidentally, "Play it again, Sam", a favourite phrase of popular culture, is also one of the most misquoted. As every avid quizzer knows, what Ilsa actually says is, "Play it, Sam. Play it for old time's sake." And of course Sam, though reluctant, does play it.
And this is what suddenly takes the film forward. Ilsa asks Sam to play another old favourite, "As Time Goes By". As he launches into it, the oh-so-cool Rick looks, for the first time in the movie, a little flustered. He rushes up to Sam and stops him and then sees Ilsa sitting at the next table. The rest is cinema history.
"Casablanca" is a great weepie. The film has been alluded to and parodied several times, most notably by Woody Allen in his 1972 "Play It Again, Sam". Allen plays a San Francisco film critic, dumped by his wife, who carries on an imaginary conversation with Bogart. Bogie tries to advise him on handling women. But Allen is no Bogart, and the advice backfires every time.
The script of "Casablanca" is almost as much of a screenwriter's delight as Shakespeare's "Hamlet". Delightfully, almost embarrassingly kitschy. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine," says Rick when he meets Ilsa again. "Is that cannon fire I hear or is it my heart pounding?" says Ilsa as she buries her face in Rick's shoulder. And, famously: "Here's looking at you, kid," he tells her with a smile.
At the end of the film comes its very best line, symbolising the rueful humour with which Rick shrugs and carries on with life: "This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship." The film's greatest success is that it doesn't overstate its themes. It is restrained and fast-paced, almost thriller-like in its move forward as it tells its story. But it retains its human touch, and even the minor characters become dear to us: Sam, the piano player, the fat waiter who goes to the Underground meeting, the Bulgarian woman who comes to ask Rick for help.
With its intelligent screenplay, elegant acting, interesting minor characters, delightful music and flawless direction, "Casablanca" has the kind of crazy, inexplicable appeal that one calls magic. And no, they just don't make movies like that anymore.
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