Casablanca

Continuing my new-found drive to watch films and TV series I’ve heard about all my life from people I respect but have never actually watched – or watched them at such a young age I have no proper “adult” memory of them – I found myself last night loading Casablanca into the DVD player.

Unlike another recent experiment, watching The Deer Hunter, where I felt the narrative jumped all over the place and the film was an hour too long, I felt at home with Casablanca from the start.

Indeed my first impression – and not a profound one by any means – was that I was watching an Indiana Jones film in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You have the exotic location, the hero with a dry sense of humour, beautiful women, Nazis, the lot. Of course the actual narrative isn’t about tomb raiding although I guess there’s a McGuffin of sorts; “letters of transit” that have been obtained by the murder of two German couriers. These are like gold; allowing the bearer to travel with impunity. What will our hero, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), do with them? And that’s the central core of the film.

What’s interesting when watching the film is how quotable it’s become in pop culture and that’s actually to its detriment in some ways. When we had a scene with, “Here’s looking at you, kid…” or “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine…” or even, “We’ll Always Have Paris…” the lines never connected with me like I think they should as they have become so overused, even corny or a bit trite in entertainment. And that’s a shame, because this is the granddaddy of them all; this is where they all stem from. But I can’t shy away from the way it wasn’t a positive for me.

Other lines, however, were a delight. Bogart’s character delivers some extremely funny put downs in such a matter-of-fact way you have to be really concentrating to detect them. They’re not actually delivered for laughs, but they are very funny when you catch them. Some whole scenes were new and very moving to me, too. There’s one scene where a group of Nazi’s are at the piano in the bar which is at the centre of the film, belting out some German song and having a great time. The French in the bar, along with its house band, bash out a version of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise to drown them out, and we get some nice character moments as the camera hones in on different characters; even a French girl who’s come to the bar with the Nazis, singing her heart out. It’s really moving stuff.

As the film wound down, I could see where it was going. I think partly because it’s not an overly complex film, and partly because I think I’ve read or heard about the overall premise before. So at some points I felt like I was joining the dots until I got to the ending, but it was still enjoyable all the way. This was helped along, in no small measure, by the French police chief, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), who is an absolute scene stealer and probably my favourite character in the whole piece. He’s still standing at the end of the film once the smoke has cleared (figuratively speaking), and we have Bogart deliver the, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…” line which has also been re-used, parodied, etc, over the years. I’d actually like to see the further adventures of these two because they have such good rapport but it’s not a bromance or anything so modern.

So that was Casablanca. I had a feeling I’d enjoy it… and I did. I had a feeling it would have a lot of ‘classic’ lines… and it does. When people talk about this movie as being one of the greats, I can absolutely see why without having to make excuses or reasons why someone might say that. It’s a great character piece, set against desperate times (and all the more extraordinary to think it was filmed during WW2 when the outcome wasn’t even certain), and I’m pleased to have watched it.

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