Overview: During World War II, a cynical American expatriate struggles against his own desire to help a former lover and her new husband find safety; Warner Brothers; 1942; Rated PG; 102 minutes.
The Value of Sentiment: Often, when we as a film culture make our innumerous greatest-ever films list, Casablanca is a passing thought, a reluctant inclusion that we stuff ranked somewhere in the low teens out of a sense of obligation. I believe this has something to do with the film’s blatant fixation toward and application of sentimentality. The film is not only aware of its obsession with sentimentality, it openly discusses it in more than one scene. Certainly, there exists an element of plasticity in this movie, a glossy artificial surface that begs us not to dig. For evidence, look no further than Sam’s obvious piano-playing pantomime, his open palms bouncing over and over in the same place, with no regard for the complexity of the room’s music (it’s quite funny, on first notice). This shininess is a tool of focus though, guiding the reader to concentrate on the dialogue-driven and rich character drama. Think of these characters: Ilsa Lund is disarmingly beautiful but a uniquely complex heroine for the time. And her lover Victor Laszlo, our hero’s obstacle, is a good guy in the most universal sense. If that’s not a departure from early film formula… And let’s talk about our hero for a second.
The Genesis of Cool: You know how people like to say “I wrote the book on cool”? Well, Humphrey Bogart starred in the movie adaptation of that book. Rick Blaine is cool, man. Rick is really fucking cool. You could make a case that Rick invents cool in this movie. The nucleotide sequence carrying contemporary movie coolness can be traced back to a mutation that occurred within Rick Blaine’s DNA. The kind of cool that even when he’s wounded by a lover, he doesn’t actually appear wounded, but stronger. Cooler. Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, and Bugs freaking Bunny have all channeled Rick in an effort to be cool. More recent examples: the detached and apathetic charm of Clive of Owen in Closer, the quiet but self-entitled sense of value of Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love, and the whip-fast retorts of Joseph Gordon Levitt in Brick—all borrowed from Bogart.
What’s Almost Forgotten Here: There’s a pervasive cleverness in this movie, a lightness to the dialogue that is simply intoxicating in an almost numbing sense. Casablanca is both fixated on its own measurement of sentimentality and careful not to force its political heaviness on the viewer—so much so, that we almost lose track of the weight of the drama. The conflict here is a dangerous one, with life-or-death consequences. But by the time we hit the literal runway, we remember. And when Rick makes his selfless, heroic, heartbreaking decision, we feel it all at once, catching up to us like a downhill semi hitting its emergency brake. But even after that collision and all the pain we feel from it, somehow, we know, Rick’s going to be okay.